One of the most fascinating things about Tolstoy's Anna Karenina is how many different ways you can read it. It is a quintessential Russian novel. It's an example of Russian Realism. It ponders feminism and the 19th-Century question of a woman's role within her society. It's a family novel. It's a novel of adultery. It fits into the high Victorian tradition made up of large novels that focus on small lives.
Discover three of the most popular and lasting of Anna's "faces," as explained by some of the world's most approachable Tolstoy scholars. Plus, if you like a certain take on Anna, the experts suggest what should be next on your reading list.
Tolstoy and the Victorians When Anna Karenina wanted a good read to take her mind off of her problems as she rode the night train from Moscow to St. Petersburg, she reached for an English novel. Find out why.
The Family Novel What is a family novel? Narrowly defined, "family novel" refers to a group of novels extolling the virtues of domesticity. But if you define the term more broadly, it can mean any novel that explores the idea of family and the way that family works. Find out more.
The Novel of Adultery The plot of novels of adultery hinge on the effects infidelity has on those intimately involved, and on their immediate circle. The very existence of Anna Karenina should come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the Russian literary tradition. Find out why.
What Book Was Anna Reading on the Train? Tolstoy and the Victorian Novel
When Anna Karenina wanted a good book to read to take her mind off of her problems as she rode the night train from Moscow to St. Petersburg, she reached for an English novel. She was not the only Russian woman of her time who would make that choice. French novels were considered to be dangerous reading for women and girls of good character, and Russian literature was just coming into its own. In fact, Tolstoy once observed, "We Russians don't know how to write novels the way the European authors do." Tolstoy was a lifelong admirer and reader of English literature, commenting favorably on Anthony Trollope and several women authors of Victorian fiction. He considered the great British novelists of his age, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray and George Eliot, to be major artistic influences on his own prose.
High Praise for Romance Tolstoy's highest praise was reserved for Dickens, whose picture hung over his desk. In Dickens' Dombey and Son, Edith Dombey, like Anna, is a stunning beauty married to a wealthy but heartless man whose view of her as a beautiful possession eventually drives her to leave him for another man. Of Trollope, who wrote many "provincial" Victorian novels, Tolstoy wrote, "He kills me with his mastery!" It is generally considered that the English novel Anna reads on the train is in the style of Trollope. Her book contains all the ingredients of a good Trollope novel: hunting, speeches in parliament, a hero's desire for a country estate.
The Trollope novel that is most similar in plot to Anna Karenina is Can You Forgive Her? In this first novel of Trollope's Palliser series, Alice, like Kitty, must choose between two suitors while her friend, Lady Glencora, is married off to a dry, bureaucratic statesman, Plantagenet Palliser. Like many another Victorian heroine, Lady Glencora finds that her role as a mother is more vital to her happiness than romantic passion. In contrast to the French housewife such as Emma Bovary, who is carried away by the romance of passion in Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, Victorian adulteresses seem to lack sexuality. They resist longer and often never actually commit adultery at all. Even the passionate Catherine Earnshaw of Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë never deceives or leaves her husband Linton for her star-crossed lover Heathcliffe. Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre refuses to become Rochester's mistress when she learns he has a wife. And when a wife and mother in a Victorian novel does leave her family for another man, the remainder of the novel frequently details her anguish over losing her children.
The Importance of Freedom and Family Tolstoy understood from the English Victorian novel that a desperate need for love may not be as important to the heroine's story as the less tempestuous but no less urgent need for the expression of individual freedom. For example, in George Eliot's Middlemarch, the heroine Dorothea would like to develop her own intellect, but the only way for her to participate in the world of scholarship is to marry a scholar and serve as his assistant. In the course of the novel, she discovers that her husband is not the brilliant and high-minded intellectual she imagined him to be and finds herself falling in love with a young artist. Yet, like Jane Eyre she waits until she may legally marry the man she loves.
Victorian heroes and heroinesTolstoy and the Victorian Novel (continued)
The Victorian novelist awards happiness to those heroes and heroines who pursue the right goals. For the Victorian heroine, the acceptable goals were marriage and a quiet family life. When Thackeray's Becky Sharp sets out to rise from her low estate to higher society in Vanity Fair, the author compares her campaign to Napoleon's in her overreaching ambition and enjoyment of conquest for its own sake. The idea of family happiness was one of Tolstoy's own dreams and his stated theme for Anna Karenina. Family happiness is certainly the most important thing for Levin, whom Stiva characterizes as a "Dickensian gentleman" pursuing an "English style of happiness."
Seductive and Dangerous When Anna opens her English novel, her inner desires are opened to us. Whatever Anna reads about she wants to do herself, but many things she might wish for could never be available to her as a woman of her time. Anna would never be allowed to give a speech in Parliament, she could not own an estate. She must imagine herself accompanying the novel's hero to his country mansion, just as she will later accompany Vronsky to his English style home. Trying to lose herself in the pages of her book, Anna becomes aware of her own desires. She realizes that remaining with Karenin will force her to live a falsehood, while following her desires will lead her to break with social conventions and mores.
As we turn the pages of Anna Karenina, we learn that the wives and mothers of Tolstoy's novel had problems in their lives that Victorian novelists often gloss over. Dolly would like to be a picture-perfect example of a lovely matron surrounded by darling children, yet her marriage is a lie—her husband routinely cheats on her, her children misbehave, finances are strained and she is broken down in health and in spirit. The happy ending of the typical Victorian novel with wedding bells and inheritances seemed to Tolstoy to break off the story just when it was becoming most interesting. The "English happiness" Anna reads about on the train represents the fantasies and desires of the major characters Dolly, Levin, Kitty, Anna, and even Vronsky. Just as French mores were seen as Napoleonic by Victorian British novelists, for Tolstoy the Victorian idyll of domesticity is depicted as a seductive and dangerous fiction.
What to Read Next Take your pick from among these Victorian favorites:
What, exactly, is a family novel? Actually, there's not much of a critical consensus on what the term means. Very narrowly defined, "family novel" refers to a group of novels written in England in the mid-19th century, usually both extolling the virtues of domesticity and chronicling the complications that can arise within family life. Dickens' Great Expectations is one such novel; Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre is another. But if you define the term more broadly, then it can mean any novel that explores the idea of family and the way that family works. This broader definition covers a range of vastly different novels, including many contemporary works, such as Toni Morrison's Beloved and the recently published A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by David Eggers. As a general rule, a family novel is a novel that does at least one of three things. First, it questions what a family is. It also usually looks at how relationships work within a family. And finally, a family novel tends to address the idea of family as part of the social world.
No Easy Answers Anna Karenina and her characters wrestle with all these problems. Tolstoy calls family into question, especially since the bond of marriage is broken so often in the novel. The world in which Tolstoy's characters live is in a state of drastic change; old social structures have disappeared and it's unclear what will take their place. In such a world, does marriage have any meaning at all? Both Anna and Levin agonize over this question, trying to understand how they can reconcile their freedom as individuals with their need to love and be loved. In this way, the idea of family and its meaning is deeply personal for both characters, and yet it also has vast social implications.
Another thing to keep in mind about Anna Karenina is that it gives us no easy answers. Its first sentence tells us this: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." But Tolstoy doesn't show us any purely happy families. Perhaps they're all happy in the same way because they simply don't exist. The families Tolstoy describes as working well engage in constant and torturous compromise. Tolstoy depicts the family as a tottering institution, struggling to survive in the face of a crumbling social structure. And he never fully answers the questions that Anna Karenina, as family novel, addresses—and that's one of the things that makes it work. Anna Karenina doesn't tell us what a family is, how to live within one, or how families are connected to society. But it does push us, as readers, to examine these questions ourselves.
