In: Analysis

The characters of Anna Karenina

A few days ago, I realized there isn’t a single likable character in Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Konstantin Levin is a dull man, with his high principles regarding farming and marriage; with all his bitterness and unrealistic expectations, it’s no wonder he can’t find a wife.

Count Vronsky is your typical jock: good-looking, well-groomed, and outwardly impressive, but beneath the polished military medals lies an arrogant, dim-witted man. Alexei Arkadyich? He’s simply dreadful, with his reedy voice and sociopathic personality; his wife can cheat on him as long as she doesn’t make him look bad–which is to say, as long as high society, with its insatiable love for scandal and downfall, doesn’t find out he married a slut. And Anna, our independent, high-minded heroine, is becoming increasingly jealous and needy, the sort of spectacle that invites more disgust than sympathy.

Strangely enough, I’m still enjoying Anna Karenina. It’s a book steeped in irony. Perhaps, under the serious veneer, Tolstoy was chuckling ever so softly at the human condition. These characters, with all their flaws–too many, you could say–and their endless contradictions, both moral and psychological, are some of the most realistic characters I’ve ever read about. Tolstoy not only describes their behavior and motivations, but delves into the reasons behind their choices. Not all of it makes sense–Levin, despite being madly in love with Kitty, despite actually having a (slim) chance of marrying her, refuses to see her, or to even acknowledge her existence, because he’s still pissed about being rejected by her–but at the same, it makes all the sense in the world. This is how people really behave–instead of being heroic, instead of having one set of morals, they keep us guessing, sometimes changing the rules in the middle of the game; they infuriate us with their flawed reasoning; and sometimes they can’t explain their behavior at all, often resorting to the age-old I just felt like doing it.

Sometimes the most unlikeable characters in literature turn out to be the most realistic. In the case of Anna Karenina, it’s easy to imagine that this is how people would act under the same circumstances.

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