Friday, August 10, 2012

ANNA KARENINA: A Review of Sorts...


When I first saw this read-along, hosted by Steph @ Five Alarm Book Reviews (who recently decided to take down her blog), I had mixed feelings about it... I wanted to participate, yet, I hesitated, because of my own personal experiences with an unfaithful husband.  I finally  decided to plunge in, for the simple reason that I had never read Tolstoy, and I do enjoy literary challenges!

I realized, only too late, that I had made a mistake.  During the first two weeks, I was pretty much able to follow along, even answering the excellent questions posted by Steph on her blog, and then linking up to her posts.  I also visited other participating blogs and commented on their posts.

By the third week, I was in trouble... I was actually forcing myself to keep reading.   I was never able to get past Part 5, quite honestly.  The problem was the very same one I encountered when I attempted (and did succeed in doing so) to read Wuthering Heights: I had to follow the activities and life choices of characters whose ethics and morality were totally skewed, selfish, and evil.  I could neither relate to nor sympathize with these characters.  I could not like them, because their actions were too self-serving and despicable.   They only cared about themselves, their own desires (in the case of Vronsky and Karenina), or thirst for revenge (in the case of Heathcliff).

Compounding my problem with Anna Karenina were Tolstoy's long passages, which were devoted to topics such as new agricultural methods, politics, and religion.  While interesting (except for the agriculture), these passages interfered with the flow of the novel.  Indeed, it seemed at times as if Anna Karenina was really two books in one -- a novel, and a nonfiction book which discussed the cultural, scientific, philosophical, and religious topics Russians were interested in at the time. 

I realize that the experience of reading a literary classic is not entirely like that of reading a novel in the genre of popular fiction, as I mentioned in my comments for my first post in the read-along.  Classic novels do tend to be longer, have more psychological depth, and contain sentences that are, at times, of a formidable length.  Still, I felt that, in this case, the plot stagnated while Tolstoy expressed his views on various matters through different characters, most notably Konstantin Levin.  This novel is, quite simply, much too long.  If it were more compact, the emotional intensity created by the events, as well as the actions engaged in by the characters, would have a greater impact on the reader.  At least, that was my experience.  If anyone is shocked because I'm criticizing a revered classic, I can only say that, in my opinion, not every classic praised by the critics is really deserving of such praise.  (Horrors!)  In this case, in spite of being extremely well-written (it's TOLSTOY, after all!), I would say that Anna Karenina really needed some serious editing...

I have not encountered the problem of extreme length referred to above, with other classics, such as the novels of Dickens, Hardy, Hawthorne, and even Dostoyevsky, whose Crime and Punishment I was able to complete with no problem.   (Although I must admit that I did encounter the problem of the main character's horrible crime of murder.  However, I would have to re-visit this novel, as I read it several years ago, and don't recall the plot very well.)

There is one other novel with this unpleasant element of infidelity, and which I absolutely refuse to read -- Madame Bovary.   It also deals with an unfaithful wife. 

In the end, though, I think I could have put up with the excessive length of this Tolstoy novel.  I would have gritted my teeth and gotten through it, somehow.  It was the ethical situation that made it totally impossible for me to finish the novel, in spite of the fact that Anna's infidelity did have tragic consequences, not only for herself, but for Vronsky, her lover, and Karenin, her husband, as well as the children fathered by each man.  I realize that Tolstoy had a moral lesson in mind here.  However, again, there was simply no way I could connect with the characters involved in the affair.  This was especially so when I saw them attempting to go on with their lives, in the middle of their adultery, while acting as if they were a legitimately married couple, even expecting others to accept them as such! 

Something else that angered me was the hypocrisy of the society of the time, which, ironically enough, is not that far removed from the hypocrisy of our own time.  In the novel, Anna is entirely shunned by high society, while Vronsky is able to move freely in their circles, just as he did before his affair with Anna began.  In our day, women are still judged more harshly than men for infidelity, and this, in spite of the feminist movement! 

The problem of Anna's infidelity became even more acute for me when, on July 24th, I first found out that Kristen Stewart had cheated on Robert Pattinson, her boyfriend of three years (four, according to some accounts).  I was in shock for two days....because, as I stated in a previous post, this particular couple represented a beautiful dream of romance for me, as well as for many other Twilight Saga fans. 

