By Medha Karthik (2022)
This industry report will chronicle the initial reception of Anna Karenina when it was first published in the US, specifically in the first 10 years after its publication (1886 to 1896). Immediate reactions to Anna Karenina were a mixture of both positive and negative. Common criticisms of Anna Karenina included its length and its inclusion of a suicide. However, the novel’s themes and the character of Anna herself were commonly praised. Reviewers disagreed on the relevance of the novel to American societies, with some arguing that the novel was very relevant to Americans and some arguing the opposite.
Anna Karenina, one of the most famous romance novels of all time (Myers 2010), was written by Leo Tolstoy and published in Russia through separate installments from 1875 to 1877 in the magazine, the Russian Messenger (Kuiper 2016). The first publication in Russia received critical acclaim and was praised by reviewers and readers alike, which led to the publication of the novel in other countries (Knowles 1978). The installments were translated and began publication in the US as a completed novel originally by Thomas T. Crowell & Co. publication in 1886 to much critical and commercial acclaim (McLean 2008).
Anna Karenina features a wide range of characters and love stories, but the novel primarily focuses on 4 characters: the titular Anna Karenina, a married mother and Russian socialite, her love interest Alexei Vronsky, an army officer, Konstantin Levin, a socially awkward farm owner, as well as his love interest, Katerina “Kitty” Shcherbatskaya, a young Russian debutante. The novel is divided into 8 parts, with each part continuing both couples’ stories. When Vronsky first meets Anna, his infatuation causes an ill-fated love story between them, which transforms from an initial secret courtship to the couple eventually running away with each other and having a child. However, the novel does not feature a happy ending for this couple, as the scandal of their relationship and the despair of abandoning her son cause Anna to commit suicide towards the end of the novel. On the other hand, Kitty and Levin, after an initial rejection of marriage by Kitty, fall in love and have a child, with the novel ending with them happy and safe as a family.
A common critique of Anna Karenina was its length, with the first edition containing slightly less than 800 pages (“Tolstoy, Leo: Good Hardcover”). A negative review of the novel can be found in The New York Tribune, on a piece chronicling the many faults of Tolstoy called “Tolstoi’s Last Books: A Lamentable Decline”. The author laments the length of Tolstoy’s novels, stating “His ‘Peace and War’ and ‘Anna Karenina’ are both fully twice as long as they should have been. They are often tedious, verbose to somnolency” (“Tolstoi’s Last Books” 1888). Another negative critique of the novel was published in The Kansas City Star in 1889 in response to a young woman’s letter to the editor of the paper, asking if she should read Anna Karenina6. The response was overwhelmingly negative, and also complained about the length of the novel, writing that “No young lady should read ‘Anna Karenina’ unless she has nothing else to do. Tolstoi wrote for people who have more time than anything else, and not for active, industrious young American women who are supposed to devote a portion of the day to the duster and the needle” (The Kansas City Star 1889). This review reveals not only the common critique towards the novel’s extended length, but also the impact that the length had on the readership, as shown in the second part of the above quote. The Kansas City Star review continues to actively discourage young woman particularly from reading this novel. A third review of the novel, published in 1886 in the Boston Journal, like the 2 other reviews in this section, also criticized the length of the novel, stating, “Its chief defect, as a story, is that it is too far between the covers” and that “It has the first great requisite of a story, to be readable throughout, yet it is too long for a book” (“Anna Karenina: Written for the Boston Journal” 1886). The presence of many complaints about the length of the novel reveals a common critique of Anna Karenina.
The Kansas City Star review also comments on the subject matter of the book: “As far as the morality of the book is concerned, it may be laid down as a general proposition that the American girl who has the patience to exhaust “Anna Karenina” has certainly the strength of mind to overcome its not very glittering suggestions” (The Kansas City Star 1889). The latter part of this review reveals another critique of the novel that reviewers held: its tragic ending with Anna’s suicide. The review complains about the decision to have Anna tragically kill herself, especially because of the impact that the scene has on young, American girls reading the novel. As mentioned above, the Kansas City Star review again continues to actively discourage a certain audience, in this case, young woman, from reading this novel, due to its subject matter and content material. Notably, the review does not complain about the eventual fate of Anna, and only focuses on her decision to commit suicide, which suggests that the real complaint was the manner of death, not the presence of death itself.
