[Note: Yesterday, I really should have given a quick shout-out to Mount Rainier High School's Class of 1998 IB English 12 class, where I first read this novel, to Mr. Mac Willems who taught the class and led the reading, and to all my classmates who loved or hated it along with me. This live reading of Anna Karenina is dedicated to all of you.]
Congratulations. You're the proud reader of an immense 19th century Russian novel. Here are a few things to be prepared for as you read.
Omniscient Point of View. Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina as an all-knowing storyteller. This is in marked contrast to the modern airport bookstore thriller, which generally uses what you might call a chase camera focused on one character at a time, reporting events from their viewpoint only. Tolstoy feels free to editorialize about the action, comment on characters with a God's eye view, use more than one perspective in a scene, and even tell you his own judgments of the characters rather than show you the characters and imply what he thinks of them.
For Joe Author, this is a really difficult trick to pull off. It breaks a cardinal rule of modern storytelling: "Show, don't tell." The idea is that actions speak louder than words, or that really great details speak for themselves. Tolstoy doesn't go this way. Instead, think of the narrator in AK as another character, a very observant character with a particular slant on life.
You can see this quite clearly in the opening two paragraphs of the novel:
All happy families are like one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Everything was in confusion in the Oblonsky household. The wife had found out that the husband had had an affair with their French governess and had told him that she could not go on living in the same house with him. This situation had now gone on for three days and was felt acutely by the husband and wife themselves, by all the members of the family, and by their servants. ...
Interesting information, but it's telling, not showing.
Wordiness. Just as the narrator's judgment is explicit, a lot more of the action and motivation is explicit in AK than your modern novel. There's a lot of repetition of concepts that are redundant in context, a lot of explanations where a few words would suffice. Or would they? Well, here's the next part of the second paragraph:
... All the members of the family and the servants felt that there was no sense in their living together under the same roof and that people who happened to meet at any country inn had more in common with one another than they, the members of the Oblonsky family and their servants.
What I find is that when I'm looking for the wordiness, it's everywhere, but I don't really notice it when I'm not.
Detailed Observation. In the modern novel, the depth and detail of the writing is often determined by the importance of the scene. For instance, one sentence can be used to describe a trip from Los Angeles to Boston, but a whole chapter can focus intently on fifteen minutes of story-changing dialogue in a kitchen. These can give the action in the story some ebb and flow, a chance for the reader to calm down after a particularly harrowing scene, or reflect on the future course of the story.
For Tolstoy, it is all details, all the time. That's an exaggeration, but even in a low-key, unimportant scene, the action is described carefully. Here's a bit of the fourth paragraph.
[Oblonsky] turned his plump, well-cared-for body on the well-sprung sofa, as though intending to go to sleep for a long time, hugged the pillow on the other side, and pressed his cheek against it; suddenly he jumped up, sat down on the sofa, and opened his eyes.
If you think that's detailed, wait until something actually happens. Here's the sixth and seventh paragraphs, after Oblonsky has woken up and recalled his dream. There's a very long chain of cause and effect, and the details are very specific.
Oblonsky's eyes sparkled gaily and he smiled as he sank into thought. "Yes, it was nice, very nice. There was a lot that was excellent there, but it can't be put into words, or expressed in thoughts, now that I am awake." Then, noticing the shaft of light coming through the side of one of the holland blinds, he briskly thrust his feet down from the sofa to feel for the slippers his wife had given him as a birthday present the year before and which she had worked in gold morocco and, as had been his custom during the last nine years, stretched out his hand without getting up for the place where his dressing gown hung in the bedroom. It was then that he suddenly remembered how and why it was that he was sleeping not in his wife's bedroom but in his own study. The smile vanished from his face and he wrinkled his forehead.
"Dear, oh dear!" he groaned, remembering what had happened. And in his mind's eye he saw again all the details of the quarrel with his wife; he realized the utter hopelessness of his position and, most tormenting fact of all, that it was all his own fault.
What follows after this is Oblonsky's memory of the quarrel (not a scene, just a moment from a scene). A little shaft of light got the ball rolling. The first real dialogue isn't until Chapter 2.
Last warning: everything in the reading is fair game for me to write about. I won't cheat by talking about future action (say, the thing in a later chapter that may have something to do with the current chapter), but I will mention events and my personal judgments as I go. If you want to read these little thoughts without spoilers, stay four chapters ahead of me.
