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Blog - Waiting for a Denouement - Anna Karenina

February 27, 2024

(There's going to be a few spoilers in here, including the gigantic one for the ending, but I figure anyone who is clicking on a long blog post about a classic novel probably already knows the event I'm talking about.)




Last year June, my unofficial book club partner, tackled Leo Tolstoy's 1878 novel Anna Karenina and said it was one of the best books she'd read in recent memory.  (And that's a long list.)  A writer herself, she was kind of in awe at how well crafted it was.  So after I finished Babel I decided to read it, too.


It's amazing.  


It sort of defies easy categorization and is hard to summarize while capturing what makes it compelling.  I feel any one sentence blurb is not going to cut it.   It's the story of Anna Karenina and her adulterous affair with Count Vronksy. But it isn't just that.  There's parallel situations, societal commentary, character foils, and reflections upon reflections.  The tone seamlessly flows from comic to tragic, light to heavy, hopeful to despairing.    


You should definitely read this book. It has more than earned its status.


(Note: The version June and I read was the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volckhonsky translation.   She (June) had done some research and found this one was really highly regarded.  You have to be very careful with foreign language works in the public domain.  Sometimes the really inexpensive versions have crappy translations.  A few years ago my mother told me she started a free version of Anna Karenina and thought it was really stilted and unengaging.  Then she found a better translation and loved it.)


This is in no way going to be comprehensive or even a tenth of the thoughts I have about this novel.  I'm going to start off with some thoughts about the writing itself, and then focus in on a couple of things about Anna that I thought were really interesting.


"The writing implements...were exceptionally good" - Mechanics 


The Writing


The writing in this book is masterful with some of the deftest characterizations I've ever read.  The characters, even the minor ones, feel fully realized, like they they are real people who have wandered into the story, not characters the author has invented to fulfill a narrative function.   


The narration is third person omniscient with peeks into the characters' perspective as it goes along, as if the narrator is commiserating with whoever the "camera" happens to be on. I found a thread on Reddit where user thewretchedhole said Tolstoy "inhabits the characters as he narrates."  It's a perfect description.

Tolstoy delivers his characterizations incredibly quickly.  I hesitate to use the word "efficient" as, to me, that has kind of a brute force "just the plot, please" connotation, but that really is the best word for it.  He's great at simultaneous characterization, where he reveals things about someone via interplay with a second character, and this is partially how he can deliver so much so quickly.  I think this is also why the characters feel so real; you don't just get a dossier description, you see them interacting with their environment and anticipating and reacting to each other.  I'm really kind of amazed by Tolstoy's ability to juggle description, conversation, conversational subtext, and scene subtext for multiple characters at the same time.


Take this early example about Oblonsky:


The secretary came in with familiar deference and a certain modest awareness, common to all secretaries, of his superiority to his chief in the knowledge of business, approached Oblonsky with some papers and, in the guise of a question, began explaining some difficulty.  Stepan Arkadyich, without listening to the end, placed his hand benignly on the secretary's sleeve. (Part 1, Chapter 5)



It's just so rich, revealing the secretary's attitude, the social contract and performative niceties he navigates with Oblonsky, and Oblonsky's good natured, if casual, work ethic.  And the secretary is not even an important character.  This might even be the only time we see him.  (Stepan Arkadyich and Oblonsky are the same person, btw.  The Russian patronymic system can take a little getting used to.)


Tolstoy lavishes the same attention on his major characters:


Stepan Arkadyich smiled. He knew so well this feeling of Levin‘s, knew that for him all the girls in the world were divided into two sorts: one sort was all the girls in the world except her, and these girls had all human weaknesses and were very ordinary girls; the other sort was her alone, with no weaknesses and higher than everything human.  (Part 1, Chapter 10).    


From this short paragraph Tolstoy shows Levin's melodramatic Romantic naivety, Oblonsky's good humored amusement and affection, and he primes the reader with a pretty pointed setup for Levin's eventual arc of growing past his unrealistic Pedestal Romanticism vis a vis Kitty.


