Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (Part One)

1200x630bbFiction — eBook. Translated from the Russian by Constance Garnett. Project Gutenberg, 2010. Originally published 1877. eBook. 1,441 pgs. Free download.

One of the things I’m learning about myself is that I need to listen to the classics as I read them. The non-colloquial language of Dickens and Austen and, now, Tolstoy just does not sink in for me the way that of modern authors do. My reading speed is slowed significantly but my comprehension increases greatly.

I’ve been attempting to read Tolstoy’s novel without also listening to the audiobook. When I originally posted my thoughts on Part One of this novel last Wednesday and participated in the discussion hosted by Wallace of  Unputdownables, it was becoming obvious that I was missing out on sections of the novel that everyone else understood.

So I purchased the audiobook version of the novel, loaded it onto my iPad, and started over from the beginning. I’m now two weeks behind in the read-a-long but I am so thrilled with the shift in my understanding. I feel like I’m finally getting it!

I was most struck when (re)reading Part One over the differences in our three main female characters – Anna Arkadyevna Karenina, Princess Darya Alexandrovna (Dolly), and Princess Ekaterine Alexandrovna Shcherbatsky (Kitty). Each woman has reached a different stage in her life but each still retains the vainness over beauty and naïve ideals of love, marriage, and motherhood from their youth.

I commented originally that I felt pity for Dolly for not seeing outside her dream world and recognizing the problems in her marriage to Stiva. Now, I realize that this construct I made of her is untrue. The oldest of the three main female characters, Dolly has invested whole heartedly in both her marriage and motherhood. Doing so has cost her the beauty of her youth, as she tells Stiva’s sister, Anna.

“Do you know, Anna, my youth and my beauty are gone, taken by whom? By him and his children. I have worked for him, and all I had has gone in his service, and now of course any fresh, vulgar creature has more charm for him.” (pg. 117)

The reader is introduced to two of her children, but there are hints of more, and it is understandable why her husband’s dalliance with the governess would be such an affront. Not only does it break the martial bonds between herself and her husband, but it also threatens her as a mother. Here she has hired a woman to serve as educator, nurse, and often time surrogate mother for her children and instead the woman threatens her family. She spends a considerable amount of time in Part One trying to decide what to do, working through her options and displaying more agency then I thought possible for a woman of her time period.

Kitty, the youngest of the three and Dolly’s sister, is her parents’ youngest child. Her father wants her to marry Levin and detests Vronsky; her mother wants her to marry Vronsky and detests Levin. She’s a young woman enchanted by this new world of balls and love affairs afforded to her by her debut hence why she has been described as silly and naive. But she is also a woman trying to navigate a society at a crossroads between the old system of arranged marriages and a new system of courtship.

“The French fashion – of the parents arranging their children’s feature – was not accepted; it was condemned. The English fashion of the complete independence of girls was also not accepted, and not possible in Russian society. The Russian fashion of match-making by the offices of intermediate persons was for some reason considered unseemly; it was ridiculed by everyone, and by the princess herself. But how girls were to be married, and how parents were to marry them, no one knew.” (pg. 76)

She has been left without the tools needed to handle the Wickhams of the world. She overlooks and spurns Levin, a man who describes himself as “ugly and ordinary” (pg. 40) and cannot understand why a girl like Kitty could possibly love him for “he could not himself have loved any but beautiful, mysterious, and exceptional women” (pg. 40), because she does not see a value in men like him. She is intrigued by Vronsky, a man who

“did not know that his mode of behavior in relation to Kitty had a definite character, that it is courting young girls with no intention of marriage, and that such courting is one of the evil actions common among brilliant young men such as he was. It seemed to him that he was the first who discovered this pleasure, and he was enjoying his discovery” (pg. 97).

She has not been taught to avoid men like her by her mother. (In fact, her mother encourages her daughter to set her sights on Vronsky.) Instead, she is left to realize her mistake after she has refused Levin and seen the difference in how Vronsky looks at her and how he gazes at her idolized sister-in-law, Anna.

“Kitty looked into his face, which was so close to her own, and long afterwards – for several years after – that look, full of love, to which he made no response, cut her to the heart with an agony of shame.” (pg. 134)

Ah, Anna. Our title character is caught between Kitty and Dolly. She still longs for her debutante days, but recognizes that what Kitty can do is no longer an option for her.

 “No, my dear, for me there are no balls now where one enjoys oneself,” said Anna, and Kitty detected in her keys that mysterious world which was not open to her.” (pg. 122)

She’s a mother like Dolly and her love for her son, Seryozha, is obvious as she fetched her album and “longed to look at his photograph and talk of him” (pg. 126). Yet she has not lost her individual identity to that of being a mother. The flattery she feels at Vronsky’s attention manipulates her feelings for her son and husband. Seryozha, “like her husband, aroused in Anna a feeling akin to disappointment” (pg. 182) and are seen as the ties that pull her from the beauty and excitement of her youth. She’s intrigued by what her life could have offered had it been different; I’m intrigued to see what life holds for these characters going forward.


  1. i’m glad you’re giving it a second go, even if it does take a bit longer to read. i read this book this summer and cannot stop singing its praises. i was always worried that tolstoy was too long, too much, too hard to read, too many characters, etc, but it was… the right book for the right time.

    i do wonder if the translation here… i tried reading the older translation of the book and had a hard time. buying the new pevear and volokhonsky version was worth it and it read more smoothly for me. (and the footnotes were incredibly helpful).


    • I too was afraid that Tolstoy would be too long, too hard, too many characters, but I’ve really been pleasantly surprised. Listening while reading has helped me keep the characters straight and I just wish I had to time to sit down and read the book in one sitting. I have heard great things about the P&V translation but Garnett’s is working for me right now (and it was free) so I’m not currently planning on switching over.


Please feel free to share your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: