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Tolstoy Doesn't Judge in Anna Karenina


“I don’t understand anything! Today girls want to do as they like, they tell their mothers nothing.”

I am agog when I read lines such as those above which were written in 19th-century Russia yet are contemporary.

Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is a classic because it is timeless, and it can be read on many levels. As a soap opera, the reader shifts from character to character asking, “Will she or won’t she? Will he or won’t he?” As a deeper story, the reader ponders the questions of existence.

I have read Anna Karenina several times. Each time, I identify with different characters depending on where I am in my life. Each time, I am reminded of Tolstoy’s understanding and liking of his characters with all their flaws. He judges no one.

There are two protagonists in the novel. The first is the admired Anna, who had been raised by an aunt and married off to the much older and plodding Count Alexei Karenin. The couple have a young son.

“Her black dress with its rich lace was not conspicuous on her; it merely served as a frame, and what one saw was Anna alone, simple, elegant, and at the same time gay and animated.”

The second main character is the landowner Konstantin Levin, who wrestles with philosophical questions and falls in love with Kitty Shcherbatsky.

“They mowed (with scythes) one row after another. They mowed along low rows and short rows, rows with good grass and with bad grass. Levin lost all consciousness of time and had no idea whatever whether it was late or early. His work was undergoing a change which gave him intense pleasure.”

These two character’s stories are linked by the generous and often broke Stiva Oblonsky, who is Anna’s brother, Levin’s best friend, and Kitty’s brother-in-law. Anna travels from St. Petersburg to Moscow to counsel her brother’s wife, Dolly, who is considering a divorce after discovering her husband’s dalliance with their children’s governess.

At the station, Anna meets the dashing army officer, Alexei Vronsky, as he meets his mother from the same train. He is rather forward in his attraction to her, which she dismisses initially. However, she encounters him on several social occasions and, eventually, succumbs to his attention.

In this gripping narative, Tolstoy follows the three couples.

On this reading, I felt most drawn to Levin, who lives in the country. He feels close to the land and to the peasants who work it. At one point, he believes that he can live like a peasant. But the very fact that he can ponder the possibility means that he is not one of them. He has choice, and they believe that they do not.

There is someone for everyone in Anna Karenina.


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