Guide to the Classics: Anna Karenina

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An illustration from a 1914 edition of Anna Karenina.
Zahar Pichugin/

Judith Armstrong, University of Melbourne

“In order for a book to be good,” said Leo Tolstoy to his wife Sonya on March 2 1877, “one has to love its basic, fundamental idea. Thus, in Anna Karenina, I loved the idea of the family.” These words Sonya copied into her diary on March 3.

This “idea” plays out through the plot of Anna Karenina, published between 1874 and 1876, and often acclaimed as the best novel ever written. It begins with one of the most famous first lines in fiction:

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Anna Karenina (2003 edition).
Penguin Books/Goodreads

The first of the novel’s two major plot lines relates to the irresistible Anna, who “had not known family life”, being brought up by an aunt and married off to the considerably older Alexei Karenin.

The second depicts the landowner Konstantin Levin (a frontman for the novel’s estate-owning author) who loves, loses but ultimately marries Kitty Shcherbatsky, the youngest daughter of parents devoted to their children and each other.

The two strands are linked by the lovable womaniser Stiva Oblonsky, who is Anna’s brother, Levin’s best friend, and Kitty’s brother-in-law. Anna travels from St Petersburg to Moscow to patch up a hiccup in Stiva’s marriage to Dolly (Kitty’s older sister).

At the station she finds herself instantly and mutually attracted to the dashing army officer Alexei Vronsky, who is collecting his mother from the same train. The enthralling narrative follows all three couples and finally results in one happy marriage (Levin and Kitty), one that just jogs along (Stiva and Dolly), and the infamous relationship that ends in the titular character’s suicide (Anna and Vronsky).

Tolstoy, the youngest of four brothers, was always going to be a writer, but having inherited a large family estate, became a landowner as well. He was crankily opposed to romantic love and conflicted about sex. Only after much procrastination, at the age of 34, would he marry 18-year-old Sonya Behrs and see her raise eight children – though she endured 16 pregnancies.

His sometimes tortured personal views – the 1889 novella The Kreuzer Sonata is little more than a diatribe against sex, love and marriage – provide the unifying context for Anna Karenina.

The bigger picture

Yet “family” is far from the only theme in the novel. Both Tolstoy and his writing are striking for their preoccupation with significant issues affecting humanity, then and now: nationalism (which Tolstoy foregrounded in War and Peace), spirituality, pacifism, brotherhood, agriculture and modernisation (read: technology).

In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s lifelong concern with spirituality is at the heart of Levin’s struggle with the church’s requirements for confession before marriage. Levin, like Tolstoy himself, objects to the Russian Orthodox Church both in principle (its hypocrisy, wealth, authoritarianism, nationalism) and in practice.

Nikolai Ge, ‘Portrait of Leo Tolstoy’, painting (circa 1870).
Wikimedia Commons

The author’s opposition to industrialisation is also recognisable in the narrative. The fact that Anna meets her lover Vronsky on a train platform, and ultimately dies under the wheel of a train, reflects this opposition.

Tolstoy struggled with these themes on a daily basis and explored them in both his long and shorter writings, embodying their effects in characters we feel we know intimately – certainly enough to love or loathe them.

That we do react with such a sense of total immersion is due to Tolstoy’s deep understanding of human nature and his ability to draw us into any one of an infinitude of emotions. He admitted that when he “wrote” a character, no matter how antithetical to himself they might be, he felt convinced that for those moments he was that person. The result then reads as if he had actually lived every one of their desires, aspirations and faults before laying them before us.

A conflicted moralist

Yet, perhaps because it was a genuine and essential aspect of Tolstoy’s own world view, moral judgment is always present in his writing. Though not spelled out, this judgment is implied by unavoidable cause and effect in human actions.

In Anna’s case her passion for Vronsky results in a sexual liaison that leads to the breakdown of her marriage, separation from her son, and almost complete isolation from society. Clinging to her (unlicensed) liaison with Vronsky, who tries helplessly to make up for these losses by being everything to her, she moves from emotional dependence to unfounded jealousy to final, self-destructive despair.

