Anna Karenina is the deepest story about social transgression, love, betrayal, duty and children. It is the tragedy of a married aristocrat and her affair with the affluent Count Vronsky that catapults her into social exile, misery and finally suicide. The story opens when she arrives in the midst of a family broken up by her brother’s unbridled womanizing—something that prefigures her own later situation, though she would experience less tolerance by others.
A wealthy and handsome bachelor, Vronsky is eager to marry her if she will agree to leave her husband Karenin, a senior government official, but she is vulnerable to the pressures of Russian social norms, her insecurities, and Karenin’s indecision. Vronsky’s love for Anna manages to convince her to give up on her husband and son for him. They, then, go to Italy, so they can be together, but they have trouble making friends. Back in Russia, she is shunned, becoming further isolated and anxious, while Vronsky is able to pursue his social life. Despite Vronsky’s reassurances, she grows increasingly possessive and paranoid about his imagined infidelity, fearing loss of control. Throughout the book, Tolstoy keeps a dark spot around Vronsky’s thoughts, though, and we never truly get to know what they were. His treatment of Anna is impeccable like when Tolstoy describes his actions as “He stepped down trying not to look long at the her, as if she were the sun, yet he saw her like the sun, even without looking.” But then he also seems to be indifferent to everything beyond Anna like when seems to be guilt-free about his jilting of Kitty, sister to Dolly and sister-in-law to Anna’s brother Stiva Oblonsky, in the beginning. His character portrayal doesn’t let you judge him as saintly or demonic.
A parallel story within the novel is that of Konstantin Levin, a wealthy country landowner who wants to marry Princess Kitty. Konstantin has to propose twice before Kitty accepts. The novel details Konstantin’s difficulties managing his estate, his eventual marriage, and his personal issues, until the birth of his first child.
Considering the length of the novel of approximately thousand pages, at no point the novel seems to be dragged. It covers a wide range of topics including an evaluation of the feudal system that existed in Russia at the time—politics, not only in the Russian government but also at the level of the individual characters and families, religion, morality, gender and social class.
While reading the book, Tolstoy managed to absorb me so much into the story that I could feel what the characters were feeling but by the end of the book, I was slightly disappointed and piping mad, and yet at the same time I loved the process of reading it. If you ask me, it’s not always about how much you like the ending of a book, but rather the journey of reading it, and Tolstoy nailed this dichotomy. He has a certain way of weaving words that speak a lot in the numbered words he permits them with. “Respect was invented to cover the empty place where love should be” is one of the endless examples of the modern truth he has portrayed.
Standard readings of the novel attribute Anna’s descent into madness to the loss of her son and to her ostracism by society and Vronsky’s inability to help her. “He looked at her as a man looks at a faded flower he has gathered, with difficulty recognizing in it the beauty for which he picked and ruined it.” But in fact, as Tolstoy unambiguously tells us, the situation is of her own making. She did not lose her son—she abandoned him when she left for Italy with Vronsky after her recovery from the puerperal fever that propelled Karenin into his “blissful spirituality” which in turn made him offer Anna a divorce and the custody of their son which she declines. We experience the novel, as we experience our dreams, undisturbed by its illogic. We accept Anna’s disintegration without questioning it. Only later, when we analyze the work, does its illogic become apparent. But by then it is too late to reverse Tolstoy’s spell.