Pretend You Read It: Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina throws herself in front of a train.

Perhaps the book’s (and movie’s) most famous scene.

With the 2012 release of the star-laden Anna Karenina movie, you’ve probably heard some grumbling from your literati friends (I have). “Anna Karenina as a movie! Rubbish. All I need is the book.” These conversations are easy enough to nod along to until one of said friends turns to you and asks, “And what did you think of it?”

“The book or the movie?”

“The book. Of course.”

Dangit.

Now if you have slogged through Tolstoy’s nearly thousand-page-long classic, this won’t be a problem. But for everyone who lacks time to do more than mark it to-read on Goodreads, here are some points to remember as you try to make everyone believe you pored over Anna Karenina highlighter in hand.

THE PLOT (all you really need to know):

The story goes back and forth between two characters: Anna and Levin. Anna is unhappily married, has an affair, and is shunned by society (translation: she’s a tragic character you should feel sorry for). Levin is an educated landowner who struggles with philosophical questions about life, love, and God (that is he’s an intellectual, slightly snobbish protagonist that Tolstoy would nevertheless like you to sympathize with). In the end, Anna kills herself (see illustration above) while Levin marries, resolves his existential angst, and finds he is content in rooted, steady family life. A cheerful ending? Hardly.

THE ANALYSIS (what you can say to assure your friends you really read it):

  • DON’T YOU THINK that Levin was really just Tolstoy injecting himself into the narrative? He felt less like a character and more like the writer trying to work out his own views on happiness, religion, and family.
  •  I HATED those chapter-long philosophical rants. Gosh, Tolstoy seriously needed an editor. All those sections with Levin—ridiculous. I think I’ve heard enough about how great Mother Russia is to last a lifetime.
  • I WAS SURPRISED BY how familiar the double standards applied to Anna were (her brother could have mistress after mistress but even the thought that Anna had had an affair was enough to destroy her life). It’s shocking, but that kind of hypocrisy still happens today. I have a friend who . . . (yes, this is your skillful segue).

And there you have it: your crash course in Anna Karenina. With any luck, you’ll be able to maneuver your way through a book conversation with your friends’ respect intact. And remember—if the discussion gets too in-depth, feigning sickness is always a good way out. The flu hits fast, folks. So if all else fails, moan, hold your stomach, and high tail it out of there.

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