Clarity in the Blur - Thoughts on Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy


What should we live for, and what is good? Levin's supreme two-part question to close out the novel is the greatness in Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. The genius in Anna Karenina goes far deeper than its page count. In the novel, Tolstoy unravels the trials of love and anger, war and justice, and inner peace. Often, the usually distinct line between these ostensibly opposite characteristics of the human experience is too opaque to say who or what is good. Anna Karenina is one of the greatest novels of all time due to Tolstoy’s ingenious blurring of the protagonist and antagonist, his way of weaving complex stories together over hundreds of pages, and his vivid scene painting that leaves nothing to doubt.

The blurring of protagonist and antagonist in Anna Karenina leaves the reader uncertain of whom to respect and whom to despise. The most prevalent example of this is Anna herself. Throughout the novel, Anna constantly wavers between opposites, from the Mary-like caretaker mending her brother’s broken marriage to the almost prostitute-like mistress who has abandoned her husband and son for a sordid affair. In the end, Anna seems to fall farther and farther away from her loving, motherly role. At her demise, Anna sees that foreboding peasant in her train car and then feels something crush her. In this moment, is Anna the antagonistic strumpet, selfishly killing herself, or the protagonistic lover, thrown off the train by something other than herself because she is no longer herself? Tolstoy leaves this prodigious dilemma for the reader to debate.

Tolstoy leaves no debate that he is an incredible storyteller. The way by which he weaves stories together over hundreds of chapters and many literary years is a second reason why Anna Karenina is tenably one of the greatest novels in history. The plots of Levin and Kitty’s love story, Anna’s love with Vronsky and struggle with her husband, Dolly and Stiva’s marriage and terrible financial situation, and Levin’s splintered relationship with his brothers, to name just some of the many subplots, all weave together in Anna Karenina. Tolstoy explores love, death, and the death of love repeatedly and without being glib with any of these wearying subjects. His multiple plots and storylines combine in one ultimate tale of the human experience.

A third justification for Anna Karenina’s praise is Tolstoy’s lucid portrayal of scenes that seemingly places the reader into the novel. Somehow, Tolstoy creates all the passion and emotion of these scenes without being histrionic or cliché. In the birth of Levin’s son, the reader can feel Levin’s angst as he hears his wife scream in pain. The reader can see the exhausted Kitty, hurting everywhere, sweat on her brow from giving birth all day and then the absolute joy and relief after the son is born. Tolstoy’s ability to paint scenes consistently throughout a story of the size of Anna Karenina is topped by no other author.

Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is one of the most eminent novels in all of writing due to Tolstoy’s way of making opaque the demarcation between protagonist and antagonist, his mastery of weaving complex stories together, and his scene portrayal that brings palpable life and death to the novel. In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy seems to do nothing more but try to understand his own life. Although humans may never know why we are here on Earth, Tolstoy elucidates that to live for what is good is all that one needs.

- Charlie, May 2021