Dostoevsky called it “flawless as a work of art”, William Faulkner declared it the best novel ever written, and it has been referenced everywhere in the succeeding literary canon from Chekov to Lemony Snicket. But how does Tolstoy’s epic tragedy stand up today?
Thankfully, a book this magnificent will never really fall, but, by the same token, it can’t be denied that the modern reader will find an eight-hundred-odd page novel a bit of a slog. Anyone who makes the commitment, however, will discover that Anna Karenina is worth its weight in gold.
The novel begins with one the most famous opening lines in literature: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The reader is then introduced to one such unhappy family, the aristocratic Oblonsky’s, who have been torn apart by Stiva’s unfaithfulness to his wife, Dolly. In order to try to remedy the situation, Stiva’s sister, the eponymous Anna, is brought to Moscow as marriage counsellor to the couple and is able to mediate a successful reconciliation between her brother and sister-in-law. Ironically it is during this visit to Moscow that Anna encounters Count Vronsky, a young cavalry officer and handsome bachelor, with whom she begins an affair that threatens her own stability; both mentally, socially, and not to mention, martially.
But Anna’s story runs parallel to Levin’s, a young farm-owner desperately in love with Kitty, Dolly’s younger sister, who has refused his proposals of marriage time and again. Levin’s tale doesn’t play out in as many emotional fireworks, but it arguably provides a more fundamentally emotional pull. Whilst Anna’s love triangle dazzles us with melodrama, Levin’s experiences tug quietly at the heart-strings.
It is Tolstoy’s interweaving of these two stories – the contrast between glamorous city life and rural hardship, between destructive passion and unrequited love – that gives the novel its epic scope and all-encompassing brilliance. There can be few other writers who have come as close to understanding and articulating the depths and subtleties of human emotions, of relationships, as Tolstoy did. And that is not a claim made lightly. On top of that Tolstoy doesn’t draw any explicit moral judgements about his characters, choosing instead to reveal them with omnipotent precision, and let their stories speak for themselves. For an achievement that grand, the intimidating length of this classic can probably be forgiven.
Anna Karenina is available now from Oxford World’s Classics.
By Rachel Groocock