(Book Review) Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

By Lisa Folkmire

I remember counting train whistles as they cried through the screen window and fell between my sister’s top bunk and my bottom bunk on the nights that I couldn’t fall asleep. It was eerie, a noise charging through our suburbs when we were all told to be quiet. Like an intruder, warning us that something strange was passing through the neighborhood, warning us to stay out of the way, calling its name out around corners, across miles.

I’ve been in love with Anna Karenina for years now, and rightfully so. It’s not only true to her character, but true to filmmakers’ and storytellers’ love of her. She stands for more than your typical damsel in distress; she lives her life with full control, acts in search of happiness, and ends up as the leading lady in one of the most tragic literary names in history.

How does a woman with such a strong mind for her own happiness and interests end up forcing herself to crouch in front of a train? Leaving her established husband and adored son for a young soldier, escaping to the countryside with their lovechild, keeping far away from the society that praised her, the reader is left to watch as Anna talks herself into her end. Perhaps it’s a book we all should read, watching a deteriorating psyche unravel itself from the inside out. Her story sewn together from a series of installments (you can tell from the short chapters and constant mini-cliff hangers), she was reminiscent of a real life celebrity, a fictitious gossip column of sorts, before she became one of the most accomplished novels of her time.

To her credit, Anna is the first to question her own sanity. As she leaves Moscow after the fateful first dance with Vronsky, she questions, “…‘Am I here, myself? Am I myself or another?’” (100). And it would seem that the woman who rides this car is very different than the woman who told her sister-in-law that she could look at a relationship outside of her marriage as possible to forgive “utterly as if it had never happened at all” (70). The conversations between Anna and Dolly flip back and forth between the two within the visit, starting with Anna consoling Dolly over Dolly’s unfaithful husband (Anna’s brother), to Dolly comforting Anna over Vronsky’s fast interest in Anna and Dolly’s younger sister’s (and Vronsky’s initial interest) Kitty’s apparent upset over the circumstance. Similar to how Dolly confides in Anna about her marriage to Stiva, “It is terrible, my soul has so revolted that instead of love and tenderness for him I have nothing but anger left, yes, anger. I could kill him…,” Anna later tells Dolly, “I am not strange, but wicked” (69, 97). Anna confesses that she finds herself responsible for distracting Vronsky from Kitty, asking Dolly to help mend the friendship between the two as her hungover brother arrives to take her back to the train station.

Later, as she sits on the train, Anna feels a physical change within her as, “She felt that her nerves were being stretched like strings drawn tighter and tighter round pegs. She felt her eyes opening wider, her fingers and toes nervously moving, and something inside her stopping her breath, and all the forms and sounds in the swaying semi-darkness around struck her with unusual vividness” (100). Tolstoy provides the reader with a literal change in character. Anna begins to doubt her own sameness within the paragraph, feeling this change from the woman who convinced her sister-in-law to forgive a cheating husband, to a woman falling in love with a man much different from her husband.

The two women share this fear of wickedness: Dolly about the wickedness of her husband, and Anna about the growing wickedness of herself. It is important to note that neither of the siblings are in themselves actually wicked. Arguably, Stiva and Anna’s siblingship is best defined by this. Both are overtly charming characters in the novel, finding center stage in each of their scenes, no matter how limited their intentions. Where Stiva humorously embraces all positive attention, Anna often finds herself later regretting it.

Anna follows this pattern of hiding herself from society through the novel: whether in hiding her love for Vronsky in public, hiding her form as she carries Vronsky’s child, to hiding her life with Vronsky and their child in the countryside, only retreating to the city out of duty and need. The more Anna gives in to her love for Vronsky, the more she begins to question the world that once supported her, and the more she begins to escape from it. After one of her first instances of distrusting Vronsky’s love for her and questioning her position with her husband, she questions herself; Tolstoy once again introduces a concept of individual duality. Anna finds herself suffering, as “She felt as if everything was being doubled in her soul, just as objects appear double to weary eyes. Sometimes she could not tell what she feared and what she desired. Whether she feared and desired what had been, or what would be, and what it was she desired she did not know” (288).

What draws me most into Anna’s crumbling sense of self is her own eerily beautiful awareness of it. She never once questions that she is losing her own grasp on who she is, but she constantly comments on her loss of self-control, her loss of awareness toward what she wants and what others want of her. In letting the reader into Anna’s own awareness of her discordant self, Tolstoy never gives the reader a sense of stability with his titular character. She remains two halves rubbing against one another, as the life she lived as a societal woman, a wife and mother adored for her beauty, grace, and status harms her growth into her life with Vronsky. Anna begins to share an almost public battle with herself as the reader follows the ‘will she/won’t she’ tract of her story.

