Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 10, 2011

Anna Karenina (1878), by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky

ANZ LitLovers has had an unscheduled group read of Anna Karenina over December/January…we do this sometimes over the long lazy weeks of summer when a book takes our fancy… and very enjoyable it is to read in this way with friends who share the same interest in books. One of the best things about being in a book group that lasts a while is that as the years go by, the members develop a shared background in reading and can chat easily about previous titles in relation to new books.

I read Anna Karenina ages and ages ago when I was having my moody Russian classics phase, but I was happy to join in because it’s a great book.  I bought the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation for the Kindle because my ancient Penguin copy has a small font that’s tiring on the eyes.  I also liked the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace so much, I wanted to see how they did Anna Karenina.   We read one part each week, and chatted about our impressions in an unstructured way, so this isn’t a proper review…


Vronsky is an interesting fellow, eh?  What chance does he have of being reasonable husband material when his mother is infamous in Petersburg for her countless affairs?  (Though we can’t blame her for his cruelty to animals – kicking a horse when it’s down is IMO in some ways worse than making off with another man’s wife).   Poor innocent Kitty never stood  a chance, (and was better off without him) but he’s an  innocent too in the sense that he has no understanding of family life, but rather pictures it as ‘something alien, hostile and, above all, ridiculous’.  (Part 1, xiv).  Never was a man less ready for Cupid’s arrow, and there’s nothing in his background to prepare him for Anna’s moods and vexations either!

Anna Karenina is a wonderfully rich character.  I liked her cunning intervention to reconcile Stepan (her brother) with his wife Dolly after his affair with the governess.  I liked her hissy fit over the dress alterations – who wouldn’t do the same in those days when a woman’s dress mattered so much?  I like the way she congratulates herself on behaving herself with Vronsky when she comes home from Moscow  – when we know perfectly well that her good intentions will vanish the minute she sees him again.  (On the other hand there are times when I felt like giving her a good shake, especially when she reneges on the deals she has with Alexei – what a lot of trouble could have been avoided had she not made that fatal invitation in Part 4!)

While Anna is deceiving herself about her passion at home, Vronsky is back in his old haunt and congratulating himself on his world view.  For him there are two sorts of people: sensible but boring, married and mundane, and his sort, whose aim was to be elegant, generous, plucky, gay, to abandon oneself without a blush to every passion, and to laugh at everything else. (Part 1, xxxiv).  Even if readers didn’t know the plot of this most famous novel, they’d know he was going to ‘come a cropper’.

The struggle between the soul and reason

With masterful irony, Tolstoy precedes the moment when Anna meets Vronsky on the train and surrenders to what her soul desired but that her reason feared (Part 1, xxx) with her examination of conscience and internal dismissal of Vronsky as meaning nothing special to her.   I like this: passion does – ought to, sometimes – take precedence over prudence, and Anna had felt discontented with her mocking world-weary husband anyway.  Tolstoy depicts her early struggle to be faithful to her husband in the face of Vronsky’s love brilliantly: she means well, but she can’t help herself.  She’s in love!

Count Alexei also finds himself juggling the soul and reason: a sober, prudent, not-very-exciting husband for Anna, he regards jealousy as demeaning and trust as a given in his marriage.  He therefore carefully plans his warning that she and Vronsky are attracting society attention.  But when it dawns on him that she has ceased to love him as she did, he abandons his well-ordered logical speech and speaks from the heart something quite other than what he had prepared (Part 2, ix).  As the affair proceeds, he finds that

every time he began talking to her, he felt that the spirit of evil and deceit, which had taken possession of her, had possession of him too, and he talked to her in a tone quite unlike that in which he had meant to talk (Part 2, x).

This man has no recourse but to lock his feelings in a drawer where they become more dreadful the longer they lay there. (Part Two, xxvi) And Anna’s tears, when they come, only harden his heart.

Like all the major characters in this novel Alexei overestimates his capacity to be reasonable, and he – a man who values his ability to make wise judgements so highly – constantly finds himself in situations now where impulse rules.  A chance encounter with Dolly in the streets of Moscow, to which he had fled to avoid Anna now that he plans to divorce her, leads to the embarrassment of dining with these in-laws even though he knows that his relationship with them won’t survive the break-up of his marriage.  He can’t help it, he finds Stepan such an amiable character, he can’t maintain the coldness that he feels rationally that he ought to have for his soon-to-be ex-brother-in-law.

