Anna Karenina: A Critical Essay Review

Upon reading the novel Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy one must undoubtedly notice that there are a great many pages and thus a great many bits of detail and facets of the storyline. The novel in and of itself is essentially two separate novels with two unique plot lines and two distinctive casts of characters, but in fact intermingled and united together. In comprehending the very mass of the novel itself and considering every detail individually, one may wonder what some particular scenes contribute to the overall moral and theme of the work itself? Some scenes exist within the body that one thinks will contribute to the rising action or the conflict, but in fact nothing comes of these scenes. They are simply there for the author’s own benefit it seems. That is exactly the question that Matthew Arnold is asking in his critical essay of Anna Karenina.

Arnold queries in the opening of his essay if certain episodes such as Levin’s tardiness to his wedding due to all of his clean shirts being packed away or Levin’s brother Serge Ivanovich’s near-proposal to Varenka are completely necessary in developing the plot and moral of the novel. One may definitely see his point at times while reading and tend to agree. These incidents seem to be dead ends that promise further development of the plot but in fact do no such thing.

Arnold then offers a simple answer to his serious questioning of Tolstoy’s very technique as a writer: “…the truth is we are not to take ‘Anna Karenina’ as a work of art; we are to take it as a piece of life.” Tolstoy did not intend to create a flawless piece of thematic perfection, he simply wanted to represent life as he saw it–with uneven twists and turns, sometimes leading to nowhere and accomplishing nothing. In that sense, Tolstory could not have been more accurate, more perfect in his imperfection and asymmetry. He simply offered a slice of life with a side order of philosophical morality–“The author saw it all happening so–saw it, and therefore relates it; and what his novel in this way loses in art it gains in reality.”

Through this device, this way of relating details, one cannot get better acquainted with the characters in Anna Karenina. To read this book is to see Kitty’s innocent, pure eyes; to read this book is to hear the nervous cracking of Karenin’s fingers; to read this book is to feel the energy of the room as Stiva enters. Every character presented is developed to such a degree that the reader truly feels akin to that personality and in tune with his or her thoughts. Tolstoy’s thoughts and beliefs are expressed in all their contradictions through the characters in the book time and time again. Tolstoy offers no right or wrong in approaching all of life’s questions and problems faced it–he only presents several points of view to the same focus, although one may be more ideal than another. It is only through depicting life unadulterated, no revisions or editing whatever, can one get to know the impulses, insecurities, weaknesses, and beliefs of the characters. Tolstoy is absolutely a brilliant master of this craft and could not articulate his point better. In a world where “art imitates life” it seems that the most beautiful form of art stems from the truest portrayal of life–Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina being a brilliant example of this theory.

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