Is Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina a great book or the greatest book? Even if you've never read a word of any Russian novel, chances are that you've heard of this one. Published in installments over two years, from 1875 to 1877, in a periodical called the Russian Messenger, Anna Karenina didn't start out as the massive doorstop of a book we've come to know and admire today. It came to its readers doled out like an HBO hourly miniseries waiting to be collected into a DVD box set: in small chunks until the day that the complete volume could be collected and printed for its fans.
And subscribers to the Russian Messenger must have waited for each monthly edition with the same bated breath with which we currently expect new episodes of The Tudors or Gossip Girl. After all, Leo Tolstoy's sprawling novel doesn't just confine itself to title character Anna Karenina and her story. There are also heated arguments of the major philosophical and political arguments of the day. And in 1870s Russian society, politics weren't just a matter of abstract speculation. Four decades later, Russia plunged into the world's first communist revolution. In Tolstoy's day, writers all over the country were promoting communal living and the emancipation of women. At this time, Russia was experiencing a complete shift from a farm-based economy to a futuristic dream of an industrialized state. And Tolstoy didn't think much of these plans for change, so he had to get in his two cents.
And when Tolstoy gets serious about the role of private versus public life, the position of women in society, and even Slavic nationalism, he's not just dabbling with the controversial topics of his day. He's laying out a sustained series of arguments about what he thinks is right and moral. Anna Karenina is kind of what we would imagine would happen if Twilight included characters spouting President Obama's policy positions while trying to find true love: here we've got romance, melodrama, and politics all packaged into one amazing novel.
We were going to compare Anna Karenina to a soap opera, because it’s about cheating and scandals. We were going to say, “If you secretly like soap operas, you’ll love…” But then we realized – no. Anna Karenina isn’t really like a soap opera.
Even though Anna Karenina is a famous tale of a lady who steps out on her husband, there are many moments that get to us in this novel have nothing to do with betrayal. We read Anna Karenina for the part when Anna is briefly reunited with her son after a long absence only to lose him again. Or that time when Karenin manages to do something great by forgiving his cheating wife and her lover. Or the terrible moment when Vronsky realizes he's broken his own horse's back, and it's a symbol for the way he's ruined the life of his lady-love just by sleeping with her (we told you Tolstoy is a moralist, right?).
Like all novels, this is a book of its time, and that means that parts of it don't speak to us across the hundred and forty-odd years that separate us from Tolstoy. But as for Tolstoy's many meditations on isolation, loneliness, resentment, betrayal, and even hope for a better life – we don't know about you, but we feel these things are always relevant. Over the course of Anna Karenina, the main characters of the novel come off the page more brightly and clearly than some real-life people we've known. And given that Tolstoy and the social world he's depicting are long gone, that's quite an accomplishment.