“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”—so begins Anna Karenina (Анна Каренина) by Russian author Leo Tolstoy. The novel was published in installments from 1873 to 1877 in the magazine The Russian Messenger. Fellow author William Faulkner once said that Anna Karenina was “the best novel ever written,” and many people have agreed with him over the years since its publication.
If you can learn to enjoy Tolstoy’s writing style and get through the 800+ page novel, it will be well worth your time. There are 15 major characters in the novel, and they each have three names—a first name, a patronymic, and a surname. To help with some confusion that comes through translation from Russian to English, here is a helpful definition from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary: a patronymic is “a name derived from that of the father or a paternal ancestor usually by the addition of an affix.” So, for example, the central character Anna Arkadyevna Karenina’s first name is Anna; her patronymic is Arkadyevna, and her last name is the feminine version of her husband’s name—Karenin. If I haven’t lost you already, you might be happy to know that Tolstoy is kind enough to refer to most of them by only one name throughout the novel.
Anna Karenina is a story of love, guilt, and Russian aristocracy—of the scandal of adultery and of the artificial lives people can lead. Despite several harsh reviews, the 2012 film adaptation, starring Keira Knightley, Jude Law, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, did successfully capture this artificiality. Director Joe Wright envisioned something different from the typical period drama. In his film, many of the characters live on a stage, as though life is all an act. Only one character is brave enough to turn his back on the theatrics and enter the real world.
Now for an extremely quick summary of the plot: Anna married her husband Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin when she was only 18 years old. At the start of the novel she is still in her twenties, and it appears that she has learned to love him or at least learned to be comfortable with her life. They have a young son named Seryozha, whom Anna adores. The trouble begins when Anna meets an attractive army officer, Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky. An immediate spark ignites between them, and eventually Anna can no longer stay away from Vronsky. When she and Vronsky sleep together for the first time, she tells him: “All is over. I have nothing but you. Remember that.”
This novel is definitely not your average love story. It is heartbreaking at times, although another young couple in the novel— Levin and Kitty— give a sense of what we expect from a “normal” love story. Perhaps Tolstoy is right when he says that “if it is true that there are as many minds as there are heads, then there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts,” and not all of these kinds of love lead to happiness. A tagline from Wright’s film is: “You can’t ask why about love,” but perhaps Tolstoy wants us to do just that.