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Anna Karenina

I cannot deny that Tolstoy is a fine author. Still, I find myself disappointed in the book’s resolution, and happier at simply having finished than at having completed a good book. The problem is that I can’t like any of the characters, and the characters are all this book has. The philosophy is outdated, the political drama of mid-19th century Russia is irrelevant, and the societal life of nobility is alien to me.

I liked Alexi Alexandrovich at first, when he was acting cunningly in the face of an unfaithful wife. His revenge on her was wonderful: he gave her exactly what she asked for, which turned out not to be what she wanted. Then he fell out of the story as a humorless shell of a man concerned only with revenge. He was a multidimensional character compressed into one by the time the book ended.

Vronsky was a sympathetic character for most of the book: his only real crime was being a charming rich noble who fell in love with a shrew. He really came into his own as a character near the end of the book, trying to save his relationship despite every effort of his lover to sabotage it. Even so, about the only thing I have in common with him is gender.

Anna herself is a spoiled indecisive melodramatic brat. She is accustomed to having her every mood and whim immediately satisfied simply because she’s a beautiful noblewoman. For the most part, this works: she’s indulged in nearly every desire first by her husband, then by her lover, but still refuses to take joy in her life. There was a real sense of schadenfreude as all of her peers despised her; she didn’t deserve it for her adultery but for her character. In the end, she does her best to drive Vronsky away with mood flashes and invented jealousy, then explodes in fury at the thought that he no longer loves her the way he did when he believed she was without fault. When despite everything he remains dutiful and hopeful of reviving their love, she eventually commits suicide by the most melodramatic means available to her: she throws herself under a train in such a way as to cut herself in half. I cannot help but think of that as good riddance.

Kitty is nothing more than a MacGuffin, there in the first act to give Anna some competition for Vronsky and in the last act to provide a backdrop for Levin’s development. Levin himself was, throughout the book, a thoughtful, honorable man who at least tried to live life as best he could. He was a bit of a dope, but he was at least earnest and sincere in all his doings. Then he spoils it by deciding that there’s no point in worrying about philosophy or concerning himself with the real world; life only has meaning when viewed through the lens of absolute faith in Christianity. This would be less disappointing if Tolstoy didn’t set up his conversion as a model of the correct way to live; the grand conclusion to this epic story.

There are so many ways a story can end badly. I was startled, to say the least, to discover that this one shared its means of disappointment with Battlestar Galactica.

Not one of the characters has a touch of humor about them. Not one of them is ever anything but deadly serious in all they do. In the end, this dooms my opinion of them; they’re all just too self-important for my taste.

Reading the book was worthwhile mostly as points towards the Academic Literature badge. For anyone not concerned with such things, it’s probably better to give this book a pass.

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (Amazon)

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Comment by Rourke Mac OS X Mozilla Firefox 3.0.1 Subscribed to comments via email
2009-08-22 19:14:20

. . .there’s an Academic Literature badge?

Your reaction to the melodrama and the characterization problems is reminiscent of my own reaction towards various 19th-century books I’ve had to read for school, including my last summer reading book (Tess of the d’Urbervilles).

Comment by coriolinus Windows XP Mozilla Firefox 3.5.2
2009-08-24 14:21:33

The badge doesn’t actually exist as a physical thing, but I’m sure these guys ( would be happy to manufacture one.

It’s important to note that it’s not that Tolstoy has trouble writing convincing, realistic, or three-dimensional characters. He does a great job with that. It’s just that I don’t like any of them. If I were to sit in a room with these 19th century Russians, not only would we have very little to say to each other, the social conventions which define basic civility have changed enough that someone would end up getting offended rather quickly.


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