One of my favorite books from 2020 was Gone With the Wind. The printing of Gone With the Wind I borrowed from my library included a forward from someone (Pat Conroy, maybe? I don’t know for sure). In this foreword, Anna Karenina was mentioned as an earlier work with an unlikeable, female protagonist that works.
After finishing Gone With the Wind, I was like, “By God, Scarlett was one of the best-conceived characters I have ever read.” And, if Anna Karenina has some similar traits, I want to know. I want to see if Margaret Mitchell has a stranglehold on cold-hearted bitch.
Author: Leo Tolstoy
1878 (Gutenberg Translation: Constance Garnett, 1901; I read the 1918 Maude translation)
Project Gutenberg Link
Once again, I borrowed this from the library, but you can get this on Project Gutenberg where I linked it above. The version I had from the library and the one on Gutenberg was substantially the same, but I read a slightly more modern translation than the Constance Garnett version. I read the Maude translation.
Although Anna Karenina was written first, I strongly recommend you read the Communist Manifesto first. There are a lot of political asides in Anna Karenina, and I find that having read the Manifesto greatly increased my understanding of the arguments and what Tolstoy may have been saying about his characters. The Manifesto is a really short read, unlike Anna Karenina.
As of this point, Anna Karenina is bar-none my favorite 19th century work. That includes Twain, Dickens, the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen – anyone. The book was compelling, and it didn’t make stupid turns away from the plot and into the Napoleonic Wars for no reason (which was one of the sins I thought Les Miserables went very, very hard into). There were several points when Tolstoy presented political, philosophical, or economic arguments, but they were completed between two characters and served to flesh out those characters. Sometimes, as was the case with Levin with the peasants, these arguments led into direct action by the characters and even fed the plot. By making double use of his characters, Tolstoy kept the story compelling even while conveying the “boring” parts.
I read this book because I’d heard that the titular character, Anna Karenina, was similar to Scarlett O’Hara from Gone With the Wind. And yes, I can see that; she’s despicable, absolutely awful, and I just couldn’t stand her at times. But, unlike Scarlett O’Hara, I never really rooted for Anna or wanted her to “win.” What I did feel, and what I hope Tolstoy wanted to get across, was pity. There was nothing Anna could have done with her situation after she’d been married off to Karenin. Tolstoy mentioned how Karenin was 20 years older than her, how he was somewhat cold, aloof, and unconcerned with her until it was too late. It was also very clear that Anna was in love with Vronsky, but things went sour when everyone hated Anna for leaving her husband. Here’s the thing, though: it was very clear Anna’s fate was never her own, but that of Vronsky’s or Karenin’s, no matter how hard she tried. There were passages showing that Anna was very smart and talented, but the women around her snubbed her for her “impurity” and the men questioned whether a woman should be educated at all. She had no outlets for her thoughts or feelings, and the ending was inevitable.
Then there was the ending-after-the-ending where they talked about nonsense that didn’t matter. That last little chunk was so useless and stupid. Someone out there has probably written an exegesis on why it’s the most important part of the book, but I don’t care.
5/5 Discoball Snowcones
The book was also incredibly artful, as I am wont to comment after reading many 19th century works. Symbolism and foreshadowing are foremost among them. I’m almost loathe to point it out, but the horse race near the beginning of the book – where Vronsky rides Frou-Frou the mare in a steeplechase – is incredibly important. In the race, Frou-Frou runs hard and does well, then at the end she falls and breaks her back. Vronsky feels horrible that Frou-Frou had to die after trying her best.
This foreshadowing and symbolism was so strong that even without having known about the end of the book, I knew it meant Vronsky would feel relatively few outward repercussions, but that Anna would die. Sure enough, that was what happened, though Tolstoy did fake me out a couple times (like when Anna predicted she would die in childbirth but lived anyway). Anna’s struggle to be a good wife and live to the fullest was stunted by the social mores of the day. All of it was foretold in the race.
A much more damning, obvious bit of foreshadowing that I enjoyed was from the moment Anna and Vronsky met. In that instance, a man falls in front of a train and dies. Anna is taken by Vronsky’s kindness in helping the man’s family. At the end – or at least at the climax – Anna decides to fling herself in front of a train and die rather than continue to spiral with paranoia, sadness, and guilt. I didn’t know this was the ending of the book, but as soon as Anna went to the train station, I knew because of this first scene what would happen. I felt like screaming at her because I knew what would occur. It was a pretty emotional scene.
Until long after it is over, Levin visiting his brother seemed a small event, but it flowered into one of the most beautiful passages in the book after taken into the whole. Levin’s story ended with a whole circle of life, and the way his opinion of his wife evolved required the death of his brother to make a complete story.
June is coming! We’ll see what the summer has in store. 🙂