What to Read Next Take your pick from among these favorite "family novels":
Superficially, novels of adultery are easily defined, being based on an act defined as sexual relations between two people, at least one of them already married. Adultery is rarely regarded as trivial in most literature. Marriage, in some form, is a universal institution that unites the economic and the sexual in one relationship. Without it, a durable human community cannot exist. As a result, adultery is usually considered a grave offence, whether of a personal, social or religious nature. The plots of novels of adultery hinge on the effects on those immediately involved, and on their immediate circle.
However, that general description is subject to differences created by time period and nationality, as genre is strongly affected by aspects of national cultural identity. The very existence of Anna Karenina should come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the Russian literary tradition, given that it was so atypical for its own country at the time it was written.
A Russian Spin on Romance The rise of the novel form was a western European phenomenon. The uniqueness of its form lay in its fusion of realism and sentiment. In England, and subsequently in America, novelists concentrated their attention on the pre-marital chase and stopped at the brink of the happy-ever-after. In France, where arranged marriages were so much the norm that society tolerated discreet infidelities, the novel of adultery was well established and generally accepted, so long as the mistress remained powerless. If it looked as though a leading lady might upset a property settlement, readers could be certain she'd be eliminated by the novel's end. Novels in which the adulterous woman was punished or destroyed became a staple of western European literature.
In Russia things were different. The late-arriving Russian novel developed out of western European tales of romance, which crossed the national borders only in the last quarter of the 18th century in defiance of the strict censorship exercised by church and state. They were only read by the two percent of the nation who were literate, but for Russia's aristocracy they held much greater appeal than church-approved moral parables. The romance tales caused a momentous change in public sensibilities, yet the resulting Russian novel did not become a carbon copy of the European model. The sub-genre of the novel of adultery was hardly able to put down any roots at all in the black earth of Mother Russia. Anna Karenina was virtually a one-off.
The Evolution of the Love Affair To understand why Anna Karenina was so unique, readers must know a little about the development of Anna Karenina's European antecedents. While the existence of passionate extra-marital love is timeless, the concept was linked to the rise of the intense cult of romantic passion, which seems to have been a byproduct of the Crusades. Young men left at home in French castles expressed exaggerated devotion to their Lady in romantic love-lyrics learnt from the troubadours, whose theme was perpetually unsatisfied love. Pouring out an adoration that existed by definition outside marriage, they cultivated a passion that languished after desire for its own sake. Both church and society ensured that such dangerous, life-opposing values were suppressed, but during the 19th century they reappeared in the novel, with the figure of the adulteress incarnating the overt, social threat to regular marriage. A less obvious aspect of her danger was Anna's link with passion and death. The True Shock (continued)
But again, in Russia, the cultural context was different. Marriages were normally arranged by matchmakers, and simply assumed future fidelity. When western literature infiltrated the country it had to conform to these norms. Although amorous intrigue became a routine, it always represented light-hearted, pre-marital play culminating in legal marriage and wedded happiness. The European theme of some external, passionate, self-obstructing love held no interest for the Russians.
That Renegade Tolstoy Why, then, Anna Karenina? The answer lies partly in the foreign influences working on Russian society, and partly in the conscious views and subconscious fears of her author. Tolstoy felt impelled to write a novel on a subject virtually new to Russian literature—the link between the sexual emancipation of women and the degeneration of family values. Anna and Vronsky are both morally disadvantaged by being brought up without good family structures. At the start of their affair, Anna experiences not ecstasy but degradation, while Vronsky feels like a murderer. Yet, overwhelmed by passion, Anna makes such a huge investment in their love that it "outweighs every good including life itself." Tolstoy does not spare Anna a single emotion that adultery brings in its wake: lust, possessiveness, insecurity, anger and self-destructive despair follow each other in compelling succession.
Yet family structures were for Tolstoy not merely social glue but a means of containing the horror of rampant sexuality that obsessed him because of his own sexual urges. Despising the lust he felt for his own wife, with whom he fathered 13 children, he created a heroine so enchanting she tempted him beyond his own powers of resistance.
What to Read Next Take your pick from among these favorite novels of adultery: