I have taken up a recent habit of disciplined reading all the top books, to understand their continued charm and learn a few writing lessons of my own. In this piece, I try to capture my experience of Anne Karenina from a learning-writer’s perspective.
With Anna Karenina, one knows the premise, one reads it knowing that the protagonist is going to die in a gruesome manner, on the railway track. There is a wonderful foreshadowing done too, somewhere in the early part of the novel, where Anna witnesses a similar event (an accident this time), where a man is killed by the train while his poor wife watches horrified. The event is tied neatly to the story, as Anna’s future lover Vronsky takes it upon himself to pay the poor wife, impressing the traumatised Anna significantly.
But despite this popular fore-knowledge and subtle fore-shadowing, one reads the story gripped by the narrative and Tolstoy’s writing style. Of course, I am not reviewing this novel. Nor is it my plan is not to entice you into reading it or take pains to avoid mentioning spoilers. This novel is anyway beyond spoilers and such gimmicks. Besides, you are a writer. So go read Anne Karenina. That is incentive enough.
There were some advantages of my reader fore-knowledge about the ending, at least from a learning writer’s perspective. For instance, I was quite shocked that the story is not about Anne alone. It does not even begin with her POV. It begins right in the middle of a chaotic yet well-to-do household: Oblensky, the man of the house, is discovered having an affair by his dutiful loving wife and mother of six young children. The man’s attitude to the whole matter is (comical) surprise, that his wife didn’t guess all this to begin with, and why she didn’t understand that a man has needs, the wife is after all quite worn out and ugly with all the child-bearing so was it not understandable. Besides, she was occupied with the joys of child-rearing. Despite such a non-feministic attitude, he is tactful and kind in his dealings with his wife, and I am endeared by this man.
The wife on the other hand is angry (in a different chapter and hence a different POV), and has completely lost her sense of peace. She is distraught because the image of her pure husband has been destroyed in her mind, especially when she has dutifully spent all her life taking care of his children. Yes, she sees him as his children now, in all this pain, she doesn’t even want to take care of them. She just wants to lie down and mourn.
Here, I would point out Tolstoy’s practice of extremely short chapters which are actually scenes in today’s terminology. And hence the book has eight parts, with each part having at least 32 chapters! Quite a daunting read that way, and hence, I empathise more with our current day evolution to the style of smaller scene units encloses within larger chapters.
We learn later that Oblensky is Anna’s brother when the charismatic Anna is called in to solve the destroyed marital peace. Anna resolves it with characteristic grace, by sympathising deeply with her brother’s wife, (but note: not later with her own husband).
It sets the theme of the whole tale. How extramarital affairs affect each individual and their POV: the guilty party, the injured party, the outsiders, the society, and later, when Anne is the guilty party, the situation of her husband, a respected man in the public eye. The hypocritical views of the society is interesting, especially when Anne’s future lover has his eyes on the dutiful Anne, and the onlooking female friends of Vronsky encourage the sport that is a bachelor coveting a married woman.
Anne is now introduced to Kitty, who is madly in love with playboy Vronsky (Anne’s future lover). Anne is shown to be sensitive and kind, a big hit with all the children, Kitty herself. In fact, this is what I like about every character in the novel, none black nor white in personality, but a brilliant shade of grey, and you are endeared by one and all.
The character of Levin is an interesting one and my personal favourite, and the underdog. He is madly in love with Kitty, but rejected by Kitty (a heart-rending act for the girl, because she does love him too, just differently) in favour of the playboy Vrosnky. His character arc goes from a man filed with insecurity of his non-city life, a farming land owner, who later immerses himself in the absolute intricacies of farming life. Not with the romantic idyllic style that his city brother assumed, coming to the village to relax and ‘do nothing’. This view irritates him.
And when news arrives that Kitty has been rejected by Vronsky and is taken ill, he is enraged, both by Kitty and Vronsky. His mind is as disturbed. And slowly, he shifts to the extreme, completely immersing himself in farming life, side-by-side with the farmer, mowing with them in the heat and rain, eating with them, trying hard to keep up with their pace, being friends with them, being cheated by them, and again later, mowing beside them, all forgotten and forgiven. And he is reborn!
Darya, the jilted wife, also undergoing an interesting character arc. After having forgiven her husband, and returned to her normal life, she is seeped with a feeling of humiliation, and constant deluge of doubts about her husband. The society that encourages her to return to the marriage is also the one that judges her for so easily forgiving him. Unable to stand it all, she herself rushes to the country with her six children, and immerses herself in the trials and tribulations the country poses, the children and their diseases pose, simple problems, but such dramatic effects on Darya’s personality. Even the country woman are more admiring of the many children that Darya have, which is so unlike the perspective of the city. And she felt one with them. She too feels reborn here in the country, where the occasional joy of the children brings so much in the form of happiness.
The writing style too gives me a lot of perspective. My regular diet of modern writing views tells me that each scene must take the story forward, sharp writing that ensures that characters accomplish something closer to the story goal, Tolstoy sends his characters on deep personal journeys over the course of epic-style chapters, and with days of mowing of farmland or caring for children, characters transform. Tolstoy does not shy away from details of a particular event, perhaps a horse race involving Vronsky, all the while ensuring that the story goal is accomplished, each scene or chapter is still as important, and there is really no meandering away.