Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (Pevear & Volokonsky translation)

★★★★★ (5/5)

Some thoughts penned whilst reading the novel.

Thoroughly enjoyed reading about the muzakhs, their joyous labor in fields, their merriment in spite of exhaustion. Tolstoy paints a lovely picture of peasant and farm life, but of course, not without its hardships.

Levin’s happiness reminds me of David Copperfield’s joy the day he married Dora Spenlow. Such lofty prose, such elevated sentiments put in words, bring tears to my eyes.

Anna’s insecurities are drudging up an ugly ensemble of character traits. She is selfish, in having understood her feelings towards Vronsky as love, and consequently abandoning her own son. Moreover, her insincerity towards her own illegitimate daughter is quite appalling. Her fears limit her comprehension of human relations so much so that she has inadvertently made loneliness her enemy and fast friend both simultaneously. Her unhappiness also stems from this inherent dependence on love on her own terms. Coupled with unreasonable expectations, Anna surely has a venomous streak in her.

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

On Religion

  • If there was a reason why he preferred the liberal tendency to the conservative one (also held to by many in his circle), it was not because he found the liberal tendency more sensible, but because it more closely suited his manner of life.
  • The liberal party said, or, rather, implied, that religion was just a bridle for the barbarous part of the population, and indeed Stepan Arkadyich could not even stand through a short prayer service without aching feet and could not grasp the point of all these fearsome and high-flown words about the other world, when life in this one could be so merry.
  • It provoked in Vronsky and Anna a feeling like that of a mariner who can see by his compass that the direction in which he is swiftly moving diverges widely from his proper course, but that he is powerless to stop the movement which every moment takes him further and further from the right direction, and that to admit the deviation to himself is the same as admitting disaster.
  • In all human griefs consolation is given by faith and love alone

  • He was struck first by the thought that it is not given to man to comprehend divine truths, but it is given to an aggregate of men united by love
  • A new, joyful feeling came over him. At the muzhik’s words about Fokanych living for the soul, by the truth, by God’s way, it was as if a host of vague but important thoughts burst from some locked-up place and, all rushing towards the same goal, whirled through his head, blinding him with their light.

On Love

  • I remember the time when he would come to me and weep, talking about you, and what loftiness and poetry you were for him, and I know that the longer he lived with you, the loftier you became for him. We used to laugh at him, because he added “Dolly is a remarkable woman” to every word. You are and always have been a divinity for him, and this infatuation is not from his soul…
  • She felt her eyes open wider and wider, her fingers and toes move nervously; something inside her stopped her breath, and all images and sounds in that wavering semi-darkness impressed themselves on her with extraordinary vividness. She kept having moments of doubt whether the carriage was moving forwards or backwards, or standing still.
  • She had no need to ask why he was there. She knew it as certainly as if he had told her that he was there in order to be where she was.

  • ‘Love…’ she repeated slowly with her inner voice, and suddenly, just as she freed the lace, added: ‘That’s why I don’t like this word, because it means too much for me, far more than you can understand,’
  • Anna got into her own bed and waited every minute for him to begin talking to her again. She feared that he would, and at the same time she wanted it. But he was silent. For a long time she waited motionless and then forgot about him. She was thinking about another man, she could see him, and felt how at this thought her heart filled with excitement and criminal joy.
  • And as the murderer falls upon this body with animosity, as if with passion, drags it off and cuts it up, so he covered her face and shoulders with kisses.

  • I can only live by my heart, and you live by rules. I loved you simply, but you probably only so as to save me, to teach me!
  • He assured her of his love, because he saw that that alone could calm her now, and he did not reproach her in words, but in his soul he did reproach her.
  • In the first moment his jealousy offended her; she was vexed that the smallest diversion, and the most innocent, was forbidden her; but now she would gladly have sacrificed not just such trifles but everything to deliver him from the suffering he was going through.
  • ‘I love only these two beings, and the one excludes the other. I can’t unite them, yet I need only that. And if there isn’t that, the rest makes no difference. It all makes no difference. And it will end somehow, and so I can’t, I don’t like talking about it. Don’t reproach me, then, don’t judge me for anything. You with your purity can’t understand all that I suffer over.’
  • Vronsky appreciated this desire, which had become the only goal of her life, not only to be liked by him but to serve him, yet at the same time he found those amorous nets in which she tried to ensnare him a burden.