Theme of Retribution
A positive review of Anna Karenina was published in The Universalist, a newspaper located in Chicago. Author Hattie Tyng Griswold describes the story as one of “thrilling interest” and as a “most powerful novel” (Griswold 1887). Specifically, Griswold praises the book for its theme of retribution and Tolstoy’s unique way of approaching that theme: “Not from the outside–as it would have been by a less strong and original writer– but from within, the sin punishes itself…” (Griswold 1887). She describes the choices that Anna makes in leaving her husband and child behind to live with Vronsky, and how eventually Anna faces the repercussions of those choices, particularly the inner turmoil and guilt she feels, stating that “this is the bitter interest of the book, the agonies of a soul making expiation for a grievous wrong” (Griswold 1887). Griswold’s praise of the theme of retribution in the novel is further continued with her praise of Anna’s eventual suicide, referring to it as “almost too terrible to be read, and, indeed, the whole story is pitiless in its realism.”
A second positive review published in the Boston Journal in 1886 also praised the morals of the novel and the lessons that Anna’s story provides, stating of her choice to be with Vronsky: “This was a fatal error– an error which results in forging indissoluble bonds and such dearly bought retribution as comes to all who assume to become a law unto themselves” (“Anna Karenina: Written for the Boston Journal” 1886). Both Griswold’s review and the review published in the Boston Journal posit that the tragic ending to Anna’s story was a necessary and natural conclusion to Anna’s story arc and represents the perfect sacrifice to the choices she made throughout the novel. Later in the review, the Boston Journal article also praises specifically the theme of retribution present in the book, stating that “It is the essence of all moral purity, and the penalty for disregarding it must be both certain and severe” (“Anna Karenina: Written for the Boston Journal” 1886). This reveals the agreement that reviewers had with the tragic fate of Anna.
Character of Anna
Both the Boston Journal review and Griswold’s review also praise the agency that Anna has throughout the novel, with the Boston Journal review explicitly stating “it is easy from the incidents to detect the conflict which is raging in her [Anna’s] own mind, whether fealty to her husband, which had for its basis only the obligations she owed to society… were paramount to the obligations she owed to her own nature” (“Anna Karenina: Written for the Boston Journal” 1886). This review reveals the importance that Anna’s agency had on the enjoyment of the novel, and how her ability to make her own decisions make her a stronger, more interesting character. Griswold also elucidates throughout her review how Anna’s many choices drive her to seek temporary happiness with Vronsky and eventually to her death, and how she was the sole cause of her eventual fate (Griswold 1887). She continues by emphasizing the presence of Anna’s choices, however poor, on the strength and notability of Anna as a character. This reveals the agreement that reviewers had on the strength of Anna as a character.
Relevance to American Societies
Reviewers disagreed on the relevance of Anna Karenina in American societies, with some arguing that it was relevant, while others argued that its portrayal of Russian society was not relatable for American readers. The New York Tribune article, for example, states, “Of the character drawing it has often to be said that while it may perhaps be wonderfully faithful to Russian human nature, it resembles no human nature found out of Russia” (“Tolstoi’s Last Books” 1888). This review reveals the critique that reviewers had with the characters and elements of Russian society found in the novel, and how both do not translate well, in terms of relatability, to American audiences. This directly contrasts with a point that Griswold makes in her article: “Although this story is Russian, and preeminently a national book, yet the elements that go to make up this great social tragedy are universal, and the action might have taken place in any part of the world” (Griswold 1887). Griswold continues by describing the relatability of the characters and their actions, and how that contributes to the strong themes of the novel, which anyone can appreciate regardless of where they live (Griswold 1887). Griswold’s point is echoed in the review from the Boston Journal, which also praises the novel for its realism, stating that the novel’s scope “is so comprehensive as to introduce types from the extremes of society, from the peasant to the Minister of State” (“Anna Karenina: Written for the Boston Journal” 1886). In fact, the realism of the novel “is one of the secrets of the sustained interest of this book” (“Anna Karenina: Written for the Boston Journal” 1886). The review from the Boston Journal continues to argue that the novel, due to its realism, is indeed relatable to audiences outside of Russia, mirroring Griswold.