I think Tolstoy captures a lot of authentic human behavior and complexity.  From Anna trying to distract herself with a repeated "Nothing was shameful" intrusive thought after she dances with Vronsky, to Levin "involuntarily recall[ing] all his words and in his imagination correct[ing] his own replies" it's very easy to recognize the messy realness of the characters.


The characters are also realistically inconsistent, making passionate declarations in the moment that don't stick.  During a confrontation with her husband, the narration says this about Anna:


Not only did she not say what she had said the day before to her lover - that he was her husband and her husband was superfluous - but she did not even think it. (Part 4, Chapter 4)


And later Levin, after Kitty accepts his second proposal, very confidently says this:


‘How I knew it would be so! I never hoped, but in my soul I was always sure,’ he said. ‘I believe it was predestined.’ (Part 4, Chapter 16)


This statement is, like, demonstrably false.  But in the moment he absolutely believes it.  When the characters do things like this, it feels very true to life.  There were a lot of moments where I would say "I've done that." or "Yep, I know that guy."


Narrative Voice


Tolstoy is a gentle narrator and he really seems to love all of these characters.  Even when they're being ridiculous or crappy, it's almost like he doesn't judge them.  It's honestly kind of similar to how Oblonsky reacts to everyone with sympathy and affectionate smiles.


There's occasionally a touch of absurdity in the narration as well, as in an early scene where Oblonsky and Levin, in an upscale restaurant, keep trying to order in Russian and the waiter keeps repeating their order in French, and everyone gets increasingly exasperated with each other.  It's a low stakes, unimportant moment, but it was funny.  


The absurdist bent sometimes is pretty bleak, as in the scene where Karenin, Anna's husband, meets with a lawyer to work out a divorce and the lawyer, only half paying attention, is fixated on killing moths.  This ties in to the "real people wandering into the story" point from earlier.  This moment is really important to Karenin, but just another day in the office for the lawyer.  The world doesn't stop for the main characters.


There's also some unexpected and humorous descriptions:


...this Frenchwoman, who seemed to consist entirely of other people’s hair, (Part 1, Chapter 10)


...[the prince] was as fresh as a big, green, waxy Dutch cucumber. (Part 4, Chapter 1)


I don't know what that last one means, yet I still kind of do in context.  It's a great line.


There's also some comedy in the moments where the narrator directly contradicts a characters's very confident assertions.  The encounter with the possibly incompetent country doctor leaps to mind:


Agafya Mikhailovna, while carrying a jar of freshly pickled mushrooms to the cellar, slipped, fell, and dislocated her wrist. The district doctor came, a talkative young man who had just finished his studies. He examined the wrist, said it was not dislocated, applied compresses...(Part 3, Chapter 2) (emphasis mine)


Levin as Insert


June told me she heard or read something about how Levin was Tolstoy's self insert character.  (I'm the one with source amnesia here, not her.)  I don't know a whole lot about Tolstoy other than him looking like Santa Claus, but from the little I do know this definitely could track.   If Levin is Tolstoy's self insert, it's interesting that Tolstoy isn't all that precious about him.  He seems totally ok with making him look foolish or dickish.  Levin's a good and reflective man, but he's also a bit awkward, judgmental and a little pretentious, with a kind of a "I'm not like other girls" vibe.  The narration seems to find Levin as amusing as it does everyone else.


Short chapters 


One last little note about the writing is that the chapters are really short.  So, while the book is long (though maybe not by Russian Lit standards), psychologically it feels shorter than it is.  And it's already a pretty fast and engaging read.


"A Living Woman" - Anna Herself


Anna as Compelling Character


I don't live, I wait for a denouement that keeps being postponed. (Part 7, Chapter 12)


Probably the aspect of the novel June and I discussed the most was the portrayal of Anna and her relationships.  Something that, I think, surprised both of us was how elusive she is.  She's a character that I've heard described as one of the most compelling heroines in the Western Canon.  And, in a way, I suppose she is but it is in an unexpected "in the absence" kind of way for most of the novel.  She's kind of a cypher and I fully believe this is deliberate.