  • Energy, you say. Energy is based on love. And love can’t be drawn from just anywhere, it can’t be ordered.
  • She felt that alongside the love that bound them, there had settled between them an evil spirit of some sort of struggle, which she could not drive out of his heart and still less out of her own.


On Government

  • I think that the motive force of all our actions is, after all, personal happiness. In our present-day zemstvo institutions I, as a nobleman, see nothing that contributes to my well-being.

  • They can be bought either by money or by favours. And in order to hold out they have to invent a trend. And they put forth some idea, some trend which they don’t believe in themselves, and which does harm; and this whole trend is only a means of having a government house and a salary of so much.
  • ‘The point, kindly note, is that all progress is achieved by authority alone,’
  • They pretended to understand fully the significance and meaning of the situation, to acknowledge and even approve of it, but considered it inappropriate and unnecessary to explain it all.
  • They also went into a room which the prince called the ‘clever room’. In this room three gentlemen were hotly discussing the latest political news.

On Monetary Affairs

  • For me– it’s all over! I’ve spoiled my life. I’ve said and still say that if I’d been given my share when I needed it, my whole life would be different.
  • The wealth of a country should grow uniformly and, in particular, so that other branches of wealth do not outstrip agriculture.

  • Only during his very first days in Moscow had Levin been struck by those unproductive but inevitable expenses, so strange for a country-dweller, that were demanded of him on all sides. Now he had grown used to them. What had happened to him in this respect was what they say happens with drunkards: the first glass is a stake, the second a snake, and from the third on it’s all little birdies.

On Evolution and Revolution of Agriculture

  • Levin had also begun that winter to write a work on farming, the basis of which was that the character of the worker had to be taken as an absolute given in farming, like climate and soil, and that, consequently, all propositions in the science of farming ought to be deduced not from the givens of soil and climate alone, but also from the known, immutable character of the worker.

  • Now muzhiks are buying up the land around us. That doesn’t upset me– the squire does nothing, the muzhik works and pushes out the idle man. It ought to be so. And I’m very glad for the muzhik. But it upsets me to see this impoverishment as a result of– I don’t know what to call it– innocence.
  • Political economy said that the laws according to which European wealth had developed and was developing were universal and unquestionable. Socialist teaching said that development according to these laws led to ruin. And neither the one nor the other gave, not only an answer, but even the slightest hint of what he, Levin, and all Russian peasants and landowners were to do with their millions of hands and acres so that they would be most productive for the common good.
  • He saw that Russia had excellent land, excellent workers, and that in some cases, as with the muzhik half-way there, workers and land produced much, but in the majority of cases, when capital was employed European-style, they produced little, and that this came only from the fact that the workers wanted to work and to work well in the one way natural to them, and that their resistance was not accidental but constant and rooted in the spirit of the peasantry. He thought that the Russian peasantry, called upon to inhabit and cultivate vast unoccupied spaces, consciously kept to the methods necessary for it until all the lands were occupied, and that these methods were not at all as bad as was usually thought.

  • Agriculture as a whole, above all the position of the entire peasantry, must change completely. Instead of poverty– universal wealth, prosperity; instead of hostility– concord and the joining of interests. In short, a revolution, a bloodless but great revolution, first in the small circle of our own region, then the province, Russia, the whole world.
  • ‘It is easy to be led into error by drawing conclusions about a people’s general calling,’ Metrov said, interrupting Levin. ‘The worker’s condition will always depend on his relation to the land and to capital.’