A Second Love Story
An interesting point of note present in a vast majority of reviews was the review’s focus on certain specific characters. If any one character was mentioned, it was the titular Anna Karenina herself, and if more characters were mentioned it was usually Anna’s love interest, Count Vronsky or her husband Alexei. However, as mentioned previously, the novel itself actually focuses on two couples to almost equal degree: Anna with Vronsky, and Konstantin Levin with Kitty Shcherbatskaya. In fact, of the eight parts that the novel is divided into, 6 parts focus on both couples’ trials and tribulations, and the other two focus solely on Levin and his relationship with Kitty. Considering the large part of the novel focused on another couple, it is interesting to note that many reviews simply did not mention their story at all, even with its happy ending, and only mentioned Anna and Vronsky, whose story ends in a tragedy. It is also interesting to note the absence of Levin in many reviews, considering how he, even more than Anna herself, is present and important in more sections of the novel. However, many reviews, as mentioned above, praised only the character of Anna, and neglected to mention Levin at all.
Anna Karenina as a Romance
According to the Romance Writers of America, a trade association focused on increasing awareness of the romance genre, a romance novel is defined by the presence of a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending (“About the Romance Genre” 2022). This is not quite the case in Anna Karenina, as although Levin and Kitty do achieve their happily ever after, Anna and Vronsky do not. However, this did not stop reviewers from discussing the romantic qualities contained in the novel, as many of them refer to the novel as a “love story” (“New Publications” 1888), and as mentioned above, consider the ending to be, although tragic, emotionally satisfying and righteous for Anna and Vronsky’s story. Another review, published in the San Francisco Bulletin, discusses Anna and Vronsky’s actions as being a means to “equal love” and that when they both see each other, they both “recognize love for the first time”, which demonstrates the romantic qualities that reviewers found so compelling in the novel (“Current Literature” 1886).
In the decade after Anna Karenina was first published in the US, there were mixed opinions on its qualities as a novel. Reviewers praised its themes of retribution and the characterization of Anna but criticized the novel’s extreme length and its portrayal of a suicide. Reviewers disagreed on the novel’s relevance to American society, with some arguing that the novel’s focus on Russian society made it unreadable to American audiences and some arguing that the novel’s themes are universal, and so are appealing to American readers. The disagreements and agreements can be shown in the reviews discussed. The New York Tribune review criticized the length of the novel and believed it to not be relevant to American society (“Tolstoi’s Last Books” 1888). The Kansas City Star review also criticized the length of the novel but also critiqued Anna’s eventual suicide (The Kansas City Star 1889). The Boston Journal review again criticized the length of the novel, but also praised the themes of the novel, Anna’s characterization, and argued that the novel is universal and therefore relevant to American audiences (“Anna Karenina: Written for the Boston Journal” 1886). Finally, the review from the Universalist praised the themes of the novel, the character of Anna, and the relevance of the novel to American societies (Griswold 1887). The discourse and disagreements surrounding Anna Karenina, as shown in the reviews discussed in this paper, reveal the mixed opinions on the novel when it was first published in the US.
