Thoughts While Reading Anna Karenina

I don’t feel equal to writing a coherent review of Leo Tolstoy’s epic. So forgive me for simply listing some of the thoughts I had while listening/reading. I started out with Maggie Gyllenhaal’s narration, but finished with an actual book.

  • I’m surprised by how un-Russian the story feels. I’m not sure what I expected, but aside from the fact that the characters sometimes go ice skating, eat salted cucumbers to battle a hangover, and have very long Russian names, the story could have taken place anywhere. Maybe it’s because love, both tragic and happy, is universal.
  • The verbosity of some scenes had me think of Dickens, and when I was told that one of the princesses has 100,000 Rubles a year, the first person I thought of was Mrs. Bennet. (If this had been a prince with that kind of money, you know she would have thrown Lizzie at him (not Jane, because Russia would be too far away).) This wasn’t the only time I was thinking of Jane Austen. Whenever Tolstoy described the interaction of the characters in the drawing rooms, I was reminded of Austen. Granted, in Austen, we get the female perspective, while Tolstoy, unsurprisingly, focuses much more on how the men interact with each other, but both have brilliant way to describe not only the blatant, but also the subtle undercurrents of a conversation. (Note: Gossip is also universal!)
  • Tolstoy, you are confusing me with all of the names. If Levin can be Levin, and Vronsky can be Vronsky, why is Stiva not called Stiva but Stepan Arkadyich or Oblonsky? There are also too many men called Alexei. And surely Levin could come up with a shorter name for his housekeeper and former nurse, instead of calling her Agafya Mikhailovna all the time. And why is it Konstantin Dmitrich and Darya Alexandrovna, instead of Levin and Dolly, when the two meet up at her summer residence? The book would probably be a good 20 pages shorter if the names were shortened—although that hardly makes a difference in an almost 1,000-page book.

    Vivien Leigh as Anna in 1948
  • Gah, why is EVERY woman described as having little hands? Really, can’t they be delicate or small or smooth, to add some variety? This repetition is starting to rub me the wrong way. Is it Tolstoy’s doing or the translator’s?
  • VRONSKY, how could you possibly call your fancy race horse Frou Frou?
  • Anna, I am stating the obvious and I am stating it too late, but if you hesitate to tell your lover that you are pregnant because you are not sure he will understand the gravity of the situation, maybe something is not right!
  • I can’t get enough of the beautiful Verenka serenely sacrificing herself for all the sick people at the spa, and all these beautiful peasants happily working the beautiful countryside! Ha! But it is OK, Tolstoy, I see where you are going with this; it’s all about Kitty’s and Levin’s character growth. All of this talk of Levin’s pride, though, keeps screaming Pride and Prejudice. Do we have another man being set to rights by a woman? (Note: This parallel didn’t hold up as the book progressed.)
  • Urgh, Levin, you shouldn’t judge someone else’s parental decisions until you have children of your own. Actually, you shouldn’t judge someone else’s parental decisions, period. To each his/her own. But child-rearing advice from people who have no children themselves—and thus simply cannot have a clue—is one of my pet peeves. I admit, thought, that Dolly’s propensity to see evil in her children is a bit odd.
  • The lawyer has little hands as well?

    Sophie Morceau as Anna in 1997
  • After 16 hours, Gyllenhaal’s languorous narration is starting to lose a bit of its appeal. I’m having trouble telling the male characters apart when they are talking to each other. But maybe it’s the topic, as the men are talking about their important work. Are they doing anything other than pushing paper from one side of the desk to the other? This talk strikes me as almost Kafka-esque. And I can’t figure out if Tolstoy is trying to make a point or if he is just showing the convoluted workings of the Russian way to manage things. Note to self: Research Tolstoy’s ideas on agriculture and education (particularly for girls).
  • Ah, Levin and Kitty… how sweet! But honestly, I would probably not be married to my husband if he had given me 15 initial letters and asked me to deduce from that what he was trying to say.
  • After 19.3 hours of listening, I have finally given in and bought the Penguin Classic Deluxe edition. A little research showed that Gyllenhaal’s narration is not based on the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation, and I simply have to know now whether they translate all the little hands differently. I’m getting annoyed by how hung up I am on that one adjective now.
  • “thick haunches” versus “fat thighs”—I wonder how Tolstoy described the man’s legs in the original…
  • I love Levin and Kitty as a couple! A little Googling has told me that their relationship is based on Tolstoy’s marriage, which he considered to be an ideal one, and that makes me happy for Tolstoy. For some reason, I always pictured him as a grumpy old man. (I guess you can be happily married and grumpy at the same time. Also, maybe I should ask what his wife thought of their marriage.)