On Country Life – the Muzhiks, their Toils and Indolence

  • For Konstantin Levin the country was the place of life, that is, of joy, suffering, labour; for Sergei Ivanovich the country was, on the one hand, a rest from work and, on the other, an effective antidote to corruption, which he took with pleasure and an awareness of its effectiveness.
  • The longer Levin mowed, the more often he felt those moments of oblivion during which it was no longer his arms that swung the scythe, but the scythe itself that lent motion to his whole body, full of life and conscious of itself, and, as if by magic, without a thought of it, the work got rightly and neatly done on its own. These were the most blissful moments.

  • The peasants who were staying overnight in the meadow spent almost the whole short summer night without sleeping. First there was general, merry talk and loud laughter over supper, then again songs and laughter. The long, laborious day had left no other trace in them than merriment.
  • The worker, however, wanted to work as pleasantly as possible, with rests, and above all– carelessly, obliviously, thoughtlessly.
  • ‘Whatever you do, if he’s a lazybones, everything will come out slapdash. If he’s got a conscience, he’ll work, if not, there’s no help for it.’


On Individuals

  • The main qualities that had earned him this universal respect in the service were, first, an extreme indulgence towards people, based on his awareness of his own shortcomings; second, a perfect liberalism, not the sort he read about in the newspapers, but the sort he had in his blood, which made him treat all people, whatever their rank or status, in a perfectly equal and identical way; and, third– most important– a perfect indifference to the business he was occupied with, owing to which he never got carried away and never made mistakes.

  • He could not have believed that something which gave such great and good pleasure to him, and above all to her, could be bad. Still less could he have believed that he was obliged to marry her.
  • Anna Arkadyevna read and understood, but it was unpleasant for her to read, that is, to follow the reflection of other people’s lives. She wanted too much to live herself.
  • With particular pleasure, it seemed, he insisted that maidenly modesty was merely a relic of barbarism and that nothing was more natural than for a not-yet-old man to palpate a naked young girl. He found it natural because he did it every day and never, as it seemed to him, felt or thought anything bad, and therefore he regarded modesty in a girl not only as a relic of barbarism but also as an affront to himself.
  • This playing with words, this concealment of the secret, held great charm for Anna, as for all women. It was not the need for concealment, not the purpose of the concealment, but the very process of concealment that fascinated her.
  • Sviyazhsky was one of those people, always astonishing to Levin, whose reasoning, very consistent though never independent, goes by itself, and whose life, extremely well defined and firm in its orientation, goes by itself, quite independent of and almost always contrary to their reasoning.
  • But the most experienced and skilful painter-technician would be unable, for all his mechanical ability, to paint anything unless the boundaries of the content were first revealed to him.

  • But it is hard for a discontented man not to reproach someone else, especially the very one who is closest to him, for his discontent.
  • And pity in her woman’s soul produced none of the horror and squeamishness it did in her husband, but a need to act, to find out all the details of his condition and help with them.
  • And she remembered that Anna had narrowed her eyes precisely when it was a matter of the most intimate sides of life. ‘As if she narrows her eyes at her life in order not to see it all,’ thought Dolly.

  • He knew this ability she had of withdrawing into herself, and he knew that it happened only when she had decided on something in herself without telling him her plans. He feared it, but he wished so much to avoid a scene that he pretended to believe, and in part sincerely believed, in what he would have liked to believe in– her reasonableness.

On Family

  • All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
  • ‘But she does love my child,’ he thought, noticing the change in her face at the child’s cry, ‘my child– so how can she hate me?’
  • He could not imagine to himself any other relation to his mother than one obedient and deferential in the highest degree, and the more outwardly obedient and deferential he was, the less he respected and loved her in his soul.
  • He was not only unable to picture to himself the love of a woman without marriage, but he first pictured the family to himself and only then the woman who would give him that family.
  • He did not understand that she knew it intuitively and, while preparing for this awesome task, did not reproach herself for the moments of insouciance and the happiness of love that she enjoyed now, while cheerfully building her future nest.

