7/20/18 – 9/29/18
“Both morally and physically she had changed for the worse. She had broadened out all over, and in her face at the time when she was speaking of the actress there was an evil expression of hatred that distorted it. He looked at her as a man looks at a faded flower he has gathered, with difficulty recognizing in it the beauty for which he picked and ruined it.” (Tolstoy 784)
Anna Karenina opens with one of the most famous lines in literature: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” (1) The unhappy family in question is that of Oblonsky and his wife Dolly. Dolly discovers that Oblonsky had been having an affair with their children’s governess, and is threatens to leave Oblonsky. In a last ditch effort to save their marriage, Oblonsky invites his sister Anna Karenina to Moscow to talk to Dolly and convince her not to leave him. Anna takes a train from St. Petersburg, her home with her husband Karenin, to Moscow in the company of an older woman who proves to be the mother of a young and charming cavalry officer named Vronsky. The two cross paths briefly as Anna is exiting the train car.
“With the insight of a man of the world, from one glance at this lady’s appearance Vronsky classified her as belonging to the best society. He begged pardon, and was getting into the carriage, but felt he must glance at her once more; not that she was very beautiful, not on account of the elegance and modest grace which were apparent in her whole figure, but because in the expression of her charming face, as she passed close by him, there was something peculiarly caressing and soft. As he looked round, she too turned her head. Her shining gray eyes, that looked dark from the thick lashes, rested with friendly attention on his face, as though she were recognizing him, and then promptly turned away to the passing crowd, as though seeking someone. In that brief look Vronsky had time to notice the suppressed eagerness which played over her face, and flitted between the brilliant eyes and the faint smile that curved her red lips. It was as though her nature were so brimming over with something that against her will it showed itself now in the flash of her eyes, and now in her smile. Deliberately she shrouded the light in her eyes, but it shone against her will in the faintly perceptible smile.” (134)
In the midst of all of these characters’ departure from the train station commotion arises in which it is revealed that a drunk guard got run over by the train car. Anna is disturbed by the news, and Vronsky makes a point of giving 200 roubles to the guard’s new widow. In the Oblonsky home Anna proves herself to be charming and clever, masterfully organizing the pair’s reconciliation by assuring Dolly of Oblonsky’s remorse and enduring love for her.
Kitty Shcherbatsky is the younger sister of Dolly and is coming out to society. Kitty is young, beautiful, and the object of two men’s favors in Moscow: Vronsky and Levin. Levin is a socially awkward but wealthy landowner who is an old friend of Oblonsky. On the eve of Kitty’s coming out ball, Levin makes Kitty an offer of marriage. However, Kitty turns Levin down in hopes of getting an offer from Vronsky instead. Levin leaves Moscow devastated, depressedly telling himself that he was stupid to assume such a divine creature like Kitty would ever love him.
Kitty is mentored for her ball by Anna, developing a fondness for her. Kitty is ecstatic for her party, taking up the mantle of the center of attention and the belle of ball with a evident delight. Halfway through the ball, Anna agrees to dance with Vronsky, charmed by him and his manners. Anna and Vronsky dance in a way that it afterwards becomes apparent that Vronsky’s favors have shifted to Anna. This devastates the Shcherbatskys who assumed, incorrectly, that Vronsky had intended to propose to Kitty. Kitty leaves the ball heartbroken and soon afterwards falls into a depression.
