Anna Karenina

Reading slowly

I ended up treating this as a long read — somewhere around seven months? Mostly I just hadn’t been in the right headspace for reading something like this in anything close to a reasonable amount of time. Having said that, I think this might’ve been the perfect novel for such a treatment.

This book, Anna Karenina, is long, and detailed, and follows the lives of a handful of characters over the course of several years. Reading the book slowly, allowing your mind a couple of days between sittings to dwell on the events, or to mentally check in once in a while with what you’ve read and how the characters are doing, made the characters all the more lifelike, the events all the more real.

Nuanced characters and their development

The thing that probably stood out the most in this novel was how detailed and multi-faceted every single character was. You’d be hard pressed to find a single person in the story that is unambiguously loveable or reprehensible. Hardly anyone comes off as “the good guy”, the character we’re rooting for, or the black sheep that’s the cause of everyone’s grievances.

Every actor in the story has their flaws, their motivations, and all feel deeply human. What’s more, each character’s arc, their development as a person throughout the novel, feels subtle, almost imperceptible, and therefore very real. There is no “Hero’s Journey”, no coming-of-age, no meek, feeble protagonist that learns some invaluable lesson through the novel’s events.

The young, naive and coquettish Kitty, born and raised in the cities of Russia, learns to be happy in the dull country life, supporting and being supported by her husband.

The proud and self-centered Vronsky, ever concerned with his career and status, comes to accept that his love for Anna means he has to choose. A sacrifice he makes gladly, but seems to struggle with throughout the novel.

Karenin, who goes from being an unloving, stern and ultimately scorned husband, goes through moments of compassion and love for the wife who abandoned him and their child.

Anna, famously, starts the novel unhappy, and ends it even unhappier.

Falling and rising

Levin, ever stoic and spartan, is probably the most likeable character, and the vehicle for much of what Tolstoy wanted to impart on us. He learns to compromise his views in favor of his wife. The episode where Kitty gives birth, and Levin goes through a mess of emotions, panic, joy, awe and disappointment, still stands out as one of the most touching, beautiful things I’ve ever read. I was also very touched by the very end of the novel. Levin, who had been searching for God (or meaning) throughout the novel, finally finds it in a spiritual epiphany amongst his serfs, in the form of compassion and love for the people around him. Even after having had this seemingly religious experience, we see him trying to act accordingly, but struggling and falling back into old habits and vices. He’s shown fearful of “forgetting” or “losing” this important insight, like a dream after waking.

This last episode probably serves as the perfect capstone to the novel. Levin desperately tries to live according to his beliefs, but keeps finding himself struggling to do so. There is no watershed moment where a person learns a lesson and betters themself. It’s a constant struggle of forgetting and remembering the person you want to become.

In a similar fashion, none of the characters follow a simple development from point A to B, each of them are shown wrestling with their own issues, sometimes successful, sometimes fatally unsuccesful.