  • His father always talked to him– so he felt– as if he were addressing some imaginary boy, one of those that exist in books, but quite unlike him. And he always tried, when with his father, to pretend he was that book boy.
  • These were all relations and friends of Levin’s wife. And though he loved them all, he slightly regretted his Levin world and order, which was smothered under this influx of the ‘Shcherbatsky element’, as he kept saying to himself.
  • Those painful cares of motherhood that she had hated so on her way there, now, after a day spent without them, presented themselves to her in a different light and drew her to them.
  • What he felt for this small being was not at all what he had expected. There was nothing happy or joyful in this feeling; on the contrary, there was a new tormenting fear. There was an awareness of a new region of vulnerability. And this awareness was so tormenting at first, the fear lest this helpless being should suffer was so strong, that because of it he scarcely noticed the strange feeling of senseless joy and even pride he had experienced when the baby sneezed.

On Society

  • Half Moscow and Petersburg were relatives or friends of Stepan Arkadyich. He had been born into the milieu of those who were or had become the mighty of this world.
  • That’s why most of us prefer the company of Claras. Their failure only proves that you didn’t have enough money, while here– your dignity is at stake.
  • ‘Oh, no! He’s an honest man. But this old-fashioned, patriarchal, family-like way of running the affairs of the nobility has to be shaken up.’


On Ethics and Morality

  • But now, though his conviction that jealousy was a shameful feeling and that one ought to have trust was not destroyed, he felt that he stood face to face with something illogical and senseless, and he did not know what to do.
  • The more he knew his brother, the more he noticed that Sergei Ivanovich and many other workers for the common good had not been brought to this love of the common good by the heart, but had reasoned in their minds that it was good to be concerned with it and were concerned with it only because of that.
  • ‘Either you’re so undeveloped that you cannot see all that you could do, or you cannot give up your peace, your vanity, whatever, in order to do it.’
  • ‘I need physical movement, otherwise my character definitely deteriorates,’
  • And since there is nothing less conducive to agreement than a difference of thinking in half-abstract things, they not only never agreed in their opinions, but had long grown used to chuckling at each other’s incorrigible error without getting angry.
  • It used to be that a freethinker was a man who had been brought up with notions of religion, law, morality, and had arrived at freethinking by himself, through his own toil and struggle. But now a new type of self-made freethinkers has appeared, who grow up and never even hear that there were laws of morality, religion, that there were authorities, but who grow up right into notions of the negation of everything– that is, as wild men.

  • And, without asking the servant who opened the door whether anyone was at home, Stepan Arkadyich went into the front hall. Levin followed him, more and more doubtful whether what he was doing was good or bad.

On Deception and Hopelessness

  • ‘Do you understand, Anna, who took my youth and beauty from me? He and his children. I’ve done my service for him, and that service took my all, and now, naturally, he finds a fresh, vulgar creature more agreeable.
  • Kitty looked into his face, which was such a short distance from hers, and long afterwards, for several years, that look, so full of love, which she gave him then, and to which he did not respond, cut her heart with tormenting shame.
  • When he saw it all, he was overcome by a momentary doubt of the possibility of setting up that new life he had dreamed of on the way. All these traces of his life seemed to seize hold of him and say to him: ‘No, you won’t escape us and be different, you’ll be the same as you were: with doubts, an eternal dissatisfaction with yourself, vain attempts to improve, and failures, and an eternal expectation of the happiness that has eluded you and is not possible for you.’
  • The most, most vile and coarse– I can’t tell you. It’s not anguish, or boredom, it’s much worse. As if all that was good in me got hidden, and only what’s most vile was left.
  • Shamming in anything at all can deceive the most intelligent, perceptive person; but the most limited child will recognize it and feel aversion, no matter how artfully it is concealed.

