Anna Karenina (Review)

Labels: Great Works


Anna Karenina
Leo Tolstoy, 1877
838 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
April 2008

Powerful, tragic (you know what happens, right?), and one of the greatest reads in all of literature.

Outwardly, Anna Karenina is the story of a woman struggling to break free of one web—marriage—only to find herself entrapped in a different web. The latter, more pernicious, is the futility of life centered on self. In a final, brilliant interior monologue, Anna realizes she cannot escape her own self. Utlimately, the book is not so much a romance about love and marriage as it is a philosophical exploration of what constitues a good life. Tolstoy sets up a mirror plot, the story of Levin, who lays claim to the novel's moral center. The book's last line is his, in which he reflects on his life—a life with "the positive meaning of goodness, which I have the power to put into it."

Levin's life is the antidote to Anna's: like the landowner he is, Levin nurtures his life as he nurtures his crops—with "positive meaning," faith, and devotion to family. It is a life that transcends self— and in doing so, fulfills self, a fufillment that Anna could not attain.

Which brings us back to Anna. Tolstoy doesn't judge her on moral terms. In Anna "a surplus of something so overflowed her being that it expressed itself beyond her will." She is intelligent, thoughtful, passionate, and unable (not just unwilling) to be bound by restrictive, hollow societal codes. She is a seeker and a woman in a society that will not tolerate difference—in women.

This is a vast, sprawling novel teeming with life. (How's that for cliched writing? But it fits so well!) Do note the page numbers before tackling it—though it is not difficult going. The only difficulty you'll experience is trying to put the book down to go to work, go to bed, go do anything.

A final note: next to "Call me Ishmael" and "It is a truth universally acknowledged..." the opening lines to this novel are perhaps the most famous in bookdom: "Happy families are...." Nah, I'm not going to spoil it for you—read it and find out!

See our Reading Guide for Anna Karenina.

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