Although there are times when the wronged husband’s emotions are repellent (as when he wishes for Anna’s death) it’s hard not to feel sorry for him.  Away in Moscow he doesn’t want to respond to Anna’s summons to her deathbed – but he goes to her anyway, and once there he is overcome by feelings of remorse.  He not only forgives her, but also Vronsky.  He even succumbs to feelings of tenderness for Vronsky’s child, but inevitably it all goes wrong…

(It is supremely ironic that in Part 7 this champion of reason and logic, Alexei ends up seeking the advice of the clairvoyant Landau.)

Once she recovers from her illness, Anna finds herself irritated by Alexei’s magnanimity: irrationally, she decides not to farewell Vronsky when he departs for Tashkent after his ludicrous ‘suicide’ attempt, but attacks Alexei when he agrees that it’s the best course of action.  She accuses Alexei of preventing her from nursing the baby when in fact a wet-nurse had to be called in during Anna’s near-fatal puerperal fever.  As far as Anna is concerned, nothing her husband can do now is right, and he feels the pressure of the on-again, off-again divorce as inevitable:

He knew beforehand that everything was against him and that he would not be allowed to do what now seemed to him to be so natural and good, but would now be forced to do what was bad but seemed to them the proper thing. (Part 4, xx)

And then of course when Anna reneges again and runs away with Vronsky,  Alexei is persuaded that he has no option but to divorce her.  He suffers terrible loneliness because he has no one to share his grief with but the rather comical Countess Lydia.  Having spent his whole life focussed on his work he now finds that his work colleagues are no substitute for friends – and on top of that he has reached a plateau in his work and is being sidelined into useless projects that are completely unnecessary.  Everyone knows this, except him.

The relationship which could have been a comfort to him – his relationship with his son – is fraught.  Alexei pours all his frustrations into Seryozha’s education, and Lydia’s religiosity sours that too.  The child never believed what he was told about Anna’s death, and even the servants are on her side when it comes to facilitating a birthday reunion.  Oh, if only estranged parents would try harder not to use custody of their children as pawns in relationship battles!

The battle between soul and reason affects Vronsky too of course.  Having spent a lifetime in frivolous society love affairs, breaking hearts but surviving unscathed himself, he is uncomfortable with the feelings he has for Anna:

He was angry with all of them for their interference just because he felt in his soul that they, all these people, were right. He felt that the love that bound him to Anna was not a momentary impulse, which would pass, as worldly intrigues do pass, leaving no other traces in the life of either but pleasant or unpleasant memories. He felt all the torture of his own and her position, all the difficulty there was for them, conspicuous as they were in the eye of all the world, in concealing their love, in lying and deceiving; and in lying, deceiving, feigning, and continually thinking of others, when the passion that united them was so intense that they were both oblivious of everything else but their love. (Part 2, xxi).

When he recognises that Anna too hates the deceit, he decides that this must stop – and that they must go away together. (And clearly, he doesn’t think this through).

Later, of course, when things get tricky he decides this is not such a good idea – ever a man able to justify pleasing himself was Vronsky! What is utterly convincing is the way Tolstoy depicts the gradual deterioration of their love affair.  In the beginning, it’s all passion.  Then, Vronsky recognises that his love for Anna is fading because of her jealousy and yet he feels more closely bonded to her.   When their conversations degenerate into her passionate complaints about how much she suffers, countered by his attempts to soothe her, there are signs that the pleasure-loving Vronsky is becoming fed up.  Jealousy is such a tiresome emotion!  And then when they do go away together to Italy, it doesn’t take long for him to become irritated by their ambiguous social position and to begin to be really bored with her.

Tolstoy is, I think, a master at depicting the irrationality of jealousy.  Levin and Kitty – two love birds once they eventually resolve their initial pride and prejudice – get into a squabble because Levin gets jealous of the handsome visitor Veslovsky.  There’s nothing in it  – except maybe Kitty admiring his legs (!) but Levin gets himself in a real lather over it.  He ‘wanted to keep calm, but it was the same thing all over again’; does he miss his shots on the first day of the hunt because he’s cross about Kitty’s harmless flirting, (she’s heavily pregnant, for goodness sake!) or is it because he’s provoked by Veslovsky’s political views or his flippant attitude to marital vows? (Part 6 x)  Eventually he gives Veslovsky his marching orders, and he does so knowing that it’s all a storm in a teacup.

Anna’s passionate and conflicting emotions rule the final chapters of this novel.  Convinced that Vronsky loves other women, refusing to give him the children he says he wants, insulting his mother (always fatal!) she is determined to punish him for ruining her life in the most dramatic way she knows.  Her irrationality triumphs over reason and makes her act as if she could be there to observe his reaction, and yet she remains Tolstoy’s heroine.  Vronsky’s mother judges her as society would but the author shows the despair that led her to it,  her realisation that there is nothing possible to bring her happiness now.  He depicts her last-minute hesitations alongside the final impulse with its shocking finality.


