It is difficult to review in brief this 800-page tome to which I got so hooked on to that I had to purposely dally around with it in order to prolong and savor the reading experience. Tolstoy has intricately inter-woven stories of interestingly different characters somehow related to one another based in the 19th century Russian society with allusions to political developments under the Tsarist regime (including Zemstvo and Balkan crisis). His interesting character sketches and flair for detail makes this tome one of the most recommended classics and definitely one of the most memorable reads.
The central plot that trails the story of the inevitable doom befalling a passionate woman hated by society (Somehow most authors love writing about passionate women), however, fails to attract me as before reading this, I had read its predecessor Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, based on the same plot. Flaubert sketches the character of the protagonist in great detail even demonstrating how her Church education and reading habits germinated the deep-rooted ideals about romance in her mind that ultimately lead to her doom. Flaubert’s undivided focus on the central plot makes it more poignant.
Tolstoy, on the other hand trails the lives of numerous characters and Anna Karenina appears in the book only after the first 70 pages and disappears in the last 70 pages. He has well cited the effect Anna has on people, her unquenched thirst for love, insatiable demand for attention, debate between life and death after being repudiated by society and tragic end in a fevered state of mind. But he leaves many questions unanswered: why did she marry a husband she didn’t love?, did she have an unstable childhood that lead to her craving for attention and love?, etc.
Tolstoy adroitly doesn’t define the complete character of the person; he just sketches the contours of their personality in great detail so that we may identify them with people around us. For instance Oblonsky has been described as below:
“Oblonsky’s tendency and opinions were not his by deliberate choice: they came of themselves, just as he did not choose the fashion of his hats or coats but wore those of the current style.”
“The chief qualities that had won him this general respect in Office were, first is true leniency, founded on a consciousness of his own defects; secondly, his true Liberalism; thirdly his complete indifference to the business he was engaged in, in consequence of which he was never carried away by enthusiasm and never made mistakes.”
I can think of so many people around me who fit into the description above.
Tolstoy’s own life is somewhat depicted in the life of Levin’s brother: Nicholas Dmitrich.
Tolstoy even addressed philosophical questions like existence of God, death and meaning of life that are mainly portrayed through the character Levin, who as per me embodies Lenin and in the novel he even executed a socialist scheme on his field based on joint ownership (although I am aware that Lenin born in 1870 was too young to have any influence on this book that was published in 1877).
My favorite line from the book:
“The candle by the light of which she had been reading, flared up with a brighter light, lit up for her all that had been dark, crackled, began to flicker and went out for ever.”
An interesting observation that all sources of light (a candle or a bulb) do brighten for an instant before going out forever!!