Jamelah Reads the Classics: Anna Karenina

Let me begin this by saying that everything I write after what I’m about to tell you next is entirely secondary to Tolstoy’s classic, Anna Karenina. There are several things that people may point out about this particular Russian novel, but they’re not that important. What is important? It’s simple, really: the most essential fact about Anna Karenina is that Jesus Lord, this book is long. It is so long, in fact, that I have not finished reading it, and may not ever finish reading it. I suppose it was an inevitability that when I started my series of classic literature reviews that there would come a time when the classic literature would beat me, and indeed, that time has come. Anna Karenina has beaten me. I started reading it in November, shortly after finishing Mansfield Park, but I have not yet reached its 200th page. And in a book that spans 750 pages, it’s pretty safe to say that I’ve made basically no progress whatsoever. Have I read books that are longer than Anna Karenina? Yes. Have I read books that felt longer than Anna Karenina? No. In fact, I don’t believe it’s possible for there to be any book in the world of literature that feels longer than Anna Karenina. Except maybe War and Peace, which I am also not reading.

So, why am I going ahead and admitting my defeat so publicly? Well, first of all, there are other classics to be read, and I can’t let Tolstoy bog me down any longer. Secondly, even though I didn’t finish it, I still have opinions about it, and I’d like to share those with you now. Of course, all of my opinions are tempered by the fact that Anna Karenina is LONG, but as I pointed out at the beginning, that’s the most important fact about this novel, and if you take nothing else away from this quasi-review, I want you to understand how long this book truly is.

Did I mention that it’s long? Because it is. Long.

Anyway, when I started reading, I already knew everything about the story. Or at least the important points. Because the story of the novel’s eponymous heroine is a pretty famous one, and if you don’t want me to ruin it for you, close your eyes and skip to the next paragraph. See, Anna Karenina is married and has a son, but she falls in love with another man (Count Vronsky) and goes to live with him, which is a pretty scandalous thing to do, especially in the circles of the 19th century Russian gentry. Upon realizing that everything is a mess, and that neither Vronsky nor the married life she left behind could make her happy, Anna commits suicide by jumping in front of a train. As far as stories go, this is a pretty good one. I mean, it hits on the two major themes — adultery and suicide love and death. So, you know, props to Tolstoy. I even had a theory going in that I was going to be able to compare Anna Karenina to Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, since the two seem thematically similar, but it turns out I can’t do that. Why? I never got to read Tolstoy’s telling of Anna’s story, and can’t tell you how he handled it because he refused to get to the point. Even so, I can say with confidence that Chopin’s novel is superior because it is hundreds of pages shorter.

(If you were scrolling ahead so as not to have Anna Karenina ruined for you, you can start reading again now.)

Along with Anna’s story, Tolstoy tells the tale of country gentleman Konstantin Levin. I read somewhere (I think in the novel’s critical introduction) that Levin is based on Tolstoy. I guess this means that Tolstoy was unbearably self-righteous and annoying and also interested in cows. Every time the story would jump from the events surrounding Anna to the life of Levin, I had to roll my eyes (or doze off) because Levin’s story failed to capture my interest at all. And unfortunately for the novel, Levin’s story appears way too much.

In fact, I think the major problem with Anna Karenina, at least for an impatient reader like myself, is that it’s really hard to stay invested in a story when you read and read and read and look at what page you’re on in relation to the book’s overall page total and realize that you’ve virtually gotten nowhere. It’s full of all kinds of details and descriptions and curlicues, and while it was actually pretty easy reading, it was really hard to care. I just wanted Tolstoy to tell the damn story, and that didn’t seem to be on his agenda. I mean, I’m sure he got to it all eventually — there were 750 pages filled with relatively tiny print — but I just got tired of wading through the embellishments and asides while waiting to get to the real thing.

I don’t know if this could count as commentary on the differences between a modern reader (me) and more patient readers of days gone by (19th century Russians), or if it just means that Tolstoy needed an evil, heartless editor, but either way, I have been defeated by an Oprah book. If you need me, I’ll be hanging my head in shame.

To sum up:

Anna Karenina is long.