Romance Writers of America. “About the Romance Genre,” Accessed April 20, 2022. https://www.rwa.org/Online/Romance_Genre/About_Romance_Genre.aspx
“Anna Karenina: Written for the Boston Journal,” Boston Journal, July 24, 1886. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANX&sort=_rank_%3AD&page=8&fld-base-0=alltext&val-base-0=%22anna%20karenina%22&val-database-0=&fld-database-0=database&fld-nav-0=YMD_date&val-nav-0=&docref=image/v2%3A11CE74B6F9A6E5CC%40EANX-1252113E5E3978F8%402410112-1252113EEDFD25C8%404-125211415C6C8CE0%40Anna%2BKarenia.%2BWritten%2Bfor%2Bthe%2BBoston%2BJournal&firsthit=yes
“Current Literature,” San Francisco Bulletin, April 24, 1886, https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANX&sort=YMD_date%3AA&fld-base-0=alltext&val-base-0=%22anna%20karenina%22%20%2B%20%22love%22&val-database-0=&fld-database-0=database&fld-nav-0=YMD_date&val-nav-0=&docref=image/v2%3A113ACFC4DAF84818%40EANX-116B49483404D560%402410021-116B4949AF3D1038%401-116B494B54887840%40Current%2BLiterature&firsthit=yes
Griswold, Hattie Tyng, “Retribution,” The Universalist, March 26, 1887, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn90053049/1887-03-26/ed-1/seq-1/#date1=1887&index=2&rows=20&words=Anna+Karenina&searchType=basic&sequence=0&state=&date2=1890&proxtext=%22anna+karenina%22&y=0&x=0&dateFilterType=yearRange&page=1
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The Kansas City Star, August 13, 1889, https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANX&t=pubname%3A1126152C152E4978%21Kansas%2BCity%2BStar/year%3A1889%211889/mody%3A0813%210813&sort=_rank_%3AD&fld-base-0=alltext&val-base-0=%22anna%20karenina%22&docref=image%2Fv2%3A1126152C152E4978%40EANX-116A263C512CB698%402411228-116A263C9F9F0820%401&origin=image%2Fv2%3A1126152C152E4978%40EANX-116A263C512CB698%402411228-116A263C9F9F0820%401-116A263DF9B32228%40%255BNew%2BYork%2BTribune%253B%2BAnna%2BKarenina%255D
Knowles, A.V. “Russian Views of Anna Karenina, 1875-1878.” The Slavic and East European Journal, 1978. https://www.jstor.org/stable/307713?seq=1
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Myers, Lev Grossman and Rebecca. “Top 10 Romantic Books.” Time. Time, May 13, 2010. https://entertainment.time.com/2007/02/14/top-10-romantic-books/slide/anna-karenina-by-leo-tolstoy/.
“New Publications,” Boston Daily Advertiser, July 20, 1888. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANX&sort=YMD_date%3AA&fld-base-0=alltext&val-base-0=%22anna%20karenina%22%20%2B%20%22love%22&val-database-0=&fld-database-0=database&fld-nav-0=YMD_date&val-nav-0=&docref=image/v2%3A109E426370EFFFF8%40EANX-12BA6AC88FAF6950%402407186-12BA6AC91B71AA50%401-12BA6ACCDDE23908%40%255BIllegible%255D&firsthit=yes
“Tolstoi’s Last Books: A Lamentable Decline,” New York Tribune, March 4, 1888, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030214/1888-03-04/ed-1/seq-10/#date1=1887&index=0&rows=20&words=Anna+Karenina&searchType=basic&sequence=0&state=New+York&date2=1890&proxtext=%22anna+karenina%22&y=10&x=24&dateFilterType=yearRange&page=1
“Tolstoy, Leo: Good Hardcover (1886) 1st Edition. | LaCelle Rare Books.” Abebooks. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, January 1, 1886. https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/BookDetailsPL?bi=31146337771&searchurl=fe%3Don%26kn%3D1886%2Bcrowell%26sortby%3D17%26tn%3Danna%2Bkarenina&cm_sp=snippet-_-srp1-_-title1.