Notes and Review - Anna Karenina (Tolstoy)

Anna Karenina is a love story. Reading this book has shown me the source of several scenes from iconic romantic movies: Lovers meeting in a railway station, rejection at dinners, and heartbroken characters traveling abroad attempting to heal their soul. Tolstoy’s descriptions of people and their interactions with each other were more compelling to me than his descriptions of natural scenes. This preference is probably related to my (current) personal preference for stories which have interesting characters doing unpredictable things.

Tolstoy has written beautiful characters in Anna Karenina. These characters are complex and relatable, despite having been written about 140 years ago. They are infuriating and lovable, and my attitude towards them changed as swiftly as the word they had spoken reached the listener’s ears. These characters have basic recognizable characteristics: love, fear, contempt, dreams, and anxieties. The description of Anna, Vronsky, and Levin is exquisite. Listening to them talk throughout the book, I have a good idea of what each of them would look like and how they would react in a new situation. Their descriptions are often through the eyes of their lovers and the inherent biases of this perception are a challenge to parse out (For example, I felt that the way people in society described Anna’s appearances was at odds with the way Vronsky describes Anna).

I noticed that Tolstoy gives the reader a very narrow window into the character’s true feelings. A character’s thought is framed in an extremely long sentence, which reveals the character’s true feelings near its culmination. The use of pronouns can often be confusing and can lead to confusion about whom (or what) the character is referring to when they say “them” (or “it”). This technique is used in a scene in which a professional artist, Mikhailov, visits Vronsky, a budding unskilled painter who is infatuated with art for the time-being. Here’s what Mikhailov has to say after looking at Vronsky’s painting:

One cannot forbid a person from making himself a big wax doll and kissing it. But if this person were to come with his doll, sit down in front of a man in love, and begin caressing his doll in the way a man in love caresses his beloved, the man in love would find it distasteful. Mikhailov experienced the same kind of unpleasant sensation when he saw Vronsky’s painting: he found it ridiculous, and annoying, and pathetic, and offensive.

What starts out ostensibly as an admission of the various forms of art, becomes a scathing criticism of people who engage in art as a hobby and ends as a dramatic take-down of Vronsky’s art. I can empathize with Mikhailov’s feelings of distaste while simultaneously feeling some sympathy towards Vronsky and respect for the effort he has put into his painting.

While Tolstoy applies this technique adeptly when characters express their displeasure with someone they are supposed to be in love with, he also uses it to show the duality of love. Once again, the description of love between two characters as described by the man in the relationship (I have removed the names of the characters to prevent spoilers about the story’s trajectory):

The preoccupation she had with small details, which was so at odds with his ideal of sublime happiness in the early days, was one of his disenchantments; but this endearing preoccupation, the point of which he could not understand but which he could not help loving was one of his new enchantments.

The preoccupation that this woman has with “small details” is a disenchantment, an enchantment, inexplicable and endearing to the man; all at once. One would be hard pressed to conclude anything about how the character really feels. Tolstoy has succeeded at keeping the reader guessing about how the character truly feels towards his lover (The reader suspects that the man is hopelessly in love with the woman and is trying to explain away some inconvenient details about her that he is unable to accept; it might also be true that the man is actually at the edge of his patience with the woman; there is no way to resolve this doubt for we see only a short period of the two characters’ lives together).

I read Rosamund Bartlett’s English translation of the book and there were several references to the characters switching effortlessly between French and Russian throughout the book. This book was written in the late 1800s and the dominance of English as the language of the elite classes was not yet cemented.

My advise for future readers of Anna Karenina

I have three pieces of advise:

  1. Spend about 30-45 minutes on the introduction, familiarizing yourself with the way Russian names are structured and how characters switch between various forms of address depending on their intimacy with the person being addressed. Doing this helped me go through the rest of the book without having to think about how Stiva and Oblonsky are the same person and what it means for him to be referred to using either.
  2. Keep a record of how you feel about a character after having known them for a while and track their evolution and how you feel about them throughout the book. It would be impossible for me to say that I love or hate any character; I can definitely say that I started out loving Karenin (Anna’s husband) and ended up finding his weak-mindedness disgusting. It’s very interesting to explore your feelings about this person and track the changes after having read the book and forming an opinion of them.
  3. Use a video like this one to decide which translation to read. I don’t think it matters what translation you read as all of them are probably closer than one thinks and a first-time reader (like myself) could hardly have told the difference anyway. Watching a video and scoring the translations in a blind taste test on expression of images, simplicity of language, and overall score, helped me choose an edition and get on with the hard part: reading the novel.


