Yesterday I finished reading Part 1 of Tolstoy’s greatest novel, Anna Karenina. Literary scholars around the globe have concluded that this is not only Tolstoy’s greatest novel, but the greatest novel ever written. That’s obviously up for debate, but it is undeniable that Anna Karenina is one of literature’s crowning jewels. So, it seemed an obvious place to start for my bucket list goal of reading 120 more classic novels before I turn thirty. (Plus, I’m an absolute Russian literature nerd, so that probably influenced my decision as well.)
My impressions thus far are positive. Tolstoy devoted the first 120 pages almost entirely to laying the groundwork for the rest of the story. We got to know each central character’s habits, likes, flaws, and neuroses: Kitty, Anna, Dolly, Vronksy, Oblonsky, Levin, and Alexei Alexandrovich being the characters of primary interest. So, not very much has happened yet in the way of plot, but it remained a page-turner nonetheless, which is high praise for Tolstoy’s literary prowess; it is a difficult task to keep any reader engaged throughout prolonged sections of scene-setting.
Although Tolstoy’s writing is clearly superior, the story reminds me of a series I read when I was thirteen: Luxe by Anna Godbersen and its sequels are written similarly. So, if you were a childhood fan of that series as I was, then Anna Karenina is definitely a book you’d enjoy.
Now I will delve into my first impressions of each principal character, so that I can track just how drastically my opinion of each shifts throughout the course of the book.
Ekaterina Alexandrovna Shcherbatskaya (Kitty) – How can you not love Kitty? She’s the disney princess character of the book. She’s beautiful, full of life, and looking for love. There’s no reason to dislike Kitty. You love her like you love a little sister. That being said, there’s actually no reason to like Kitty either. Her character hitherto has no depth. This is not surprising as female characters even today often have only mere hints of a rich internal life. At present, Kitty appears to be purely a doll — the casings of what men expect women to be. However, I do believe that Tolstoy’s presentation of Kitty is quite accurate for the time and place. Kitty represents childhood and innocence. Her disinterest in intellectual matters are apparent, but she feels emotion intensely. She’s in love with confidence one minute and in despair with jealousy the next. Her emotions, while intense, are fleeting and live moment to moment as a child’s does. Girls during this period in Russia were blocked from higher education and were taught that their sole purpose in life was to be married to a man of high social status and raise their children. So although Tolstoy’s representation of her internal life is trifling, Kitty’s role clearly demonstrates a woman’s public face.
Anna Arkadyevna Karenina – Anna is the exact opposite of Kitty. She’s sure of herself, remains in command of her emotions, and is very rarely impulsive. She represents progressive thinking because she abhors the idea of societal obligation. She will follow her heart. Although following one’s heart and remaining in command of herself may seem contradictory, they aren’t inherently so. If you know what it is you want, you can stay quite in control of your life if you choose to go after it; following your heart does not mean succumbing to every fluctuating emotion, but knowing exactly what it is that your heart truly desires. I foresee Anna being a master of this difference. A difference Kitty, in contrast, has yet to learn. Also unlike Kitty, Anna’s character is given the same depth of mind and spirit as the male characters in the story. Whether or not this depth is deep enough remains to be seen, but I am eager to see her character realized. I have faith that she will be written with the depth owed to her as she is the title character after all.
Darya Alexandrovna Oblonskaya (Dolly) – Dolly is the least touched upon character in Part 1. However, even so, she is given more depth than Kitty. Although she still is presented as a woman obsessed with the obligation of marriage and her public perception, she is shown to have complex emotions and internal struggles when she discovers Stiva’s affairs. She also quite admires Anna, which establishes promise for her character because she longs for the same happiness, confidence, and class that Anna has. I will have to wait and see what Tolstoy does with her character to have any true opinions of her.
Alexei Kirillovich Vronksy – Tolstoy must not have had a high opinion of youth because both of his young characters — Vronsky and Kitty — are not portrayed in a flattering light. In fact, they’re both portrayed as vain, unaware, and emotionally impulsive. Vronsky has no intention of marrying Kitty and doesn’t even know that he’s supposed to have them. Moreover, he’s so smitten by Anna in just one night that he follows her home to St. Petersburg. His emotions are not steady, and he demonstrates little control over his impulses. He shies away from intellectual conversation, as illustrated when Levin tries to argue that “table-turning and spirits” (52) is “‘not a natural phenomenon'” (53). He simply wants to please everyone, to be the mediator. I don’t have much of an opinion on Vronsky yet, but it is evident that he is oblivious to societal pressures and expectations which could be a good or bad thing in the long run.
Konstantin Dmitrich Levin – Levin is a man after my own heart. I understand why the average person would be slightly off-put by Levin, his lifestyle, and his convictions, but I am not one of those people. In fact, he reminds me greatly of my own long-time boyfriend. He’s socially awkward in the sense that he chooses not to subscribe to society; he opposes all things obligatory, traditional, and bureaucratic. He does this not for the sake of being contrary, but because he’s considered, weighed, and analyzed the system and the reasons behind doing these things and has come to conclusion that tradition for the sake of tradition is meaningless. And for philosophical, spiritual, moral souls like Levin, a meaningless life is far more burdensome than an isolated life. I love Levin and love reading every scene in which he can be found. I doubt any future plot twist could change my perception of him.
Stepan Arkadyich Oblonsky (Stiva) – Oh, Stiva. What can we say about you? You’re hopeless. This hopelessness is not your fault at all; you’re simply a product of your environment. Tolstoy uses Stiva as the symbol of the St. Petersburg lifestyle, how it corrupts. Stiva, like his sister Anna, chases his own happiness. However, unlike Anna, he’s not in control of his emotions. He doesn’t understand the difference between spiritual fulfillment and momentary satisfaction. He seems to feel guilty about his affair with the household governess, which illuminates his deep love for Dolly and acknowledgement that his deepest desire is to make his marriage work. Yet, he still has affair after affair. So, it remains to be seen whether or not Stiva will get his act together or whether he will remain a slave to his impulses. Knowing Tolstoy’s opinion of city-dwellers and politicians, though, I somehow doubt that Stiva’s behavior will change.
Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin – Unlike the other primary characters, Karenin seems to have no emotion whatsoever. All emotion given to him is presented as a side-note by Tolstoy, which only emphasizes Karenin’s few displays affection. Any emotion he feels is locked tightly inside beneath a cold exterior of well-to-do and cultured. However, that’s just the irony of his character; he plays cultured with his firm opinions on all matters intellectual from poetry to history to religion, but he doesn’t have any actual understanding of the subjects. He’s just one, big ball of dogma, spitting out analyses and opinions he’s read somewhere. He feels nothing and, therefore, can think nothing for himself. He does exactly what it is society tells him to do — get married, have children, work for the government, work constantly. He schedules himself to the exact second. He is the epitome of brainwashed. How his character will develop and react to all the emotions around him will indeed be quite interesting.