    Keira Kneightly as Anna in 2012
  • Vronsky and Anna, meanwhile… you can see the tragic end coming. I’m trying to decide if I can blame either one for their actions. Probably not, though I wish Vronsky had gone away after his unsuccessful suicide attempt. He is honest enough with himself that he should have known that without a career, or something meaningful to occupy his time, he would not be happy, no matter how much he loves Anna. And Anna… could I have expected her to think more of her son? Is that fair to expect from a woman who is repulsed by her husband and in love with another man? She made the conscious decision to forego being with her son, and I certainly don’t blame her for it, but it was clear right from the beginning that she would eventually regret her decision and blame Vronsky for it, even though that’s unfair.
  • Vronsky and Anna are now in the country and seemingly happy. As I interpret the whole thing right now, Tolstoy gives us three couples to look at: Anna and Vronsky, in love with each other but out of step with society; Dolly and Stiva, who follow society’s rules, but have an unsuccessful marriage because Stiva cheats on his wife and doesn’t provide for her and the children; and Kitty and Levin, who are happy with each other and strive in earnest to be and do good.
  • The difference between the three men is now quite clear: Stiva is out for a good time, separating his “family time” from his “fun time” and utterly failing to provide properly for his wife and their children. There’s nothing to admire in him. Vronsky is improving the lives of the peasants who work for him by upgrading their houses and building a hospital. But I don’t see any moral drive in him to do that; he’s only doing it because he has nothing better to do. Levin is not as successful as Vronsky in improving the lives of “his” peasants, but he’s earnestly trying to do so. He’s also devoted to his wife. Go, Levin!
  • The difference between the three women is less obvious, because they have fewer opportunities to make choices. You can be prudent in your choice of a husband, but once you’re married, there’s not much you can do if you are unhappy or your husband turns out to be an airhead or a scumbag.
  • All right, people, enough with all this French… Je ne comprends pas!

    It’s much harder to find pictures of Levin…
  • “‘In any case, I can give her everything, but not my male independence,’ he thought.” Insert eye roll! But herein lies the crux of the matter, doesn’t it? Vronsky can more or less go and do whatever he wants, and Anna is a pariah in society because she lives with one man but is married to another. Pair that with Oblonsky’s philandering and society’s double-standard becomes more than obvious. (I would totally support Dolly and Anna if they were to complain about the patriarchy. They, at least, have reason to do so.)
  • It is really hard to not eventually blame the other person for everything one has given up for him or her, whether that blame is justified or not. I have yet to meet a couple—in real life and in literature—where this has not come up in one form or another. It spells doom!
  • OK, now we are at the Assembly. Is this section supposed to be satire? I can’t tell, but it strikes me as ridiculous. Like Levin, I have no idea what is going on. Old men in one kind of uniform, young men in another kind of uniform, some want to stand and can’t, others don’t want to stand but have to. Should I be more aware of Russian history to understand this?
  • The best doctors and midwives in Moscow are more than 2 months off with Kitty’s due date? What????
  • It is almost painful to read about Anna’s anguish. Even though her paranoid jealousy is slightly annoying, I can’t help but feel for her. I think her disappointment in Vronsky was inevitable, but I had hoped for a different outcome. Now I can add Anna’s name to the long list of tragic female characters who live in a society that prevents them from finding lasting happiness. She is the only one I can think of right now though who chooses her fate with such a clear wish for revenge.