People who work for the common good

Konstantin Levin regarded his brother as a man of immense intellect and education, who was noble in the highest sense of that word, and endowed with an ability to work for the common good. But in the depths of his soul, the older he became, and the better he got to know his brother, the more frequently it occurred to him that this ability to work for the common good, which he felt he lacked totally, was perhaps not a virtue but, on the contrary, a deficiency of something—not a deficiency of good, honest, noble desires and tastes, but a deficiency of life force, the thing which is called heart, the impulse which drives a person to choose one of the innumerable life paths open to him and stick to it. The more he discovered about his brother, the more he noticed that Sergey Ivanovich, and many other people who worked for the common good, were not drawn with their hearts to this love of the common good, but had worked out in their minds that this was a good cause, and took it up for that reason alone. The observation that his brother did not take the question of the common good or the immortality of the soul any more to heart than he did a game of chess or the ingenious construction of a new machine only served to confirm Levin’s hypothesis.

Life and Death

Death, the inevitable end of everything, confronted him for the first time with irresistible force. And this death, which was there, in this beloved brother, groaning in his sleep and from force of habit indiscriminately invoking first God then the devil, was not nearly as remote as it had seemed to him before. It was in him too—he could feel it. If not today, then tomorrow, and if not tomorrow, then in thirty years—did it really matter when? But what this inevitable death was, he not only did not know and had never thought about, but also did not feel competent or bold enough to think about.

He sat hunched up on his bed in the darkness, with his arms around his knees, and thought, holding his breath from all the concentration. But the more he concentrated, the more apparent it became to him that this was unmistakably the case, that he really had forgotten, overlooked, one small factor in life—that death would come along and everything would end, that it was not worth even starting anything, and there was no way this could be helped. Yes, it was awful, but that is how it was. ‘But I am still alive. So what should I do now, what exactly should I do?’ he said with desperation.


She was both appalled by this indifference and thrilled by what had caused it. She could not conceive of or wish for anything beyond life with this man; but this new life did not yet exist, and she could not even picture it clearly in her mind. There was only anticipation—fear and joy of the new and unknown. And now, in just a few moments, the anticipation, the unknown, and the remorse at renouncing her old life was about to come to an end, and something new would begin. This new thing could not but be frightening as it was unknown; but frightening or not, it had already taken place six weeks earlier in her soul; today they were merely sanctifying what had happened a long time ago in her soul.

When, as a bachelor he used to observe other people’s married life, their petty worries, quarrels, and jealousy, he would just smile contemptuously in his soul. He was convinced that not only could there be nothing of that sort in his future married life, but he also believed that it would be completely and utterly unlike the life of other people even in all its outward forms. And instead of that, he suddenly found that not only had his life with his wife not formed into something special, but, on the contrary, was entirely formed of those same trifling details which he had so despised before, but which were now against his will acquiring an extraordinary and unassailable significance.


And jealousy of him led her to resenting him [her lover] and seeking grounds for her resentment in everything. She blamed him for everything that was difficult about her situation. The agonizing state of suspense between heaven and earth which she had to endure in Moscow, her husband’s slowness and indecision, her isolation—she put it all down to him [her lover]. If he [her lover] had loved her, he would have understood all the difficulty of her situation and extricated her from it. And he was the one to blame for the fact that she was living in Moscow and not in the country. He could not live buried in the country as she would have liked. He needed society, and he had put her in this dreadful situation, the difficulty of which he did not want to understand. And he was likewise to blame for the fact that she was forever separated from her son.


Alphonse Karr* expressed it very well before the war with Prussia: “You consider war is necessary? Excellent. Whoever preaches war should join a special front-line legion and lead the assault into the attack in front of everyone else!”

Beware, Spoilers Ahead

The following two sections of the review contain spoilers. These spoilers will reduce the suspense in some parts of the book and reveal the trajectory of the story (such as who ends up with whom). If you plan to read Anna Karenina in the future (and I recommend that you do!), I would advise you to not read any further and dive straight into the novel instead.


Iconic Scenes

The railway station scene in which Vronsky meets Anna as she emerges from the train and he is entering the compartment, is perhaps the most iconic scene. There are other scenes which I found touching. I liked each of the following scenes for their ability to build suspense in the reader’s mind and hold the reader’s attention by conveying the raw emotion felt by the characters involved.

  1. Anna and Vronsky at the derby: Vronsky’s visit to the place where Anna is staying at to declare his love for her; Anna’s disregard for Karenin’s presence at the derby; her unveiled anxiety for Vronsky and her hope of his victory at the horse race. This scene’s suspense builds to a stunning climax. My heart was inexplicably racing and I wanted to quickly absorb as much of the scene as possible and get to the conclusion and see how each of the characters fared
  2. Anna’s reunion with her son Seryozha: Anna returns to her home to meet her son Seryozha in the morning. She is let in by the maids and housekeepers who work in the house and she goes to his room and waits for him to wake up. When he finally does, they have the most touching reunion that I have ever read. This scene was a perfect expression of the tender love that exists between a parent and a child. Anna’s parting words to Seryozha are packed with pain and emotion. The writing is amazingly articulate. Anna implores Seryozha to love his father and she says to him that she has wronged his father. But it is also easy to perceive that she knows that Seryozha will never love his father as much as she loves her. Seryozha’s father, Karenin’s attitude towards his son is a stark contrast to the emotion that Anna shows in this scene
  3. Levin’s marriage: Levin’s marriage was another particularly good section of the book. Levin’s marriage to Kitty is described over multiple chapters and the things that Levin says during the preparation for his marriage and on the day of his marriage feel extremely normal and close to reality. In particular, on the day of his marriage, Levin is in the hilarious predicament of not having a new shirt to wear to his wedding. The procurement of this shirt takes an unreasonably long time as his butler has to unpack his clothes suitcases and get the shirt back to where he is. During this short period of time, Levin, Kitty and everyone else impatiently waiting for the wedding to begin at a church feel the general anxiety that accompanies big events in someone’s life. This description of anxiety is helpful and I will return to these sections of the book in the future
  4. Levin throwing Vesolvsky out of his house: Veslovsky is an old friend of Levin’s wife, Kitty. He arrives in their house for a hunting trip and stays a couple days during which he shamelessly flirts with Kitty. This irks Levin no end, and eventually he decides to throw Vesolvsky out of his house. Having been completely irritated by Vesolvsky’s antics up until that point, seeing him be thrown out of the house was a lot of fun and very rewarding (considering the anxiety I felt about Levin and Kitty’s relationship after this fool had meddled in it).
  5. Levin and Kitty at Levin’s brother Nikolay’s death bed: Levin visits Nikolay’s death bed after getting a telegram from Nikolay’s lover telling him that his brother is sick. After some deliberation, Kitty convinces Levin that she must accompany him to his brother’s deathbed. Levin’s initial frustration with Kitty’s insistence and his perception of this insistence as selfishness in not wanting to be left alone is perplexing. When the two of them arrive at the location where Nikolay is staying, Kitty is the exact opposite of Levin: She takes control of things and does things to make Nikolay more comfortable; while Levin is paralyzed by the state that he finds his brother in and is unable to think of what to say or do. Levin admires Kitty’s presence of mind as she goes about talking endlessly with Nikolay and making him comfortable in the final few days of his life by cleaning the room and improving the environment that his brother lay in. I have felt awkward and out-of-place (much like Levin) in similar situations and admired people (like Kitty) in my life who are not afraid of death and can do the things that are required, without regard for the long-term philosophical consequences which Levin and I use to explain our inaction and paralysis. This scene showed me the ideal to aspire to as a compassionate friend or relative
    1. A coworker pointed out to me that Levin’s attitude towards Kitty in this section, when he says things like “While Kitty can’t say half as much about death as me, she understood it and was not afraid of it”, was condescending. I found this attitude to be a defense mechanism that Levin was using to justify his ineptitude in the face of a distressing situation. But I can’t find a good argument against my coworker’s conception of the scene and I feel obliged to put it here
    2. The same coworker also pointed out to me that the repeated talk of “masculine independence” whenever the female characters in the book express their desire to spend time with their husbands shows that Tolstoy was not more progressive than the average person of the era that he lived in