She's the last major character to show up, at about 60 pages in, and up until at least halfway through, I would say she is the only character I felt like the narrator was being withholding about.  Tolstoy "inhabits" her less than all the other major characters for most of the novel and she's maybe the one character who doesn't get to exist on her own.  Her early appearances are bent towards who she's talking to, as if they're taking up all the space despite her presence. Other characters get time to be themselves without having to react to the plot.  Anna doesn't.


It also felt like her appearance was given way more attention, almost like that's the primary lens the other characters see her through.  And with no counterbalance of her point of view this has the effect of making her hard to get a read on, like she's less real than they are.


She was enchanting in her simple black dress, enchanting were her full arms with the bracelets on them, enchanting her firm neck with its string of pearls, enchanting her curly hair in disarray, enchanting the graceful, light movements of her small feet and hands, enchanting that beautiful face in its animation; but there was something terrible and cruel in her enchantment. (Part 1, chapter 23)


Even her "great love' Vronsky talks about her like this:  


He looked at her as a man looks at a faded flower he has plucked, in which he can barely recognize the beauty that had made him pluck and destroy it. (Part 4 , Chapter 3)


It's kind of a weirdly dehumanizing and objectifying take.  It might not have stood out as anything other than metaphor in a less masterful book, but in combination with all the other ways she's been consciously or unconsciously dismissed it definitely feels like a summation.


This idea is made explicit by Anna herself in probably her first big point of view chapter, almost 40% into the novel:


They don’t know how he has been stifling my life for eight years, stifling everything that was alive in me, that he never once even thought that I was a living woman who needed love. (Part 3, Chapter 16)


She's speaking specifically of her husband here, but I think it's a good stand in for basically everyone in her life, especially as she gets more and more cut off.  She's goes from just being "enchanting" to "a faded flower" to "that adulteress;" she's starved for people meeting her as three dimensional person, a situation that Tolstoy, by withholding so much of her, has made the reader complicit in. 


No one, not her husband, not Vronksy, understands her or makes much effort to.  She has blown up her own life and still nothing has changed.  The hole in her is not filled.


Anna's final chapters are very compelling.  Her sentences get longer, giving a kind of manic fraying energy to her despair:


Our lives are parting ways, and I have become his unhappiness and he mine, and it’s impossible to remake either him or me. All efforts have been made; the screw is stripped. Ah, a beggar woman with a child. She thinks she’s to be pitied. Aren’t we all thrown into the world only in order to hate each other and so to torment ourselves and others. (Part  7, Chapter 30)


The book's epigraph says: "Vengeance is mine," a quote about God's vengeance from the book of Romans.  At first I thought that was meant to be a comment on Anna's punishment for her adultery, which seemed incongruous with how she was portrayed, but then June said that to her it was more likely meant to be Anna's words and it clicked.


Anna's at the mercy of others all the time and is probably the most passive and reactive of the main characters.  Her affair is the scaffolding for the entire novel, and we don't even get to see her make the decision to consummate it.  Anna's suicide is her trying to take back control for an instant, to show everyone, to show the universe. that she has some agency left. 


Her death, in pain and hopelessness, stuck with me for a while.


And the candle by the light of which she had been reading that book filled with anxieties, deceptions, grief and evil, flared up brighter than ever, lit up for her all that had once been in darkness, sputtered, grew dim, and went out for ever. (Part 7, Chapter 31)


It stuck with me not in the least because it basically has no effect on the rest of the narrative.  She's barely even referenced in the final forty or so pages.  The world just moved on.


Anna / Vronsky


‘I never boast, and I never say anything that isn’t true,’ he said softly, holding back the anger that was surging up in him. ‘It’s a great pity if you don’t respect ...’ 

‘Respect was invented to cover the empty place where love should be. But if you don’t love me, it would be better and more honest to say so.’ (Part 7, Chapter 24)


Another thing June and I talked about a lot was how Anna and Vronky's relationship was portrayed.  It's not a passionate love story for the ages.  It's actually very ill defined.  You see them meet on the train, but you don't see the relationship's inciting incident at the dance.  You hear that maybe something happened, but it's all very vague and you never really see them interacting with each other or enjoying each other.  You never see them work together through adversity, or work through a conflict in any meaningful way.


