Leo Tolstoy, 1878
‘It’s like this. Suppose you are married, you love your wife, but you are attracted by another woman.’
‘Forgive me, but I really find that absolutely incomprehensible… It’s as if… as incomprehensible as if, after a good dinner here, I were to go into a baker’s shop and steal a roll.’
Oblonsky’s eyes sparkled more than usual.
‘Why not? Rolls sometimes smell so good that you can’t resist them!’
This dense 850-page novel is a panorama not only of Imperial Russia in the late 19th century, but of humanity in general. It excels equally in both breadth and depth – spanning the breadth of many different types of people, people with different backgrounds, characteristics, priorities and thought processes, and yet going carefully and lovingly in-depth with each of these different characters and relationships. The prose revolves gracefully around all these different points of focus, around a cast of characters as varied and three-dimensional as real people.
The third person omniscient narration moves fluidly between the different threads of the story, shifting in tone in accordance with these movements, and yet, despite juggling many different story-lines, Tolstoy always remains constant to the central thrust of the action, which is a constant presence in the background of the novel. Our two main characters, polar opposites Anna and Levin, linger on the novel’s periphery like the sun and moon. It is they with whom we spend the most time, hundreds of pages being dedicated to detailed portraits of their minds.
He began to think of her, of what she was thinking and feeling. For the first time he really pictured to himself her personal life, her ideas, her desires; and the notion that she could and should have a separate life of her own appeared to him so dreadful that he hastened to drive it away. This was the abyss into which he was afraid to look.
Aside from occasional tangents on domestic policy and the like, which could have probably been avoided, the novel moves at a remarkable pace for a weighty Victorian-era realist tome. It is structured in short chapters, due its original publication as a periodical. Thus, each short chapter – only a few pages – must have a ‘point’, be it an important conversation, a discussion of a certain character’s current mental state, or a piece of action, meaning that almost every page captures the reader’s interest – impressive for a classic of this type.
In that brief glance Vronsky had time to notice the suppressed animation which played over her face and flitted between her sparkling eyes and the slight smile curving her red lips. It was as though her nature were so brimming over with something that against her will it expressed itself now in a radiant look, now in a smile. She deliberately shrouded the light in her eyes but in spite of herself it gleamed in the faintly perceptible smile.
Characterisation was done very skilfully, particularly considering how many characters there were. Not just Anna and Levin, but a great number of characters, even those who were relatively minor, created distinct impressions in the mind. I can think of them, even months after reading, not just in terms of their function within the plot, but as people with mannerisms, opinions, characteristics.
There are many different types of relationships examined here, but none are brushed aside or skimmed over as trivial. Weight is given to each, and page-time for dissection. Similarly, there are many memorable events in the novel, each sticking in the memory with the vividness of real life. I also liked the amount of importance given to the female characters and their stories. Their mentality was paid attention to and understood well.
‘But I am married and, believe me, in getting to know your wife, if one loves her, a man gets to know all women better than if he knew thousands of others.’
Despite the physical length and thematic breadth of the novel, Tolstoy ties it all together with a resounding message: the choices we make have the power to change the direction of our lives. Both Levin and Anna discover this, but one of them comes to terms with this autonomy, whilst one becomes the victim of self-autonomy. Unlike Levin, Anna never clearly knows what she wants, and thus she lacks a clear compass when making decisions. Wanting attention and excitement is not enough to base a life on; as translator Rosemary Edmonds writes ‘no one may build his happiness on another’s pain’. When Anna and Vronsky finally live together, they discover that the pursuit of passion and the drama of separation is more fulfilling to their excitement-loving hearts than stability.
‘What were you thinking of?’
‘Always of the same thing,’ she said with a smile.
She spoke the truth. If ever at any moment she had been asked what she was thinking of, she could have answered with perfect truth that she was always thinking of the same thing, of her happiness and her unhappiness.
However, I think that the novel also has a lot to say about the role of women in love in this era. Edmonds writes that ‘to [Anna’s] heart’s shame, her life has no other object than to please her lover’. This is not enough to fulfil anyone; Vronsky does not feel the same pain because he still has other facets to his life, being still accepted into society. Happiness cannot be built on another’s pain, but it also cannot be built solely on another’s love.
For such a long novel, the tension builds skilfully, culminating in the climax of Part 7 when we are immersed in Anna’s thought process for pages at a time, in what has been called one of the first examples of ‘stream of consciousness’. Because we see her thoughts in such detail, we understand thoroughly the complex reasoning behind her final decision.
Edmonds says that Tolstoy is ‘concerned less, far less, with what his characters do. The why is all-important.’ It may be surprising that a novel with thought and reason (or lack of it) as its central focus could be engaging – even gripping – but Tolstoy’s enthusiasm shines through the writing and emboldens the novel. It is a labour of love – a depiction of life written by someone who loves life.
‘But time’s money; you forget that,’ said the colonel.
‘It all depends! There are times when one would give a whole month for sixpence and others when you wouldn’t sell half-an-hour at any price.’
6 Comments Add yours
This is one of my favorite books! 🙂 It’s interesting that you talk about how the main point is that our choices impact our lives, because if I had to pinpoint it I’d probably say the main point is that we may THINK we’ll be perfectly happy once we marry this person or achieve this next big thing, but actually we’ll never be totally satisfied as long as we’re relying on other human beings and material things to do it. But I definitely see what you’re saying, too, which is so cool! I love how different people can draw out different meanings from the same book and your review has given me a whole new way of thinking about this story. 🙂
I totally agree with what you’re saying – so maybe we could refine it and say that although our choices change the course of our lives, we need to have a clear personal ideological compass beforehand? I think that is one of Levin’s key characteristics, is that he has a clear ideology, and sense of self, which guides him. For instance when he and Kitty live in town and they end up unhappy (after Levin goes to the club and meets Anna), Levin affirms that he does not belong in the town as it makes him unhappy and uncomfortable. By contrast Anna flies here and there (both geographically and emotionally!), but because she doesn’t have a clear interior understanding of herself, and she is dependent on the external (other people’s attention, particularly Vronsky’s), she finds it impossible to be happy.
Thanks for your comment 🙂 it’s a very complex book so there’s definitely lots of different things to pick up from it!
Yeah those are great points about sense of self! I think you’re spot on! I think too that the sense of self is presented as being necessarily perfected when you have faith in God, because that’s whereand presents that as the answer to his unhappiness, so that changes him from being self-centered to others-centered which is
Ugh my phone got jarred and my reply sent too early haha sorry, one second…
Yeah those are great points about sense of self! I think you’re spot on! I think too that the sense of self is presented as being necessarily perfected when you have faith in God, because that’s where Levin arrives at the end of the book and he presents that as the answer to his unhappiness. It gives him a new sense of self. And yes, there’s so much to dig in to!! Sense of self is again something I hadn’t connected to this book before but now that you’ve got me thinking about it I definitely agree with you! 🙂
Yes, the spiritual side is very much central to Levin whereas it’s missing from Anna – her sense of self is tied up with what Vronsky and others think of her, whereas Levin’s sense of self is linked to his faith. You’ve given me more to think about as well 🙂
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