— No, really. It’s long.

— If I had ever finished Anna Karenina, I’d be even more certain than I am right now that Kate Chopin’s The Awakening is better.

— It had a really good plot ruined by a really boring side plot.

Anna Karenina is long.

So, even though I didn’t finish it, I’ve told you all you need to know. Because this is what I do — taking one for the literary team since 2005.

25 Responses

  1. This is precisely whyI’m glad
    This is precisely why

    I’m glad you’re reading the classics (or in this case, not reading them) and I am not. Taking on Tolstoy is a noble effort and I think you’ve uncovered a lot of things even in not finishing this one … so maybe it’s really better that you didn’t finish it. Because you would have just uncovered too much in the end and that would be dangerous.

    Although I have to wonder if Tolstoy’s device of not getting to the point is designed to make the reader feel a sense of desperation, hopelessness and frustration so that they are, in effect, feeling like they too would like to throw themselves in front of a train. Damn that Tolstoy and his cleverness!

  2. Even more off putting……is
    Even more off putting…

    …is the fact that Anna Karenina has a faint moustache. I always had a problem imagining this great beauty with a moustache.

    I read the whole thing a few years back. I don’t remember much to be honest. I do remember being unsatisfied, especially after the time I’d invested. I think more than being authentically interested in the ending, I was challenging myself to actually finish it.

    I have to give Tolstoy some props for at least portraying Anna as a semi-sympathetic character. Flaubert painted a far less flattering picture in the similar character of Emma Bovary 20 years earlier.

    When I read “The Awakening” for the first time, I had the same thoughts in regards to similarities between Anna Karenina and Edna Pontellier (and Emma Bovary). It’s interesting to me that at the end of all three stories, the heroines die. Yet, Anna and Emma die miserable deaths. And even though Edna Pontellier, like Anna, commits suicide, her death is peaceful. As she goes under the water she is surrounded, in her mind and literally, by sights, sounds, and smells that bring her comfort. I’m sure if I felt like working harder at it, I could analyze all 3 authors and their perspectives on basically the same woman but geez that would be boring. I really dig “The Awakening” and Kate Chopin’s writing. It’s a great read.

    This is my first post here. I’m grateful to have been shown this site and I look forward to reading more.

  3. one thing to sayI have one
    one thing to say

    I have one thing to say:

    Chekhov. Good cure for what’s ailing you.

  4. First of all, that makes no
    First of all, that makes no sense. Secondly, I don’t think Jamelah needs any more on her list to “Chekhov” until she finishes Conrad. Don’t distract!

  5. Conrad, eh? He can be
    Conrad, eh? He can be riveting. (Am I allowed to make cheesy jokes like that?)

  6. Yes, come to think of it,
    Yes, come to think of it, while I was reading, I did often feel like throwing myself in front of a train. Or falling asleep. So tricky, that Tolstoy.

  7. Tolstoy and James Joycecan
    Tolstoy and James Joyce

    can enjoy each other’s long ones in hell.

  8. Well, smartypants, I’ve read
    Well, smartypants, I’ve read my fair share of Chekhov, and I’m pretty sure that I can say the following with confidence: not so much. Besides, I’m busy getting into the Conrad groove.

  9. Well, jeez, I didn’t know I
    Well, jeez, I didn’t know I was going to unleash this kind of barrage. Lot of pent-up energy here! I was just pointing out that Chekhov tended to write shorter (and in my opinion better).

  10. Funny. But, okay, I
    Funny. But, okay, I officially dare Jamelah to put aside Conrad (too easy anyway!) and tackle “The Three Sisters” next. Yes, that’s a dare.

  11. *Sigh*… You really don’t
    *Sigh*… You really don’t get that Jamelah has her own list of classics to read … this ain’t the Casey Kasem Long Distance Dedication request line, pal.

  12. Now I want to read The
    Now I want to read The Awakening. This discussion has got me curious about it. Thanks for posting this message, it was interesting. I hope you will post more!

  13. Read it, dude. Even
    Read it, dude. Even performed a scene from it many long years ago when I was in an acting class. I don’t actually have any problems with dear Anton P. Chekhov, but Conrad is next. I should like it. It’s short.