At the start the reader feels, with Anna, that what she does is wonderful and romantic, but it then becomes counterproductive and, finally, a disaster. This is Tolstoy in both his guises: the empathetic writer and the moralist, determined to show that family values must triumph over personal gratification.

A timeless narrative

Anna Karenina has generated four ballets, six stage plays, ten operas and 16 films. English-language versions include a 1935 black-and-white film starring Greta Garbo – much treasured despite the incompatibility between Garbo’s signature languor and Tolstoy’s emphasis on the title character’s “suppressed animation”.

More recently, a 2012 British film with Keira Knightley was ridiculed by Russian film critics, mainly due to Knightley’s performance. There have been seven television adaptations, including two by the BBC. In Australia we had a television version loosely based on the novel, The Beautiful Lie (2015), which was set in the present day.

New translations of the novel are steadily brought out, but no final agreement on “the best” can ever be arrived at. Opinions differ as to how far the translator should divert from fidelity to the text’s language in order to achieve greater closeness to the “spirit” or “intention” of the author.

Some critics still champion Constance Garnett’s dubious translation of 1901, despite mistakes made in the text (many of these were corrected in a revised edition by Leonard Kent and Nina Berberova in 1965). Others prefer that of Louise and Aylmer Maude (1918) who, living in Russia, were able to go over each line with the author.

Both translations are still available, but many contemporary critics prefer newer ventures that aim for a more “with it” vocabulary or a trendier style. Fortunately, Tolstoy’s waiving of his translation rights ensures that a stream of forever-new versions will always reflect inevitable changes in language usage and social perceptions.

The ConversationThis superb novel will never gather dust because, while mores and attitudes – like translations – change with the times, desire in its various manifestations will always be with us, as will the conscience that must decide whether any of them ought to be reined in.

Judith Armstrong, Honorary Associate Professor in Arts and Languages & Linguistics, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Two centuries before Marvel and Star Wars, Walter Scott’s Rob Roy was the first modern anti-hero

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Alasdair MacNeill, CC BY-SA

Daniel Cook, University of Dundee

Rival siblings, disappointed fathers, resentful sons, cowards, double-crossers, powerful women, colonial guilt, crumbling Highland estates and an elusive anti-hero: Sir Walter Scott’s Rob Roy has it all. It is a masterclass of serious pantomime.

Two hundred years ago, on New Year’s Eve 1817, Scott published his latest smash hit, a fictional account of a real-life cattle thief or a freedom fighter, depending on your point of view, during the Jacobite rebellions of 1715.

Rob Roy was a legend in his own lifetime and was soon turned into a flamboyant romantic figure in popular culture.
Classics Illustrated

The huge print run of 10,000 copies was depleted within two weeks and two more editions came out within a year. A legend was born – or rather, reborn – for the story of Robert “Rob Roy” MacGregor had already spread across Europe in his own lifetime.

Even the author of his first major biography, The Highland Rogue (1723), which appeared while MacGregor enjoyed easeful retirement after decades of outlawry, conceded in the introduction that he was rehashing old news about Scotland’s very own Robin Hood.

A tradition of anti-heroes

It is a tale that speaks to a renewed interest in the lives and misadventures of anti-heroes. Han Solo and Chewbacca from Star Wars, Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean, and superheroes such as Iron Man and Ant Man are all unlikely warriors who end up fighting against the authorities.

Like Rob Roy, they are mostly thieves in some way, whereas more conventional heroes tend to adhere strictly to impossibly high moral standards that rankle against the practicalities of the modern world: Captain America, for example, is quite literally taken from the war-torn past to save an imperilled present.

The Jacobite Rob Roy agitates in the background to restore the House of Stuart to the British throne after the House of Hanover’s George I had succeeded Queen Anne. For the reader (or anyone watching the film versions) there is a vicarious thrill in championing the anti-hero, the reluctant rebel, the opportunist who overcomes an overwhelming threat.


