Why is Anna Karenina so long?

Was Tolstoy justified in making Anna Karenina and War and Peace as long as they are?

In a word, yes.

Everything Tolstoy wrote in those books was intended to communicate the idea of the separate internal experience.

Take Anna Karenina. Karenin is a prick. He’s an emotionless robot who only cares about his social status. The most important parts of Anna Karenina are revealed in two sentences, far apart in the book, and they are so insignificant and unremarkable in their placement that I cannot actually find them. They’re about the characters of Dolly and Karenin, and they say that Dolly continued to support her family and that Karenin saved the life of Anna’s child through his actions. Neither of these actions is noticed or commented on by anyone else, and that’s part of what makes them important.

First, Karenin. Although the book ends with him tricked into false spirituality, the random short sentence that confirms that his intervention saved the infant’s life is the beginning of (a). Karenin’s spiritual journey, and (b). the audience’s understanding that there is more to him than what appears on the outside. This is Tolstoy’s main point – that the internal world exists for even the most repulsive of characters. It appears in all of his works, and is probably the most difficult lesson of all to actually understand. It’s easy to comprehend, but difficult to keep in mind and legitimately use to change your perspective. The reason it’s so difficult for most people is that our egos unfailingly interrupt. But this is outside the scope of discussion.

Second, Dolly. Stepan Arkadyevich begins the book unfaithful to his wife. He doesn’t seem repentant at having committed the act – only at having been discovered. Despite this, Dolly continues in her work, cares for the children, and essentially does what she is supposed to do entirely without complaint. (Leave the complaints about sexism at the door, please, I don’t deal with that shite. AK was published between 1873 to ’77. Feminism hadn’t done much, if anything, so no one cared at the time. The point is that she’s quietly heroic.)

Both their actions are textbook Christianity: doing works without mentioning it to anyone, and even in Dolly’s case I believe she refuses help at one point. In a sense they’re Tolstoy’s heroes, more so than Levin, who is clearly standing in for Tolstoy himself.

So the reason people say that Tolstoy ‘writes how the world would write’ is because no one cares about Karenin and Dolly – because their actions are hugely important and keep the rest of the book going, but go almost entirely unmentioned. Tolstoy possessed the indomitable self-control to represent their actions in the way the world saw them, rather than changing their importance according to the framework of his story. He didn’t let the themes he wanted to communicate get in the way of what his characters focused on, going for as much realism as possible over making it easy to see what was really happening. That’s why he was a genius.

Take War and Peace. Pierre spends hours fiddling with his name through a mathematical cipher, and comes to the conclusion that it is his destiny to assassinate Napoleon. After venturing out into the streets of Moscow, he realises that he’s being an idiot. But it’s written from his perspective in such a way that we understand that from the beginning – there’s no tension, only a kind of sly, rueful laughter from Tolstoy, as Pierre scribbles alone in the dark. Pierre labours under his delusion, but the world’s already moved on.

So, why are the books so long? Having read little to no analysis of Tolstoy (I never claim authority in this area) I posit the idea that it’s to distract you from these tiny, pivotal moments, because that’s how life is.

Anna Karenina is a framework, the central message of which is marginalised, relegated to only two sentences in the entire novel. The rest of the book deals with 19th century relationship drama and Russian agricultural practices. These topics are meant as a distraction from its real significance: the duty of humanity to be selfless and silently virtuous, and the idea that the internal experience and the sanctity of the soul aren’t qualities exclusive to the likeable or appealing in society. They are universal.

The real ‘movers and shakers’ which is to say the people who retain order even when exciting things are happening around them, are Karenin and Dolly, the selfless and the (relatively) simple and maybe even the unpleasant. To a certain extent Pierre fits this framework as well, although he does try to escape it.

Tolstoy writes how the world would, and that’s why the books are so long. It only makes sense.


2 comments on “Why is Anna Karenina so long?

  1. are they worth a read though? I’m looking to start reading the classics just dont know where to start…


    • christmascarolusmagnus says:

      If you read enough and understand enough of the context of world history, relative to what you’re planning on reading, it doesn’t really matter where you start with literature. That’s its own discussion, really.

      Tolstoy is an incredible author and you should definitely tackle him at some point – but he’s not usually a recommended ‘starting point’. If you don’t care about that, make sure you understand the basics of 19th century Russia before reading him, I would say. The Wikipedia article is enough for that though.

      As far as Tolstoy himself goes, start with War and Peace, then Anna K. If you find you like him there are a ton of short stories.
      If you just want to move on to another author, Dostoevsky is the natural next step.


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