As in War and Peace where Tolstoy had Pierre make ineffective reforms for his peasants, here in Anna Karenina Levin’s brother Nikolai talks of plans for a metal-working association to improve the brutish situation of peasants (Part 1,  xxv).  Levin however regards all this talk of communism as nonsense: his  fleeting idea of living without luxury on his estate is more of a self-imposed penance for having been refused by Kitty than a considered position, and while he thinks of himself as being in tune with rural life he doesn’t have much patience with his steward and he doesn’t think his peasants are any too bright.

Tolstoy, it seems to me, romanticizes the lifestyle of the peasants.  Levin sees their lives as full of merriment and job satisfaction.  To suggest as Tolstoy does that an idle young man like Levin could manage a day’s labour in the fields with comparative ease, and that he would happily eat a peasant’s lunch and not mind getting soaked in a rainstorm  is nonsense.  Farm labour was back-breaking work.  It was work so tough that there needed to be a foreman to chivvy the workers along.   Tolstoy’s descriptions of his experiments with a kind of rural share-farming are droll to say the least.

I think I missed some of the gems in Anna Karenina when I read it before.  Tolstoy has great fun with Alexei’s Commission into Minority Rights, which falls apart due to internal politics.

The members of this deputation had not the slightest conception of their duty and the part they were to play. They naively believed that it was their business to lay before the commission their needs and the actual condition of things, and to ask assistance of the government, and utterly failed to grasp that some of their statements and requests supported the contention of the enemy’s side, and so spoiled the whole business. (Part 4, viii)

Tolstoy also shows how the expansionist activities of the great empires of Europe were reduced to idle chat at the dinner parties of the leisured classes who knew nothing much about it .  For them, talking about how one country can absorb another is merely a matter of moving people in and having them breed more children.  (This makes an interesting contrast with Tolstoy’s great novel War and Peace in which he showed how awesome the power of these empires was and their impact on  individual people when they went to war.

But I liked what Tolstoy had to say about women’s rights. Pestsov recognises that

it is a vicious circle. Woman is deprived of rights from lack of education, and the lack of education results from the absence of rights. We must not forget that the subjection of women is so complete, and dates from such ages back that we are often unwilling to recognize the gulf that separates them from us. (Part 4, x)

A hundred years before Germaine Greer, Tolstoy recognised that women want this right to be independent, educated.  They are cramped and oppressed by their awareness that it is impossible. (Part 4, x)

On the other hand, Kitty’s protracted labour is written entirely from Levin’s point-of-view, showing his anxiety, his suffering and his conflicted feelings about his newborn son.  This is, from a 21st century perspective, rather droll.

Family Life

I love the chapters with Levin and his brother on Levin’s farm!  This is so true to life, isn’t it?  Eagerly you anticipate a visit from your relations, you love them and they love you after all, and there’s that comfortable familiarity with how things get done in your family as well.  They arrive and everything is so nice for a while, chatting away and reminiscing and so forth, that things that should be done around the house are neglected in favour of enjoying their company.  But then, discussions verge onto more dangerous issues – usually politics – where ideas have diverged. Suddenly there are alien views that irritate but that irritation remains suppressed in the interests of harmony.  Then the jobs around the house become pressing but the visitor – on holiday after all – wants to loaf about.   The host departs to do the duties; the guest remains behind feeling guilty – and before long there’s conflict!  I laughed out loud when Levin after a hard day’s mowing in the fields came in expecting praise and instead was mocked so of course he spat the dummy!

In the 21st century when no-fault divorce is so common, it is interesting to see the arguments against the previous legal system so cogently put.  Here in Australia it’s only about 40 years since people faced the same dilemma that Alexei has to confront: where to assign blame to achieve the legal requirements for divorce.  Either he has to lie in court and invent a fictitious adultery of his own (thereby offending his religious scruples) or he has to inflict humiliation on Anna by forcing her to admit to adultery in court.  Then there’s the question of custody of his child, and the position of the new baby, and also it’s not so very long since illegitimate children were denied all kinds of legal rights.

I did enjoy the scenes of Kitty and Levin’s adjustment to married life, especially when he discovers that far from being underfoot when he goes to visit his dying brother Nikolai, Kitty is extremely useful and not the fragile being who must be protected from grubby hotels that he thought she was. (And what a contrast Nikolai’s death was, with the soppy sentimentalism of British & French Victorian novelists!)

