To me, the hardest part of reading is starting and ending, which is why I decided to read Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. Beginning this novel is hard, but no harder than starting a short story, and with 800 pages, the end is far from sight, with many life stories unfolding in between.
Writing during Tolstoy’s time, the English literary critic Walter Pater described how our lives are short and fleeting, but we have the chance to expand that interval through art and literature. Reading allows a person to live many lives, diverse and complicated.
Although the length of Tolstoy’s novel is intimidating, it allows one to get lost in the world and plot of the story. The characters become friends, and the feelings and the vivid descriptions of the scenery play across your mind. To summarize this novel would be impossible, the intricate details of the world Tolstoy creates would take another 800 pages to sum up.
The novel takes place in late 19th-century Moscow and St. Petersburg, as well as in the Russian countryside. It follows the lives of a bachelor, a young woman, a politician, a landowner, and a married socialite. The story holds an overarching message that can be most easily explained by reading the first sentence of the novel, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Tolstoy leads us through a progression of relationships: ones that end in love, tragedy, life, and heartbreak.
The titular socialite, Anna Karenina, is married to a senior government official. One of Tolstoy’s great writing abilities is the way he describes characters. He doesn’t describe Anna as beautiful just through picturing her appearance, but by other traits, like her quick, graceful steps, her youthful spirit, and her sharp mind. Anna’s confident, bold, and mature personality clashes wonderfully with that of Tolstoy’s other female heroine, Kitty, a young, innocent, and gentle bachelorette whom we watch grow from a girl to a loving wife and mother.
In the world of Anna Karenina, love is intoxicating and dangerous. The socially accepted rules of courtship in 19th-century Russian make any form of intimacy forbidden. For this reason, the quick glances, movements, and words shared between two people are how they form attachment. This creates a sense of forbiddenness when it comes to love, especially when one of those involved is married.
Within the story, Tolstoy develops vivid scenes of nature and introduces the complex world of Russian politics into the plot. From insights into the characters’ relationships with religion, to dramatic scenes of harvesting hay, to discussions and arguments around the peasantry, local government, and agriculture, Tolstoy creates a variety of colorful narratives and scenes that makes the book so remarkable.
I turned to Tolstoy’s novel somewhat by accident, in the depths of winter and quarantine. I read the book in rural Massachusetts, with few distractions, and after a personal loss. This novel let me live several lives in the course of a few months, and by taking me somewhere else, it helped me understand myself and these strange times better. Because of the effect the book had on my life it will always remain one of my favorite novels. If you find yourself in need of an escape to a world of joy, sorrow, but altogether immense beauty, I recommend you read Anna Karenina.