Classics We Haven’t Read & Why You Should Read Anna Karenina

Not chatting about books, are they?

These bicyclists aren’t chatting about books, are they?

Bicyclists on a long ride are usually too busy pedaling to chat about books, but during the third hour of a mind-numbing ride into a fierce Nebraska wind, we were so bored that we actually considered the question, “What classics haven’t you read?”

What haven’t I read?  Moby Dick.  I once made it as far as Chapter 42, “The Whiteness of the Whale.” Beautiful writing, but was I just a tad bored?  A tad or two.  My husband’s laudation of Melville’s style, and even the critic Michael Dirda’s contention that Moby Dick is the Great American Novel cannot persuade me to read it.

My favorite book.

My favorite book.

My husband admits he has not read Anna Karenina.   It is one of my favorite books.

Possibly the opening lines of Anna Karenina terrify men.  He denies it.

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

All was confusion in the Oblonskys’ house.  The wife had found out that the husband was having an affair with their former French governess, and had announced to the husband that she could not live in the same house with him.

Marriage, families, confusion, adultery.

In addition to exploring the consequences of men’s and women’s infidelities, Tolstoy’s novel is filled with extraordinary scenes that make this a dramatic pageturner (and, yes, I just reread it, in the wonderful award-winning Pevear and Volokhonsky translation).


1.  BEST ICE-SKATING SCENE.   Levin, a landowner, comes to Moscow to propose to Kitty.  He ice-skates with her and endearingly learns a new trick.

Just then one of the young men, the best of the new skaters, with skates on and a cigarette in his mouth, came out of the coffee room and, taking a short run, went down the steps on his skates, clattering and jumping.  He flew down and, not even changing the free position of his arms, glided away over the ice….

“Ah, that’s a new stunt!” said Levin, and immediately ran up to try it.

Although he stumbles, he skates away laughing, reminding Kitty of what a dear man he is.  Unfortunately, she thinks of him as a brother.

2.  3.  BEST ILLICIT ATTRACTION SCENE AT A BALL (OH, JANE AUSTEN, IF ONLY YOU’D KNOWN…).   Anna Karenina comes to Moscow to heal the rift between her brother Stiva and his wife, Dolly:  by chance she meets Kitty’s new boyfriend, Vronsky, at the train station. He is very attracted.  At the ball at which Kitty expects him to propose, he dances almost exclusively with Anna.

Each time he spoke with Anna, her eyes flashed with a joyful light and a smile of happiness curved her red lips.  She seemed to be struggling with herself to keep these signs of joy from showing, yet they appeared on her face of themselves.  “‘But what about him?’ Kitty looked at him and was horrified.  What portrayed itself so clearly in the mirror of Anna’s face, she also saw in him.

3. SOLACE WHEN YOU’RE DUMPED.  Kitty has a nervous breakdown when Vronsky leaves Moscow to pursue Anna Karenina to Petersburg.

Her sister Dolly tries to comfort Kitty.

Come now, Kitty.   Can you really think I don’t know?  I know everything.  And believe me, it’s nothing…  We’ve all gone through it.”

But poor Kitty has not gone through it yet.

4.  MOST TRAGIC HORSE-RACING SCENE.  Before Vronsky rides in a steeplechase race, his mother and brother object to his scandalous passion for the married Anna (they would prefer him to have a chic, light affair), and Anna tells him she is pregnant.  During the race, his mistreatment of the horse, Frou-Frou, leads to her death, and foreshadows Anna’s fate.

5.  MOST AGONIZING FALLEN-WOMAN-REJECTED SCENE.  After Anna and Vronsky live together in Europe, she refuses to believe that Petersburg society will ostracize her.  She goes to the theater, and is publicly humiliated.

He knew she had gathered her last forces in order to maintain the role she had taken upon herself.  And in this role of ostensible calm she succeeded fully.  People who did not know her and her circle, and who had not heard all the expressions of commiseration, indignation and astonishment from women that she should allow herself to appear in society and to appear so conspicuously in her lace attire and in all her beauty, admired the calm and beauty of this woman and did not suspect that she was experiencing the feelings of a person in the pillory.

A brilliant book, a tragedy, but also with many joyous scenes of love and family life (which I haven’t included here).  No one wrote better than Tolstoy.