  14. Ha. I don’t know how
    Ha. I don’t know how interesting it was but I appreciate the welcome.

  15. Don’t blow a gasket,
    Don’t blow a gasket, Charlie…the lady said she wants to read Conrad.

  16. WordinessWeren’t these

    Weren’t these writers paid by the word? That could account for their wordiness. In all honesty that was the problem I had with reading 19th century literature. Everybody’s so damn pompous…and so much smarter than me! It was like reading Dickens who can go on and on for several pages describing a door!

    But the nostalgic in me still feels that these writers had such an awesome command of the language that I tend to overlook the verbiage. I’m torn on this, really. Can’t you tell?

  17. Good comparison between
    Good comparison between Chopin and Flaubert — I definitely prefer Madame Bovary, though.

  18. I’m guilty of loving 19th
    I’m guilty of loving 19th century authors but I can understand how you feel. Still, Dickens was an amazing humanitarian and really ahead of his time in his social awareness. I remember reading Hard Times in high school and just wanting to kill myself every time I had to pick it up. I still can’t stand that book. David Copperfield, though, is one of my all time favorites. It is full of such funky characters and great humor. PBS actually just did a docudrama on Dickens that was pretty cool as far as offering insight into how he thought and lived and wrote. And if you really can’t bear to pick up a Dickens novel, try renting the most recent BBC version of David Copperfield with Bob Hoskins and Dame Maggie Smith. You might enjoy it in that medium far better without having to labor through pages of door descriptions.

  19. SmileIt seems too bad for you

    It seems too bad for you that you ‘must’ read this book. I read it about a year or two ago, and I have to admit that I was on no schedule and primarily reading it for pleasure. I enjoyed it immensely. The descriptive powers of Tolstoy revealing the world of middle class Russia in the nienteenth century interested me enormously. I wasn’t even considering artistic merit. I just enjoyed it, almost like someone would a soap opera. It became rather addicting. And when one of the hurricanes rolled through here (georgia) and most of the power in the the area was lost, I read the book by candlelight. (Laughing to myself, how’s that for nineteenth century). I don’t remember how long it took me to finish it, I know that I knew the ending before I got there, and I was very melancholy at the end; not just for the end, but because there was no more to read. Laughing. I am glad I didn’t choose a literary career. I enjoy challenging books like Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and especially well written ones like Faulkner or Anne Tyler, but I read for pleasure. You have to consider that some of the great books are translations and probably don’t have all of the flavor of the orginal. Especially when they become older. So we have to trust the translator and the reviewers of the translator, and wonder. I think about it, I’ve read almost every book by Camus and Garcia Marquez, but I’ve never read them in their native tongue. As for my choice of not having a literary career, the same goes for writing. Everybody writes. I do it for fun and pleasure and to communicate as well as I can. But when you must…

  20. Yeah, wasn’t it Tolstoy who
    Yeah, wasn’t it Tolstoy who in his very late years had a correspondence with the young Gandhi? I think I read some of the letters during a web search I made. Tolstoy had a lot of opinions and was an interesting character. I cannot profess to be an expert, but yeah, go 19th century Russian lit. Dostoevski(sp? as always)! I might have to follow Levi’s check off and read Chekov. Laughing (I’m currently in love with a Russian from east, east, east, east Russia… )

  21. I’ve picked up books and
    I’ve picked up books and tossed them aside after one or two chapters, totally uninterested. A year later, I might pick up the same book and find it captivating. It’s almost like I see it with different eyes. Well, according to existentialism, I do see it with different eyes. I remember reading Dune, Atlas Shrugged, and Crime & Punishment, all really long books, when I was living in a house with no TV, no computer, not much of anything but coffee and a lamp, and I cherished living inside those books from beginning to end.

  22. AKI think Anna Karenina is

    I think Anna Karenina is the only book on your classic list that I have actually read. I remember thinking that AK is amazing as a snapshot of a time period and culture that I missed. I also remember that it was unfortunately about people with soap opera dilemnas rather than exciting problems.

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