Throughout the book, Levin was the character I identified with the most. He is similar in age and temperament to me. He seems to be based on Tolstoy with some of Tolstoy’s hobbies attributed to Levin towards the end of the book (Tolstoy’s first name is “Lev”). While this similarity in age is important to me, as I get older, I wonder whether I will continue to related with Levin but simply think of him as my “past self” rather than as my “present self”, as I did on this reading.

Two of the three main male characters in the book, Karenin and Levin, have similar childhoods; they were both orphans with ambition, who did not have a lot of friends and had a craving for independence and the confidence that comes from having earned everything they possessed. Karenin’s “glacial confidence” when contrasted with the Vronsky’s nervous youthful energy was a confrontation I would liked to have seen more of (They meet only a handful of times).

Oblonsky is another character who is, in turn, hilarious, annoying and infuriating. At one point, when Oblonsky and Levin are out hunting, Oblonsky advises Levin to safeguard his “masculine independence” after he sees Levin writing back to Kitty and feeling anxious about a short 2-day separation from Kitty. He (I believe rightly) points out that Levin’s anxiety over such short periods of separation is unsustainable. I don’t know if what Oblonsky says is true for I have not had a similar experience to him or Levin. I can only speculate here: Levin’s anxiety felt normal and acceptable. Unsurprisingly, Oblonsky gives similar advice to Vronsky. Oblonsky is the essential link between Karenin, Vronsky and Levin, who rarely meet throughout the book, despite having the symbolic connection of being the male protagonists of the book.

For Karenin, Anna’s husband, I felt a dull disgust and repulsion towards the end of the book. I started out liking Karenin and even feeling sorry for him; but after Oblonsky’s meeting with Karenin, the Countess and a clairvoyant in St. Petersburg, I could only see how weak minded he really was1. His conduct towards his son Seryozha does not inspire, while Seryozha’s confusion at his only remaining parent’s detachment is heart breaking.

For Vronsky, I felt contempt at his apparent entitlement and incredulity at his shifting nature. His love for Anna is human for he feels it strongly but still wants some distance for his own pursuits. Anna’s love for Vronsky is never ending and is defined by the reality that Vronsky has all the power in their relationship, both in her mind and in society’s opinion of their transgression; when they return to St. Petersburg, Vronsky goes out to the theater but implores Anna to not accompany him for fear of her “being disgraced”. Anna goes nevertheless and what Vronsky feared ends up happening. This section was not in vain because Vronsky comes to the stunning realization that the doors of elite society have closed for Anna and there was precious little he could do; I felt sympathy for this Vronsky. Right after, Vronsky shows that, as cavalier he might portray himself to his friends, he needs this elite society in his daily life. And for that Vronsky, I felt only pity, for he knew not what he had, in a lover as devoted as Anna.

And finally, for Anna, I felt a mix of love, hate, and pity. It would be accurate to say that I felt every possible emotion towards her character because she changes significantly during each phase of her life depicted in the book. Her initial introduction and her time with Kitty is charming; her time outside Russia paints her as impatient and needy; her time back in Russia enhances her inability to understand the realities of her new position in society. The way she lashes out at Vronsky and her friend Princess Betsy shows the petty parts of her nature. Eventually, she becomes paranoid and obsesses over unanswered notes that she knows have not yet reached her lover, Vronsky. Anna ends up terribly, terribly alone. Consequently, Vronsky stares down the barrel of a similar fate.

  1. My notes from when I was reading the book are rather harsh towards Karenin. After the Oblonsky meeting: “That he acted the way he did in front of Oblonsky was a fucking disgrace - You are pathetic, Karenin”. Rather harsh.