    …but either one of these two gentlemen fits the role, I think.
  • Levin’s happy end is such a contrast to Anna’s. Yet I cannot see them as opposites; in fact, they are rather similar in that both live outside of society. But I have not yet decided at what point their paths diverged or whether they could have done anything differently to change their lives (not that Levin would want to). Tolstoy does not seem to criticize Anna for choosing love and passion, and while faith becomes the cornerstone in Levin’s life, Tolstoy doesn’t seem to say that faith is the solution to all problems. So if neither Anna nor Levin made a “wrong” decision, then why did one life end so horribly? I’ll be thinking about this question for some time, I’m sure.

And that’s a wrap. Thank you to Laura over at Reading in Bed, whose read-along of War and Peace inspired me to read Anna Karenina. Of course that has totally messed with my 20 Books of Summer



  1. It’s been about 10 years since I read AK but I have some of the same pet peeves — my biggest was Levin’s existential crisis which went on FOREVER. I did see the most recent film version and was surprised how much I liked it, I thought the theater setting was really interesting and well done.

  2. The comment about the racehorse’s name! Too good. Strange foreshadowing though, the race. He failed the horse in the race, but in his relationship with Anna it is not clear that he intended to forsake her at all. I think she was losing her nerves and becoming insane.

  3. I had fun reading all your thoughts! And it helped bring some of the details (and names) from the book back. I remember feeling strong going into it – I liked the humour. But eventually I got bogged down with the verbosity and then felt frustrated and depressed by Anna’s situation. I don’t think I’m meant to read books about women who seem to have no choice but to kill themselves in the end. Although, I did like Madame Bovary… maybe because I didn’t like her character as much, so I didn’t mind when she offed herself!

  4. As soon as you mentioned an actress read the audio, I really wished it had been Mila Kunis instead! She is fluent in Russian. This the was fun, as your thoughts circled and came back and moved forward.

  5. Tolstoy is very verbose and I found his veneration of the Russian peasant and his digressions about farming a little bit funny. The whole thing reminded me a bit of Austen because both have such witty commentary on social expectations. I don’t think everyone had small hands in my translation, but it also might just not have struck me 🙂

  6. Hahaha! You are so right about the names! I’m sure that’s why I have so much problem with all Russian literature, and the history books aren’t much better. On the ‘little hands’ question, I believe that Russian in fact has far fewer words than English, so that they use the same word to mean many variations – and Russians presumably are able to judge from context. I think it was in fact Richard Pevear who mentioned that in his intro to Doctor Zhivago. So that apparently is why two translations can read so very differently – the translator has to make a judgement as to whether to be literal and keep repeating the same word or whether to take a more liberal approach. One example from Zhivago was when one translator translated a word describing the moon as “crimson” and another used “purplish-black” – apparently either was right…

    • That’s so interesting! I guess I should read that intro, since I have the book sitting next to the bed. I am really curious now how you would tell from context whether the moon is red or dark purple.

      • I know – it made me appreciate the work of the translators more, and though I had occasional small niggles with it, I felt the Pevear translation was far better than the other one overall.

  7. It’s a long time since I read Anna K, so I’m reaching back into the past here. Nevertheless, I think you’re right to highlight the universality of the core elements of the story – irrespective of the setting, these emotions are much the same the world over. I too was reminded of Austen when I read it – but that might have been because I’d only just finished a re-read of Pride and Prejudice, so any potential connections were fairly front of mind!

    • Drawing parallels between the two books is perhaps not that surprising, since both authors used their writing as social commentary. I would love to know whether Kate Chopin read AK, since much can be said about the similar fate of AK and Chopin’s Edna Pontellier and even their similar way of defying societal expectations.

      • This is exactly the book I kept thinking about while reading The Awakening. Which is why I was disappointed with the way it ended – pretty much exactly the same. I wanted something different!

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