Then there’s the angst over Grisha’s Latin homework!  Parents have been stressing over the kids’ homework since time immemorial it would seem, and it appears as if the struggle with tradesmen is eternal too: poor Levin has a devil of a time convincing his carpenter to re-do the steps because they’re aslant!

In contrast to Anna’s failure to love her little girl, there is real poignancy in Dolly’s reflections on the pains of childbirth and how, when her last child died, everyone else accepted it as inevitable that some children should die in infancy whereas she who felt the loss keenly, felt it was exacerbated by the ‘cruel indifference before that small pink coffin and her own heart-rending lonely pain’. (Part 6, xvi)  And although it’s not of the same dimension of pain, Dolly also feels discomfited by the difference between her own virtuous life with its privations, and the scandalous life of her friend Anna who lives in luxury.

But Dolly is a nice person and she takes Vronsky’s anxiety about his heirs to heart, and so she speaks to Anna about the need to get on with organising the divorce (so that future children born will have the Vronsky name and not Karenin’s.)  Anna, capricious as always, isn’t interested.   Not until her jealousy recurs because Vronsky’s away due to some provincial elections doe she change her mind –  and then it’s off to Moscow they go to get it sort out quick smart!

Life goes on

After Anna’s death, life goes on, as it inevitably does.  There are wars to fight beyond Russia’s borders; domestic life continues.  Levin indulges in existential doubts and resolutions; the farm thrives amid his angst over the fair treatment of his serfs.  Careers advance, debts of all kinds are incurred and paid.  Karenin takes Anna’s daughter, and Vronsky feels the regret that Anna wanted him to feel…

Final thoughts from Tolstoy: When you love someone, you love the whole person, as they are, and not as you’d like them to be.‘ (Part 6,xvii)

NB Where I have quoted long passages from the novel, I have copied-and-pasted them from the Classic Reader rather than laboriously copy-and-type them from the Kindle so those passages are not the Pevear/Volokhonsky translations.

It’s included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.

Author: Leo Tolstoy
Title: Anna Karenina
Translators: Richard Pevear & Larissa  Volokhonsky
Preface: John Bayley
Publisher: Penguin Classics, Kindle Edition
EISBN: 9780141902838/B002RI9KLS
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Amazon $USD4.99)


  1. I’m avoiding the spoilers (thanks for the warning) but this sounds like a wonderful choice for a read-along. I tried Anna Karenina years and years ago, and gave up, but I have it scheduled for a second attempt this year.

    I am quietly confident that it will go well this time and then I will return and read your post properly!


    • I’m sure you’ll enjoy it, Sarah:)


  2. You were right, Lisa, I did enjoy it, and wow: terrific review! It is a novel that encompasses a great deal, and I really didn’t know where to start, or where to stop, in a discussion. You do a fantastic job of covering the many facets of the book, and I can see some things I missed:

    “Like all the major characters in this novel Alexei overestimates his capacity to be reasonable”

    Yes! I like that.

    I am very curious about the other titles from your moody Russian classics phase…


    • Oh Sarah, I do so wish I had kept a reading journal back then. I kept diaries for years, full of adolescent angst and overwrought prose, until one day I had a ceremonial burning and consigned my ravings to the flames. Then I was a student and all my writing was, for many years, essays and assignments. (I was a part-time student for more than half my career). It wasn’t until 1997 that I began journalling my reading and even then my early journal entries were scanty to say the least.
      But I remember the mood. Even before One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch the Russians were, for me, full of deprivation, madness, unreasonable people, miserable weather and vast threatening distances across lonely places. Preferably read to the accompaniment to something passionate by Tschaikovsky – the Pathetique is the best, as my mother used to say, for wallowing in!


  3. Unfortunately, this is just another poor quality translation of a great literary piece. A translation is regarded adequate only if it produces the same (or at least similar) effect on the target language audience as the original text – on the source language audience. Now let’s ask ourselves: Does Volokhonsky’s text have the same impact on English-speaking readers as Leo Tolstoy’s text has on Russian-speaking readers? Alas :-((


    • Hello Olga, thanks for stopping by. I enjoyed this translation very much so I’m interested in your opinion.
      I can think of a few other reasons why English-speaking readers might not have the same reaction. All of us, whatever language we speak, are reading it in a different era and social context, but English speakers usually have the added disadvantage of not knowing much about Russian history and culture as well.
      But I would say that reading Russian literature would be a way of making a start on learning about it. Although I know that some people think that no translation is ever good enough and the language should be learned if you want to read the book, I think it would be a great pity if people chose not to read Tolstoy because they thought the translation wasn’t good enough.


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