Infidelity, of course, is a despicable, immoral act.  Betrayal by a significant other, whether or not one is married to them, is always excruciatingly painful. 

I know what it feels like to be betrayed.  I know the pain of being lied to, of feeling, to the marrow of my bones, that I wasn't being told the truth.  I also know the horrible pain of separation from a person one still loves, in spite of the betrayal...

Infidelity is never pretty, even when it seems to end 'well' -- for the unfaithful parties, that is.  The one cheated on is left to suffer.  The children, if any, are left to suffer.  And this is something that the unfaithful partner and his or her lover simply don't care about, in most cases.  Yet, even when either party is stricken with remorse, as in the Stewart/Sanders scenario, the consequences remain, sometimes affecting the victims for years...

Classics, I think, are not always classics for all the right reasons.  In the case of Anna KareninaWuthering Heights,  Madame Bovary, and, perhaps even Crime and Punishment, I would have to say that they're classics mainly because of the shock value involved in the characters' actions. 

I can derive little or no literary pleasure from the reading of such classics.  In fact, I wonder how their authors were even able to stand the pain of watching their main characters engage in totally immoral acts...and still go on to finish writing their novels. 

This is not a real review of this novel, since I have not read it all the way through.  I will probably pick it up again, at some time in the future, because I really don't like to leave a book half-read.  I will attempt to get into the spirit of the novel, to delve into the psychological aspects of it.  It will not be easy, but I will do it, as I did with Wuthering Heights.

I may be able to come to a conclusion that will better satisfy my inner literary critic, as well as my spiritual self.  Then again, a subsequent reading may serve only to validate my current opinion of this novel.



  1. I am sorry to hear that this was a tough one to get through and you were not able to finish. I loved the drama of the ending and enjoyed the book overall, but agree that some of the characters were infuriating enough to want to throw in the towel from time to time.

  2. i hope that you'll find time to finish the book someday Maria. reading Anna Karenina has been a rewarding experience for me despite the length and the subject matter.

  3. Hi, Steph!

    Oh, thank you for your support...I really appreciate your kind words!

    By the way, one of the things that kept me going as long as I did was the very interesting questions you included in your posts. So I'd like to take this opportunity to thank you for hosting this read-along!! Your posts were excellent, and I greatly enjoyed reading them!!

    I also loved the button you created for the read-along. That, too, kept me going, believe it or not; I loved putting it at the head of my posts!! (I even did so for this 'review' post.)

    Thanks for visiting and leaving such a nice comment!! : )

  4. Hi, Ao!

    Yes, I hope I'll be able to finish it'll be a while, though.

    I'm so glad it was a rewarding experience for you! I know that Tolstoy is a great writer, and I did find some enjoyable aspects to this novel, such as the sections about Levin and Kitty.

    Thanks for your very nice comment!! : )

  5. Hey Maria,

    Though I think that I often read about people doing terrible things, I totally get not wanting to reading about people doing things that have a particular abhorrence for you. There are books, that while I think are worthy, that I have chosen not read for similar reasons. Not every book is right for everyone.

    I have not read Anna Karenina but if I ever do get to it I will keep the views that you have expressed about it in mind.

  6. I suffered through it, and yes, that is how I felt while reading it.... but I feel good about it in the end.
    Thank you for your honesty.

  7. Hey, Brian!

    You are SO right -- not every book is right for everyone! I would add that authors should be aware that, if their main characters are villainous, some readers will not be able to relate to them, and thus, will not finish the book. If I were to write a book, I'd make sure my main character(s)was (were) totally honorable and idealistic! I could never do otherwise. Other characters can be villainous -- just not the main ones.

    I have always been mystified by the great praise given to "Wuthering Heights", for instance. Heathcliff is a completely DESPICABLE character! I don't know how I ever managed to get through that one. If you've read this novel, you know what I mean. And the "love story" between Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw is almost non-existent. Yes, the book is masterfully written, but is a very unpleasant read.

    Another book I refuse to read is "Lolita", by Vladimir Nabokov. The main character is obsessed with a very young girl, while he himself is middle-aged. Sure sounds like pedophilia to me...

    Thanks for commenting!! : )

  8. Hi, Freda!

    Oh, I love the way you put it -- you "suffered through" the novel! Lol. That's PRECISELY how I felt!

    Well, congrats on finishing it! I couldn't be that persistent...

    You're very welcome for my honesty, and thanks for the comment!! : )


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