Anna gets on the train to head back to St. Petersburg and dismisses her attraction to Vronsky as a mere crush. During the train ride Anna discovers that Vronsky has followed her from Moscow to St. Petersburg. Vronsky follows Anna around St. Petersburg socially, relentlessly flirting with her during parties and social events. The somewhat progressive social circle of St. Petersburg indulges their budding romance. Anna has an internal battle within herself over actually engaging in an affair based on her marriage to Karenin and the existence of her 8 year old son Serezha who she is incredibly devoted to. Anna takes Vronsky aside at a party, saying,
“‘I want you to go to Moscow and ask for Kitty’s forgiveness,’ she said. ‘You don’t wish that?’ he said. He saw she was saying what she forced herself to say, not what she wanted to say. ‘If you love me, as you say,’ she whispered, ‘do so that I may be at peace.’ His face grew radiant. ‘Don’t you know that you’re all my life to me? But I know no peace, and I can’t give to you; all myself—and love…yes. I can’t think of you and myself apart. You and I are one to me. And I see no chance before us of peace for me or for you. I see a chance of despair, of wretchedness…or I see a chance of bliss, what bliss!… Can it be there’s no chance of it?’ he murmured with his lips; but she heard. She strained every effort of her mind to say what ought to be said. But instead of that she let her eyes rest on him, full of love, and made no answer.” (304)
Karenin walks in on this passionate exchange between Anna and Vronsky, and though he doesn’t become offended by Anna’s conduct because he prides himself on trusting her, he begins to understand that the upper class is beginning to find Anna’s conduct indecorous. Karenin awkwardly confronts Anna after much internal conflict to ask her to monitor her behavior more consciously, but Anna dismisses his concern over her propriety as silly. Externally, the relationship between Anna and Karenin seems the same, but after this point the two become completely emotionally alienated from each other.
Anna and Vronsky continue to see each other and finally consummate their affair, which rakes Anna with guilt over her sin and causes her to have nightmares over now having two husbands. St. Petersburg turns more visibly against their affair, and Vronsky’s mother gets angry when she realizes that Vronsky is jeopardizing aspects of his military career to be near Anna. The affair becomes a massive source of gossip as Karenin is a very prominent statesman.
In the countryside, Levin feels humiliated about having been refused by Kitty. Oblonsky goes to visit Levin and reveals to Levin that Kitty didn’t marry Vronsky and that she has now fallen ill. Levin becomes very disturbed by the knowledge of Kitty’s situation.
Vronsky is competing in a horse race. Before the race he goes to visit Anna who reveals to him that she is pregnant. Anna is horrified by this fact, but Vronsky instead interprets the information as an assertion that he and Anna need to stop living a lie and that Anna needs to leave Karenin and her son. Anna refuses to acknowledge her situation and feels miserable over the idea of potentially having to leave Serezha.
Vronsky enters the horse race as the favorite riding a horse named Frou Frou. Vronsky is winning the race until the last jump in which he falls off his horse and Frou Frou breaks her spine.
“Everyone was loudly expressing disapprobation, everyone was repeating a phrase someone had uttered— ‘The lions and gladiators will be the next thing,’ and everyone was feeling horrified; so that when Vronsky fell to the ground, and Anna moaned aloud, there was nothing very out of the way in it. But afterwards a change came over Anna’s face which really was beyond decorum. She utterly lost her head. She began fluttering like a caged bird, at one moment would have got up and moved away, at the next turned to Betsy. ‘Let us go, let us go!’ she said. But Betsy did not hear her. She was bending down, talking to a general who had come up to her. Alexey Alexandrovitch went up to Anna and courteously offered her his arm. ‘Let us go, if you like,’ he said in French, but Anna was listening to the general and did not notice her husband.” (461)
Karenin confronts Anna again after the horse race telling her that he no longer cared about her internal misconduct, but that her external misconduct was unacceptable. In her frenzy of excitement from not knowing what really happened to Vronsky, Anna bluntly tells Karenin the truth about her relationship with Vronsky and her love for him. This revelation stupefies Karenin, and he asks Anna to give him time to think of how they should conduct themselves to maintain outer appearances.
Kitty has gone to a German spa to recover from her depression. There she meets Varenka, a community service oriented young woman who inspires Kitty. Kitty tries to emulate her, but her plans backfires. She eventually decides that she has gotten over Vronsky and can return to Moscow. Levin receives a visit from his intellectual brother Koznyshev who argues with him over issues of education and the peasantry. Dolly visits the countryside and Levin, making it clear that Levin should propose to Kitty again. Kitty comes to visit Dolly, but Levin intentionally completely avoids them, throwing himself into the manual labor of farm life instead.