Meet Oblonsky. Prince Stepan Arkadyevich Oblonsky (Oblonsky to us, Stiva to his friends) is the quintessential inertial man; I wrote about this a while back. That is, he tends to remain as he is unless acted upon by an outside force, and act the forces do, blowing him around like a weathervane. Although Oblonsky is an aristocrat and has more freedom of action than most people in his country, he abdicates his power in favor of the whims of the crowd. This is clear in the section of I.3 describing Oblonsky's newspaper: he belongs to a certain worldview not because it is right, but "because it corresponded more closely to his way of life."
Because Oblonsky has given up his free will, he has trouble accepting that anything is his responsibility. It's obvious throughout I.1, where Oblonsky says, tellingly, "It is my own fault and yet I'm not to blame. That's the tragedy of it." When Dolly, his wife, discovers the affair, Oblonsky's involuntary "reflexes of the brain" cause him to smile foolishly. "It's all the fault of that stupid smile," he decides. Of course, it is his smile, and his affair, and his callousness masquerading as bonhomie.
[Digression: you might make an interesting comparison between Oblonsky and Angel, a character on Buffy the Vampire Slayer who eventually spawned his own spin-off series. Angel is a vampire who murdered his way around the world for hundreds of years. In the early 20th century, he killed a Romany girl. The gypsies cursed him by returning his human soul to his vampire body. He acquired a conscience and became deeply remorseful for his limitless cruelty, perversion, and wickedness. In a way, Angel is at fault, but not to blame.]
Another aspect of Oblonsky's inertia is his default to routine behavior. These opening chapters contain numerous references to Oblonsky's behavior as customary: "woke up at his usual time"; "as had been his custom during the last nine years"; "smiled its usual kind and, for that reason, rather foolish smile". In fact, this is why Oblonsky gets up out of bed at all: "There was no answer except the usual answer life gives to the most complicated and insoluble questions. This answer is: carry on with your everyday affairs, that is to say, put it out of your mind." It should be clear, though, that just because this is the usual answer or Oblonsky's answer, that doesn't make it the right answer.
Matvey is the Evil Jeeves to Oblonsky's Evil Wooster. Instead of caring for Oblonsky and getting him out of jams in ways that reflect good will for the innocent parties, Matvey is Oblonsky's partner in crime. By turns sympathetic and sly, Matvey is entertained by the spectacle of Oblonsky's family trouble, but not interested in doing the right thing. "Don't worry, sir," he says. "It'll all come right." Oblonsky, though, has cause for his worry and even regret, and Matvey is his enabler when he tells Oblonsky to do nothing until the situation sorts itself out.
Oblonsky's attitude toward his marriage can be called the way of the world: marriage is when two people fall in love, have kids, tire of each other, and begin to commit adultery. This happens to the "handsome and susceptible" man when the woman gets used up and unattractive. The woman should see it coming and accept it as inevitable. Oblonsky internalizes this attitude so deeply that "It was clear that he had never thought the matter out..." After nine years of marriage and seven kids (two dead!), Oblonsky is an absentee husband, making sure not to interfere with his wife, as he puts it. In fact, he wants nothing more than to be out of the house, away from the kids. It is ironic that Oblonsky, who stuck Dolly with all the child-rearing responsibility, should betray Dolly with the person he hired to help her out, the governess.
Finally, is Oblonsky deluded, but otherwise honest? A couple of passages speak to this. In the first, a deeply ironic section on his opinions and liberalism, Oblonsky agrees that marriage is an obsolete institution because "family life gave Oblonsky very little pleasure and forced him to tell lies and dissemble, which was so contrary to his nature." Again, Oblonsky doesn't own up to his actions, but feels oppressed by his marriage vow. In the second, Oblonsky feels like he can't put their relationship right because he can't make Dolly beautiful or overcome his desire for passionate affairs with beautiful women: "Nothing could come of it now except lies and hypocrisy; and lies and hypocrisy were contrary to his nature." After these first three chapters, you have to wonder if Oblonsky is anything but lies and hypocrisy. But you could also say Oblonsky has no depth. He isn't able to see himself from a neutral position. He only sees himself from the point of view of the various masks he puts on to work, to play, to make love to a woman. He never recognizes what he's doing, never examines his life. From that point of view, Oblonsky is worthless, as "the unexamined life is not worth living", but not exactly malevolent.
Here are some random highlights from the first three chapters, the leftovers. "... he therefore had to put it out of his mind by the dream of life" is an especially poignant and well-turned line. Watch the trains closely; Oblonsky's kids are playing with one in I.3. And why did Oblonsky have a good dream after three days of estrangement, anyway?