  • ‘And what of it? I haven’t stopped thinking about death,’ said Levin. ‘It’s true that it’s time to die. And that everything is nonsense. I’ll tell you truly: I value my thought and work terribly, but in essence– think about it– this whole world of ours is just a bit of mildew that grew over a tiny planet. And we think we can have something great– thoughts, deeds! They’re all grains of sand.’
  • His despair was increased by the awareness that he was utterly alone with his grief.
  • ‘Everybody lives, everybody enjoys life,’ she went on thinking, going past the women and on up the hill at a trot, again rocking pleasantly on the soft springs of the old carriage, ‘and I, released, as if from prison, from a world that is killing me with cares, have only now come to my senses for a moment. Everybody lives– these women, and my sister Natalie, and Varenka, and Anna, whom I am going to see– and only I don’t.‘

  • Aren’t we all thrown into the world only in order to hate each other and so to torment ourselves and others.

Wise Gems

  • Wurst even says directly that where there are no sensations, there is no concept of being.
  • Some mathematician said that the pleasure lies not in discovering the truth, but in searching for it.
  • ‘They say if anyone’s been a best man more than ten times, he’ll never marry. I wanted this to be my tenth time, to insure myself, but the job was taken,’
  • I’m a friend of the division of labour. People who can’t do anything should make people, and the rest should contribute to their enlightenment and happiness.

  • The proof that they knew firmly what death was lay in their knowing, without a moment’s doubt, how to act with dying people and not being afraid of them.
  • But any acquisition that doesn’t correspond to the labour expended is dishonest.

  • ‘One cannot put one’s heart into a school or generally into institutions of that sort, and that is precisely why I think these philanthropic institutions always produce such meagre results.’
  • Grace is not guided by human considerations; it sometimes descends not upon the labourers but upon the unprepared

  • A believer cannot be unhappy, because he is not alone.
  • Respect was invented to cover the empty place where love should be.
  • ‘Man has been given reason in order to rid himself of that which troubles him’

  • When Levin thought about what he was and what he lived for, he found no answer and fell into despair; but when he stopped asking himself about it, he seemed to know what he was and what he lived for, because he acted and lived firmly and definitely; recently he had even lived much more firmly and definitely than before.
  • ‘I haven’t discovered anything. I’ve only found out what I know.’

Beautifully Constructed (translated, in this case) Sentences

  • Oblonsky had experienced more than once this extreme estrangement instead of closeness that may come after dinner

  • It was as if a surplus of something so overflowed her being that it expressed itself beyond her will, now in the brightness of her glance, now in her smile. She deliberately extinguished the light in her eyes, but it shone against her will in a barely noticeable smile.
  • But though she had the look of a butterfly that clings momentarily to a blade of grass and is about to flutter up, unfolding its iridescent wings, a terrible despair pained her heart. ‘But perhaps I’m mistaken, perhaps it’s not so?’
  • But Vronsky went on looking at him as at a lamppost, and the young man grimaced, feeling that he was losing his self-possession under the pressure of this non-recognition of himself as a human being and was unable to fall asleep because of it.
  • He had just partly clarified the question of how to live, when he was presented with a new, insoluble problem– death.

  • For a long time, a very long time, it seemed to Levin, the sick man lay motionless. But he was still alive and sighed now and then. Levin was weary now from mental effort. He felt that in spite of it all, he could not understand what was so. He felt that he lagged far behind the dying man. He could no longer think about the question of death itself, but thoughts came to him inadvertently of what he was to do now, presently: close his eyes, dress him, order the coffin. And, strangely, he felt completely cold and experienced neither grief, nor loss, nor still less pity for his brother. If he had any feeling for him now, it was rather envy of the knowledge that the dying man now had but that he could not have.
  • ‘And not only the pride of reason, but the stupidity of reason. And, above all – the slyness, precisely the slyness, of reason. Precisely the swindling of reason,’ he repeated.

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