Karenin refuses to grant Anna a divorce and insists upon Anna maintaining their union and never seeing Vronsky again. Karenin finalizes his decision in a letter to Anna and asks her to return to St. Petersburg from her residence in Moscow. Anna receives Karenin’s note and becomes frenzied about arranging a meeting with Vronsky. Neither can communicate properly with the other when they do meet. Anna goes to St. Petersburg where Karenin makes clear the conditions of their marriage, which causes Anna to flee to the countryside and continue her affair with Vronsky there. Karenin unintentionally finds Vronsky in the front hallway of their country house, shocked because he had assumed that Anna had heeded his request. Afterwards he ransacks Anna’s desk for love letters and consults a lawyer about getting a divorce.
Karenin heads to the provinces of Russia on business, but stops in Moscow first where he is beseeched to have dinner with the Oblonskys. Karenin is cold towards them, and Dolly eventually confronts Karenin to ask him not to ruin Anna socially. This causes Karenin to become somewhat hysteric, illustrating the realities of his condition and becoming even more resolute to follow through with his plans of divorce. At the same time, Levin and Kitty rekindle their romance. Soon afterwards, the two marry.
Karenin receives a letter from Anna saying that she is dying. Anna, in the distress of her childbirth, asks for forgiveness from Karenin. Karenin, hating to see others in pain, suddenly grants his forgiveness and consents to any plan that Anna desires for their future. Anna is repulsed by his generosity and finds herself incapable of accepting the divorce. She and Vronsky flee to Italy where they begin a frivolous existence.
Kitty and Levin learn how to function as a couple after being married for a couple months. The two go to visit Levin’s dying brother, Nicholas, and afterwards learn that Kitty is pregnant. Karenin befriends Countess Lydia in St. Petersburg who becomes committed to looking out for him and his best interests, attracted to him due to his virtuousness. Karenin and Countess Lydia tell Serezha that his mother his dead, but he doesn’t believe them.
Anna and Vronsky return to St. Petersburg to only find that Anna has become a complete outcast from society. She is only visited by a couple members of her old social set and they only stay a few minutes to demonstrate their loyalty to her. Anna sends a note to Countess Lydia asking to see Serezha, but Countess Lydia refuses. Anna sneaks in and sees Serezha on his birthday anyways, and the two have a tearful reunion. Anna accidently meets Karenin as she tries to sneak back out of the house, filling her with repulsion and shame at the sight of him.
Anna and Vronsky are invited to the opera by Princess Betsy. Despite Vronsky’s wishes, Anna decides to attend in all her regality, ignoring the fact that to do so would be an affront to society.
“Vronsky could not understand exactly what had passed between the Kartasovs and Anna, but he saw that something humiliating for Anna had happened. He knew this both from what he had seen, and most of all from the face of Anna, who, he could see, was taxing every nerve to carry through the part she had taken up. And in maintaining this attitude of external composure she was completely successful. Anyone who did not know her and her circle, who had not heard all the utterances of the women expressive of commiseration, indignation, and amazement, that she should show herself in society, and show herself so conspicuously with her lace and her beauty, would have admired the serenity and loveliness of this woman without a suspicion that she was undergoing the sensations of a man in the stocks.” (1188)
To be continued…
First, I want to apologize for having such a gap between my last couple posts. Senior year of high school is hectic, as is to be expected, and I’ve been trying to read a large volume of books so that I will have a string of posts ready for later in the year when I don’t have as much time for recreational reading.
Second, I’m trying a new format for this book review. Because Anna Karenina is so long, I thought that one blog post with the entire plot summary would be a bit overwhelming, so I figured I’d split up the summary and thoughts & review into two posts. I really love this book and want to give it its just due on the blog without making it seen unapproachable.
Third, I’ve been reading some books outside of my list that I’ve also really loved and would be interested in doing reviews for. Send me your thoughts on writing reviews for modern literature as well as historical narratives (ie. historical biographies, historical scholarship) in the comments or by emailing me (all information can be found on my contact page).
Thank you so much for reading this post! I have a diverse list of upcoming posts so be sure to sign up for email notifications each time I post. Have a nice week and happy reading!