After giving birth to Vronsky’s child, Anna calls in her husband. As though in confession, she says, “…there is another in me as well, and I am afraid of her. She fell in love with that other one, and I wished to hate you but could not forget her who was before. That other is not I. Now I am the real one, all of me. I am dying now, I know I am” (411). Perhaps this is Tolstoy’s release of the old Anna. Anna will look back on the birth of her daughter for the rest of the book as the time that she should have died. Maybe it wasn’t a physical death that took place, but a spiritual one, the death of Anna the wife and with the birth of her daughter, the birth of Anna as other: the not-divorced Anna, woman who lives for her own happiness, woman who comes back from the grave to visit her son, woman who died and came back to life.

To her young son, Serezha, his mother does quite literally come back from the dead, appearing in his bedroom on his birthday as a veiled woman, spirit like after his father and Lydia Ivanova tell him that his mother has passed away. She appears, and he takes a moment to approach her as, “Silently and questioningly he gazed for a few moments at his mother, who stood motionless before him” (531).

Where Anna is concerned, she comes back to life to deal with what she built for herself, rather than to serve as a reminder for those around her. She’s not totally off-beat: the characters in the novel take little from Anna, judging her more than learning from her. She is, after all, distancing herself from those she once belonged with before anybody can distance themselves from her. Dolly, plausibly the character with the least judgement toward Anna, finds herself nearly comparable to her fallen sister-in-law. In her private thoughts, she surmises, “I might have loved and been loved, the real way. And is it better now? I don’t respect him. I need him,’ she thought of her husband, ‘and I put up with him. Is that any better?” (605).

Much as Anna ends up serving as the abandoner, Dolly serves as the wife who is dutiful to a fault, and much like Anna is well aware of her shortcomings as a wife and mother in order to attempt to find her own happiness, Dolly is aware of her shortcomings toward herself in her insistence to be a model woman of the house. In this, Dolly is the only character in the book, aside from Stiva, who sees Anna as a human, not as either a point of gossip or legend.

We watch as Anna slowly cuts all of her ties with those who once loved her, as she physically heads toward her train. An echo that Anna herself raises early on, whether the train is heading toward Anna or Anna is heading toward the train comes back to us. Was there a way that she could have been saved? If she stayed in society, would she be happy in her marriage?

The stories Tolstoy weaves together in this novel are inseparable, no matter what the characters might seem to think separately. He uses the distant stares and sidelong glances as a means to bring up inner thoughts about characters, jealousies, insecurities, gossip. Anna Karenina is as much about the implications of outer action as it is about inner dialogue. We watch as Karenina observes his wife’s physical reactions to Vronsky’s race as, “He only saw the external sights. He saw that she had behaved with impropriety and he considered it his duty to tell her so. But it was very difficult for him to say that and nothing more,” and then again as Vronsky watches Anna make a solitary appearance at the opera, well after her fall from societal grace (211). He observes how the unknowing onlookers, “admired the composure and loveliness of the woman, and did not suspect that she felt as though pilloried” (544).

The most consistent inner-dialogue of all comes from Anna, as she talks herself in and out of love with Vronsky, in and out of ending it all. Her inner dialogue propels her right until the end, as she says to herself, “There, into the very middle, and I shall punish him and escape from everybody and from myself!” Finally we see Anna, leaving all as she crouches in front of a moving train car, her final release and her final view of happiness as she remembers the feeling of joy as the car strikes her. She ends as a woman of high society crushed in the same way as a peasant had been within the first chapters of the novel.

Tolstoy’s story is a reminder of the dangers of the self and the dangers of society. Anna remains in focus as a woman consumed by both. As we watch her collapse into herself, we watch more than sadness and confusion. We watch a battle unfolding slowly as her story continues: at times it’s seemingly endless as she studies farming equipment and architecture structures for Vronsky’s and her growing country home. We watch her suffer between her love for Vronsky and for Serezha, for solitude and acceptance. Not only does this novel serve as a reminder for the dangers of disillusionment from reality, but it also serves as reminder for the dangers of the self, no matter how much one has or gets rid of, the self remains indispensable, and sometimes indisputable.

I am reminded again of the train whistle, listening for it as it comes through town at about 3 a.m. each night, a monotone intruder waking some of us from sleep, reminding some of us that we are here, and for some of us, a reminder that the train will come again and again.


Lisa Folkmire is an MFA graduate from Vermont College of Fine Arts’ program in writing, with an emphasis in poetry. Her work has appeared in Heron Tree Literary Arts Journal, Yellow Chair Review’s Rock the Chair Challenge, Erstwhile Magazine, Atlas & Alice, and one poem will be published in ThoughtCrime Press’s forthcoming Not My President anthology. She resides in Warren, Michigan.

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