The anonymously written biography The Highland Rogue begins:

It is not a romantic Tale that the Reader is here presented with, but a real History. Not the Adventures of a Robinson Crusoe, a Colonel Jack, or a Moll Flanders, but the Actions of the HIGHLAND ROGUE; a Man that has been too notorious to pass for a meer imaginary Person.

Invoking the names of fictional characters recently brought to life by the English novelist and spy Daniel Defoe, the unknown author of this London publication likens the real Rob Roy MacGregor to make-believe rogues, even in the act of presenting a so-called “real history”.

Wary of this sort of deadening material, Scott’s strategy in his own retelling was ingenious: his eponymous (anti)hero barely appears in the book. Rob Roy lurks in the shadows (like an 18th-century precursor to The Shadow, a popular comic-book vigilante from the 1930s) under different identities – Mr. Campbell, MacGregor, and Rob Roy – lending support when he can to the confused narrator of the story, the Englishman Frank Osbaldistone.

United Artists/YouTube.

The savage as folk hero

Arguably, the little-seen Rob Roy is sidelined by his own wife Helen, a fearless character in the mould of Princess Leia (“Base dog, and son of a dog,” she says to Rob Roy’s sidekick Dougal, “do you dispute my commands?”). The spirited teenager Diana Vernon who hunts astride a horse as skilfully as any man – and with whom Osbaldistone becomes infatuated – is a similarly powerful and compelling figure.

That said, Scott falls back on the typical depiction of the Highlander as sub-human – a savage – rather than superhuman. Described in The Highland Rogue as uncommonly large and covered all over with matted tufts of red hair, the popular image of MacGregor has more in common with the oafish Little John than with the debonair Robin of Loxley in the old tale of Robin Hood and the Merry Men.

Scott’s English narrator similarly describes in detail what he calls the rogue’s “unearthly” appearance – the “thick, short, red hair, especially around his knees, which resembled … the limbs of a red-coloured Highland bull”. Here Rob Roy sounds more like Chewbacca than Han Solo, though he has the courage of both, and vividly captures the public’s imagination.

Theatre and romance

Many of Scott’s novels and narrative poems have been transferred to the stage and screen – none more so than Rob Roy. Isaac Pocock’s melodramatic play Rob Roy MacGregor or Auld Lang Syne (1818), for one, quickly attained the status of a national pageant, and was even performed before George IV on his famous visit to Edinburgh in 1822.

Part of the appeal of Scott’s novel lies in its vivid theatricality – in addition to Rob Roy’s intriguing appearances, his wife delivers compelling speeches, the gardener Fairservice and the magistrate Jarvie provide comic relief as caricatures of the working classes and landed gentry respectively, and the villainous Sir Rashleigh is dispatched with a bloody death scene. Dark pantomime indeed.

Disney’s almost cartoonish version of Rob Roy, released in 1953.

Produced by Walt Disney, the 1953 film version devotes most of its screen time to the exploits of its lead actor, Richard Todd, a heroic rebel who escapes by leaping a waterfall and storms a fort with his gang. Such films have provided – and extended – the Hollywood ideal of the plucky underdog. More recently, Rob Roy (1995), starring Liam Neeson in the title role, has little to do with Scott’s novel, not least of all because it foregrounds the shadowy Jacobite as a handsome swashbuckler.

Scott’s character, meanwhile, better fits the current interest in the anti-hero – a dubious, charming half-human (or superhuman) that overcomes the enemy. Importantly, though, the supporting cast of characters (most notably the fearless wife Helen MacGregor, the determined youngster Diana Vernon, and Rob Roy’s loyal sidekick Dougal), also merit attention alongside the eponymous hero.

The ConversationOutside of Scotland, perhaps, Rob Roy and his circle of valiant misfits hasn’t received the wider cultural exposure enjoyed by the medieval outlaw Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men. But, with Scott’s intervention, their stories – and personal failings – make them as compelling as any modern superhero.

Daniel Cook, Senior Lecturer in English, University of Dundee

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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