Honestly, what it kind of reminded me of was the movie Closer (2004), where you see the couples' meet-cutes (meets-cute?), but then only drop in to points of intractable conflict for the rest of the film.  You see the crap that goes down after most stories would have rolled credits and implied a happy ending.  How banal and sometimes nasty the conflicts between people in relationships can get once the initial fire has died down.


And with Anna and Vronksy you don't really even see that initial fire.  And later there is such an obvious gulf between them I found myself wondering "Why are they even together? Do they even like each other?  Do they even know each other?"


There's something almost performative to it.  Like they both make romantic declarations of love on a very surface level, perhaps believed in the moment, but then unwittingly reveal them to be built on sand.  It's subtle but pervasive.  


There were two small off-hand comments that really encapsulated this for me.  The first is when Anna, thinking of Vronsky and how much she loves him, says this:


All the traits of his character, which she was coming to know more and more, were dear to her. (Part 5, Chapter 8) (emphasis mine)


Not "continuing to learn about," but "coming to know." This is more than halfway through the book and they've been together for potentially years at this point.  And she's still just "coming to know his character?" 


Vronksy says a similar thing shortly after when looking at a painting of Anna: 


‘One would have to know her and love her as I do to find that sweetest inner expression of hers,’ thought Vronsky, though he had learned of that sweetest inner expression of hers only from this portrait.  (Part 5, Chapter 13) (emphasis mine)


They are hard to pin down as a couple.  Vronksy himself would be more of cypher than Anna if he espoused any kind of depth.  He's uncomplicated and unreflective and more than anyone else in the book he just felt like a type: the good natured, bored, and vaguely self-indulgent aristocrat.  At first I thought he was going to be a Far From The Madding Crowd Sergeant Troy dickhead type but he wasn't.  He's not insincere, or cynically using anyone.  He was, like, an ok guy, all things considered.


We get almost nothing from him and nothing meaningful about him.  He... sure likes horses, I guess?  The most we see from him, intellectually and emotionally, is during the race when he kills the horse he's riding with the power of metaphor.  There's extreme attention to detail in that scene and he's very invested in the particulars of his horse and the race in a way we never see again, even, or especially with, Anna.


He seems so out of his depth and oblivious to Anna's resentment and the crappy cycle their relationship is stuck in.  He is somehow caught off guard that the same problems keep appearing, though nothing has changed since the last eruption.


(Also, and I'm not really the right person to unpack all the social implications of this, there is definitely something striking and kind of gross about how harshly Anna is judged by society as compared to Vronksy.  I wonder how that played to Tolstoy's audience, or to the author himself.)


Right before Anna kills herself, she's people watching at the station and she says this about a married couple:


They said foolish things in an affected way only so that she would overhear them. Anna saw clearly how sick they were of each other and how they hated each other. (Part 7, Chapter 31)


The level of disgust she has for them is the kind of thing that happens when a self-loathing person's own situation is reflected back to them.  And her assessment was pretty much exactly how I thought about Anna and Vronksy by the end.  (Though without the disgust.  I mostly felt bad for everyone involved in this giant mess.)


Wrap Up


Man, there's so much more in this novel to think about.  I've barely mentioned Levin, the most important character other than Anna, his relationship with Kitty as a contrast to Anna and Vronsky, the incredibly powerful scene with Anna and her son, the tragedy of her backslide after a near-deathbed reconciliation with Karenin, Tolstoy's absolutely bang-on description of what it's like to be a new father etc etc. This novel is an embarrassment of riches.   


I don't really do rankings, but I'd say Anna Karenina is easily in my top 10 and probably top 3 favorite novels. An absolute masterpiece and a masterclass.


So please, go read it. And read it with someone else if you can; there's a lot to talk about.


(Like, seriously, how did Vronksy kill that horse?)



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