On re-reading “Anna Karenina”

Note: Those who do not know what happens to Anna Karenina at the end of the novel may find a few “spoilers” here

Every once in a while, I feel an urge to return to Tolstoy, to War and Peace or to Anna Karenina. It’s a pleasure I feel I owe myself. Of course, some will tell me that there is no point reading over something I have already read when there is so much out there that I haven’t, but how likely is it that whatever else it is that I may read instead will give me anything like the experience I know I’ll get from re-reading Anna Karenina?

I am now in the second of the eight parts of this novel, and am relishing every single sentence. First-time readers have the advantage over the 5th time reader (or is it the 6th? I’ve lost count) in that, not knowing what comes next, they may be taken by surprise, or shocked, or astonished, or whatever. But the truth is, the twists and turns of the plot, such as they are, are no big deal: these are not the elements that confer greatness to a work of literature. When you read actually knowing what comes next, it is actually more rewarding: one catches so many intimations of the future, so many little details the significance of which registers only when one does know what is to come, that it is hard to escape the suspicion that Tolstoy had intended this novel to be read many times over.

In the much criticised epilogue to War and Peace, Tolstoy writes an essay musing on the nature of free will. This essay is not arbitrary, as many readers seem to think, and neither is it an aberration, an embarrassing polemic tacked on to a great novel: it is perfectly in keeping with the nature of the book, and, I’d argue, an integral part of it. For, after all, Tolstoy himself had denied that War and Peace was a novel: there is a novel in it, certainly, but the book is much more than a novel, and we should not be surprised if it were to contain elements that do not belong to the novel. In War and Peace, Tolstoy is not merely telling a story: he is speaking to the reader, musing, thinking aloud. And he thinks aloud not merely on why it is that individual characters behave the way they do, but also why it is that people en masse, entire nations, also behave as they do. What are the causes historic events, the great movements in the tides of human affairs? Tolstoy, who attempted, as far as he was able, to penetrate into the reasons for all human actions, refused to allow that anything could be arbitrary. If anything appears arbitrary, it is only because the causal factors are too many, and each one too apparently trivial, for the human mind to take it all in. Each event, Tolstoy felt, was the consequence of a virtually infinite number of infinitesimally small causes; and it is because the human mind is incapable of taking in and processing so much data that the appearance is given of arbitrariness. But it is but an appearance: could we but see through God’s eyes, we would see that all is as it must be, that there is no real free will at all.

It is hard to tell to what extent Tolstoy was merely thinking aloud to himself here. I personally don’t think that the conclusion Tolstoy presents in the epilogue to War and Peace is intended to be a definitive statement. Tolstoy knew that definitive statements are not possible given how little we are capable of understanding these matters. But the ideas continued, it seems, to whirl in Tolstoy’s mind: and it seemed particularly to worry him that if humans have no real free will, then they cannot be responsible for their actions, and, hence, cannot be subject to moral judgement. And Tolstoy recoiled at this. It’s a conflict that cannot be resolved: if human behaviour is capable of analysis, there must be reasons behind each action, even though we may not be aware of these reasons; but if each act is an effect of a cause or of causes, then human beings are subject to these causes, and, hence, cannot be free; and hence, they cannot be judged on moral grounds. The premise that Tolstoy insists upon leads to conclusions that he found unacceptable.

This conflict echoes throughout Anna Karenina. We start with Oblonsky, Anna’s brother: he is charming, well-liked, and affable, but deeply irresponsible. His household is in turmoil, because his wife – who is worn out with childbearing, and is no longer pretty – has discovered that he has been having an affair. Oblonksy had meant no harm: he is honest enough to admit to himself that he no longer loves his wife, but he wouldn’t deliberately have wanted to hurt her. Even so, he is incapable of imagining what she is going through, and he tells himself, quite honestly and quite sincerely, that he couldn’t help it – that it wasn’t really his fault.

We see his wife, Dolly, and she is quite clearly a tragic figure. Her life is a meaningless and endless stream of household chores, and, though aged only about thirty, she is worn out, both physically and mentally. She knows that she is no longer beautiful, and no longer loved; she knows she is utterly humiliated; and yet, she also knows that there is nowhere, absolutely nowhere for her to go. With the advantage of knowing what is to come later, we know that there will come a time when will fantasise about leaving her husband and family, as Anna had done. Dolly, in short, is every bit as tragic a figure as Anna is: Anna’s tragedy is that of a woman who leaves her family, and Dolly’s tragedy is that of a woman who doesn’t. But to what extent is any of this anyone’s fault?

Soon, there is a ball, and Anna discovers to her delight that the handsome Vronsky is besotted with her. Anna too has fallen in love with him, and, without quite knowing why, she finds herself exhilarated by the awareness of what Vronsky feels for her. And she knowingly makes the most of her considerable sexual appeal to hook Vronsky. She knows that, as a married woman, she shouldn’t do this; and she knows also that in doing this, she is cruelly destroying the hopes of the innocent Kitty, who had hoped that Vronsky would propose to her. The next morning, Anna feels ashamed of what she has done; but, like her brother, she tells herself that she couldn’t help it: it was not her fault.

Throughout the novel, people act as they do without quite knowing why: no-one, it seems, can help what they do. And even as they act foolishly, or selfishly, or maliciously, or meanly, they seem driven by forces beyond their control: they all rush headlong into an uncertain future that is a consequence of their actions, but which they cannot hope to foresee. Life seems almost to shape itself around them without anyone realising quite why, or how.

Tolstoy was not writing a treatise on free will; and he was certainly not insisting, as he had appeared to do in the epilogue of War and Peace, that free will is illusory. Anna Karenina is prefaced enigmatically by a quotation from the Bible: “Vengeance is mine, and I will repay”. Actions have consequences: people are responsible for what they do, whether they like it or not, and, the clouds that gather over this novel’s landscape are dark indeed. Throughout, there is a sense of terror that lies immediately beneath the fabric of our everyday lives.


The first part of the novel is masterly. In one long, unbroken narrative arc, lasting over a hundred pages, Tolstoy brings together all the major characters, takes us into their minds as only he could do (no other writer I have come across can enter with such apparent ease the minds of so many different types of people), depicts their various milieux, introduces all the themes of the novel – and all with such seeming ease that one is left thinking that if novel-writing is really so easy, why can’t everyone do it?

And there is the imagery. The artifice that is an element of all art is so cunningly hidden here, that it is easy to get the impression that the novel is writing itself: as Isaac Babel once put it, “if the earth could write, it wold write like Tolstoy”. But of course, it is not possible to depict everything; when Tolstoy gives us details, he is not merely doing so to give an impression of a solid and realistic world: he is choosing those details carefully so they form an integral part of the larger structure. Thus, Anna, for instance, first meets Vronsky at a railway station (I am told that the Russian for railway is literally “iron road”), and, a few minutes after this first meeting, a workman is accidentally run over by a train. Later, Vronsky declares his love for Anna also at a railway station: a snowstorm is raging, and “there were sounds of a hammer striking some iron”. Once Vronsky has declared his love, Tolstoy gives us this:

At that very moment the wind, as if it had overcome an obstacle, showered down the snow from the carriage roofs and rattled a loose sheet of iron while, somewhere ahead, the deep whistle of the engine gave a mournful and gloomy wail.

And obstacle is suddenly overcome; and a sheet of iron is rattled. This imagery of the iron, and of the “iron roads”, we know, continues. Anna later has a recurring dream that frightens her, in which she sees a peasant, sometimes in her very bedroom, doing something with some iron and muttering incomprehensibly in French. And of course, in the extraordinary climactic passage of the novel, as Anna throws herself under a train, a “little peasant, muttering something, was working over some iron”. One could, of course, analyse precisely what the symbol of the iron represents, what the railway (“iron road”) symbolises, and even, perhaps, why the peasant was muttering in French, but such a Spark’s Notes approach to great literature tells us little: the important point is that Tolstoy is constructing his novel in terms of emblems and motifs that bind together the vast material. Working out the various symbolic correspondences – even assuming they exist in the first place – is less important than appreciating the psychological import of these motifs.


Richard Strauss once said about Mozart that he cannot speak about him coherently – that he can merely worship. I know how he felt, for I feel the same way about Tolstoy: every time I try to articulate what it is about him that means so much to me, I find myself floundering. As I am reading this, I am exclaiming with admiration at every page. In all literature, it’s this novel, War & Peace, and about a dozen or so Shakespeare plays that mean most to me personally. (Throw in the Sherlock Holmes stories, and I think I could be quite content just reading and re-reading only these books for the rest of my life.) I seem to be re-living this book rather than just re-reading it.

Quite a few years ago now, on an internet book group that is now defunct, I led a group read of War and Peace, and had written summaries of each part as I was reading. (I have put these summaries up on this blog.) I think I will start to do the same for Anna Karenina. Watch this space, as they say.

[All quotations from the novel are taken from the translation by Kyrill Zinoviev and Jenny Hughes, published 2008 by Oneworld Classics.]

12 responses to this post.

