Anna Arkadyevna Karenina

When I was reading Anna Karenina, I pretty much took it with me everywhere on the off-chance that I’d have time to read a bit more. Yes, it took a long time to finish, but just think how much longer it would’ve taken if I hadn’t taken it everywhere – I might still be reading it now.

The people I work with know that I always have a book in my bag/locker, and the other bookish people at work know that I’m always reading one book or another, as are they. During the course of reading AK, I talked to a few of these colleagues about it. I think only two others had read & finished it before and, while they both liked the book, neither of them liked Anna’s character. 

One colleague (JC) told me, not long after I’d started reading it, that she didn’t like Anna because she didn’t like the choices she made and the things she did. This was before I’d gotten to the part where anything was happening between Anna and Vronsky, so I was a bit confused, but I didn’t ask her to explain what she meant, and she didn’t give anything else away. She left me wondering what was going to happen that was so disagreeable. (I had no idea about the novel’s storyline before I read it. I knew only that I had to read it.)

Part of me was worried that this non-specific foreboding would bias me against Anna, but actually quite the opposite happened. Maybe it was because I was worried about being unfairly biased against her that I kept a more open mind, and was more ready with sympathy and understanding. Maybe I would’ve liked her regardless, and it wouldn’t have mattered if my colleagues had loved or hated her. That’s all beside the point anyway.

At this juncture, I must add the obligatory warning about spoilers. Do not read on if you wish to remain oblivious to what happens.

There are a number of choices that Anna makes, I suppose, that may be viewed as generally disagreeable. Chronologically (although it’s not the first that is mentioned in the book) her first mistake was probably her decision to marry Alexei Karenin, essentially out of some misunderstanding. Tolstoy doesn’t elaborate too much on this (I read somewhere that he actually edited a lot of Anna’s past out of the final novel) but it seemed to come about because Anna was young at the time, and didn’t know what she really wanted, and because Karenin felt his reputation was at stake.

While it seems that a lot of her problems would have been avoided had she never married Karenin in the first place, that also means we would not have a story. But, apart from that, it’s also not wholly absurd. I mean, wasn’t it pretty commonplace for people back then to marry for social/economic advantage? Either way, I don’t begrudge her this, and maybe it was really all Karenin’s fault anyway.

When Anna is introduced near the start of the novel, she is portrayed as a woman who has her life together – she’s married, has a son, she’s in the right social circles, she dresses well, and is admired by others. She comes to the assistance of her brother, Stepan Arkadyich, to help convince his wife to forgive his adulterous ways. Surely this is someone who understands people and relationships?

But when Vronsky comes along, she cannot help but be infatuated, and perhaps she’s also just flattered by all his attention. While it seemed clear that Kitty was in love with Vronsky, and Anna wanted to respect that (not to mention the fact that she, herself, is married), she kind of just “followed her heart”, as they say. Maybe her decision was regrettable, and maybe she didn’t think enough about the potential consequences, but can I hate her for “following her heart”?

Something I did find hard to reconcile, though, was how she loved her son Seryozha more than anyone else in the world, but still she just completely abandoned him in favour of Vronsky’s love. At one point, Karenin is willing to forgive her – I don’t remember if he promised to do anything at all to make her happier with being married to him, but he was going to forgive her and let her stay in the same house and be with their son – but she couldn’t accept that.

Such torment she was under, thinking about her love for Seryozha and her love for Vronsky!

So, I suppose, while this part of the story made me frown a lot, I still have sympathy for her. I can have myself believe that Seryozha would not have been much better off if his parents had reconciled (or at least become more civil toward each other) and stayed together. Perhaps, although he missed his mother a lot initially, and maybe he never really forgot her, as much as he tried to later on – perhaps it wasn’t a bad thing for him that his parents separated.

(Now I find myself really wanting to know what happened to Seryozha even though he’s a fictional character…)

The last of Anna’s (major) “decisions” that may put her out of favour with a lot of readers is, of course, her suicide.

As I’m wont to do after finishing a book, I went on Good Reads after finishing AK and read a few reviews. (I like GR reviews, as opposed to professional reviews, because they’re written by regular people.) Some reviewers seemed quite shocked, put-off or otherwise displeased with how hysterical Anna became as the novel progressed. How could she deteriorate so much? Why is she so paranoid and melodramatic? Why can’t she just get her act together? These seemed to be the questions that people were asking. There seemed a general view – amongst some GR reviewers and from my colleagues as well – that Anna became unlikeable because of her purported hysteria.

Yet I do not dislike her. It makes me sad to see people say they “hate” her.

Her story is tragic.

She wants Vronsky to feel the pain that she feels when she worries that he no longer loves her (and she has given up everything else in her life to be with him – she has nothing left if not his love). She wants this so he might understand how much she suffers because how could he understand and still do this to her if he loved her? Amongst all the emotional turmoil, I can see some logic. Whether it is flawed or misguided is another matter.

Toward the end of the novel, she resolves that the only way to make everything better is to kill herself. The first (?) time she comes close to suicide is via (unintentional?) opioid overdose, but as she sinks into unconsciousness, her thoughts scream regret – really, she wants to live – because death is scary and because there is still good in her life – something to live for. Even in her final attempt, in the moment immediately before her death, there is part of her that doesn’t want to die – not there, not like that.

She seemed to be in constant conflict with her own thoughts. Even in moments of resolve or apparent clarity, there were voices she could not silence. It’s sad that it had to end that way, but it’s probably the only ending that really “fits” the story. Long before it happened, I’d started thinking that that was the only way it could end. A happy ending didn’t seem possible – it wouldn’t have been plausible.

Her story was truly tragic.

9 thoughts on “Anna Arkadyevna Karenina

  1. I don’t think I’ve ever told you this- I LIKE spoilers. They make me feel better able to handle the emotional upset that comes with some books. Then again, I also avoid chapter titles to avoid spoilers. I’m complicated and inconsistent, I know, I know. Anyway, the point is that you may have just convinced me to put Anna Karenina on my TBR and no one has been able to do that before.

    • Haha “complicated and inconsistent”. Yes, most humans are 😉
      I’m glad my post sparked some interest in Anna Karenina. Since it’s such a long book, I suppose it’s good to know what you’re getting yourself in for!

  2. I agree with you; who are we to judge or hate Anna? She lived a different life in a different time. I wonder if she suffered from postnatal depression.

    • Oh that’s an interesting point, especially considering she didn’t feel very “motherly” toward her daughter. Even so, I’m inclined to think her condition was multi-faceted

      • Definitely multi-faceted. I don’t know how much of her situation was based on a real person and how much Tolstoy knew about postnatal depression. She certainly was depressed and because of her illness after giving birth she was unable to bond with Annie.

        • The more I think about it, the more incredible I think it is that Tolstoy could create a character like that. It does make me wonder where his inspiration came from, and even what his intent was.

          • It’s really fascinating. Of course Tolstoy intended to write a realist, psychological novel, but he succeeded extraordinarily well.

  3. It’s not possible to read Anna through the lens of the choices we are afforded today. The first time I read the book I was about 17. I loved Anna and I loved Vronsky because I was infatuated with everything tragic. Subsequent reads, at different times in my life, made me apportion blame everywhere. Now, while I feel that, at times, Anna comes off as petulant, I am more forgiving of everyone but Vronsky. Karenin couldn’t help being an older, cold and boring man. He is not mean – just a product of his times, trying to deal with adultery. Anna wants to know passion so I can’t begrudge her falling in love. But I do begrudge Vronksy’s carelessness with Anna’s feelings. Her choices were extremely limited. Leaving her family was brave for those times, accepting to be cast aside from society. Ultimately, though, Tolstoy is telling us it is just not possible to live in a void. And maybe love – or infatuation – is not enough.

    • I probably sympathised least with Vronsky out of all the characters, although I can kind of understand the reasoning/drive behind some of the things he did. I think my bias to / preference for other characters (eg Anna, Kitty, Levin) made me less inclined to like him.
      But, yes, Anna’s story was exceptional.
      I’ve been told there have been “modern adaptations” but none that are nearly as compelling as the original. Although the story is very particular to its time, I hope this is a novel that continues to be enjoyed and marvelled at for generations to come.

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