  1. I do like this book – I just wish it wasn’t called ‘Anna Karenina’. To cast her as the heroine is to do the book a disservice; I much prefer Levin’s side of the story…


    • Levin’s story is, I agree, as important as Anna’s, and while they contrast with each other, there are also, I think, subtle parallels. Despite the size of this novel, it is actually very tightly constructed.

      “Anna Karenina” is, perhaps, a misleading title, but it is hard to think what else Tolstoy could have called it. As with ” War and Peace”, it seems to address everything that is important in human life.


  2. Most of the time I think this is the greatest novel of the century, pretty much for the reasons you identify here. I am going to spend this week babbling about the virtues of Madame Bovary, but I don’t really think there is anything Flaubert did with imagery, characterization, etc. that Tolstoy wasn’t dong with equal or superior skill in AK.


    • We all know there are to types of people – those who categorise everyone & everything, and those who don’t. I belong to the former category,and, being a fully paid-up member,can’t resist observing that there are to very distinct types of novelists: the well-behaved ones who value propriety and proportions, and who come to the able with exceedingly good manners (although not a few of them take pleasure in subtly undermining the very etiquette they may appear to be practising); and there’s another type who don’t give a toss for formality, and who seem to delight in the vastness and wildness of their imaginations. The former category may be represented by Austen, Flaubert and James; the later features Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy.

      I am currently posting from a hotel room in Tokyo, rather late at night. Once I get back home this weekend, I hope to resume my full citizenship of Blogland. And I very much look forward to your posts on Flaubert, who always seemed to me merely to affect a cynicism in order to not make too obvious his deeply Romantic outlook. (And if that’s too clumsy a sentence, I’m too jet-lagged to rewrite it now!)

      Cheers for now,


  3. Posted by alan on June 26, 2012 at 9:09 pm

    “Though sages may pour out their wisdom’s treasure, there is no sterner moralist than pleasure.” On the face of it this quote makes no sense, except perhaps in the context of the cynicism of a failed romantic.


  4. Posted by alan on September 5, 2012 at 6:38 pm

    Will you be reviewing the movie?


    • I’m not even sure I’ll be watching the movie. Much of the drama generated in the novel comes from an understanding of the extremely subtle and intricate things that are going on in the characters’ heads, and to be able to convey any of this in a film requires the sort of artistry and film-making technique that I no longer expect from popular mainstream cinema. There will be lots of cutting away – i.e. making sure that no individual scene goes on for more than a few minutes at a time: that way,, the audience doesn’t get bored and restless, but sadly, it also means that the subtleties and nuances of peoples’ thoughts and of how people relate to each other cannot be communicated either. And it’ll be absolutely gorgeous to look at, because films based on classic 19th century novels – especially those in which the action tends to take place within the higher echelons of society – always are; the production values will be high, teh lighting and camerawork exquisite, and there will be lots of beautiful actresses in beautiful dresses. I doubt the drama will emerge as anything radically different from what had eerged from previous attempts at filming – the tragic story of a passionate woman who tries to break free from a loveless marriage to a stuffy bureaucrat … etc. etc.

      Of course, I could be totally wrong, and this could be a cinematic masterpiece not unworthy of the original material. I promise to eat humble pie if that is so.


      • Posted by Di on March 26, 2014 at 9:28 pm

        Soooo, did you watch the 2012 adaptation? Or any of the “Anna Karenina” films?

      • Sadly, no: I’ve got out of the habit of going to the cinema, I’m afraid. I’ve seen the film adaptations starring Greta Garbo, and, later, Vivien leigh, and fine though they both are taken on their own terms, they’re not really representative of the novel. there was also a BBc adaptation from the 70s with Nicola Pagett and Eric Porter, which was doggedly faithful but rather pedestrian. I really ought to see thislatest version: I have heard some good things about it.

      • Posted by Di on March 28, 2014 at 1:49 pm

        I’ve watched 5 adaptations: 1935 (Greta Garbo), 1948 (Vivien Leigh), 1967 (Tatiana Samoilova), 1997 (Sophie Marceau) and 2012 (Keira Knightley). Satisfied with none of them. But it’s not because I’m 1 of those people who think the book’s always better than the film (exceptions: “Dr Strangelove”, “The Godfather”, “Gone with the Wind”, “The Silence of the Lambs”, etc), nor because I have high expectations. There’s always something wrong, mostly in the portrayal of Anna (in fact I once wrote a long post about this topic).
        Joe Wright’s version, in my opinion, is like the new “The Great Gatsby” film by Baz Luhrmann- visually dazzling, but empty. But then who knows, you may disagree.

      • Thanks for that. I’ll go over & have a look.

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