Anna Karenina has two parallel plots rather than one story line. Tolstoy builds his
book on the personal quests of Anna and Levin, his two principal characters. For
much of the book, their paths are separate; in fact, they don't meet until the end
of the book, when the differences between them are especially glaring.
The book begins with a domestic crisis. Stiva, Anna's brother, has been caught again
cheating on his wife. Anna is able to convince Dolly, her sister-in-law, to forgive
At this point, the beautiful and charming Anna appears as a kind and generous woman.
She is married to Karenin, a high-ranking government official. Relations between
them seem stable, polite if not passionate.
But then Anna meets, and falls in love with, the young Count Vronsky. She tries to
avoid him, but he will not give up. They have a torrid affair, and she becomes pregnant.
Unable to live a life of duplicity, she confesses to her husband. Karenin insists
that Anna and he go on living as though nothing were wrong. In that way, he says,
they will not be criticized and gossiped about by society, whose censure- or, worse,
ridicule- he fears. But Anna continues to see Vronsky on the sly. When Karenin finds
out, he investigates the ways in which he might obtain a divorce.
Anna falls gravely ill after giving birth to Vronsky's daughter. Karenin, however,
at what he thinks is her deathbed, forgives her everything. Anna, delirious with
fever, swears that all she wants is to be at peace with Karenin, that he is the one
Vronsky, who is also at Anna's bedside, is humiliated in Karenin's presence. Desperately
afraid that Anna will soon die, he shoots himself. But he doesn't die, and neither,
at this time, does Anna. Karenin realizes that he had, in fact, hoped for her death. Confronted with her living reality, he is unable to summon the forgiving feelings
he felt so strongly at her bedside. When Anna goes back to Vronsky, he refuses a
divorce and custody of their son, Seriozha. Anna then goes to Italy with Vronsky.
Anna, who is now abandoned by her former friends and acquaintances, finds herself
condemned to a life of loneliness and idleness. Vronsky, however, as an unmarried
man, escapes society's censure; he's free to come and go as he pleases, and does
so. Anna becomes increasingly neurotic and fearful. She convinces herself that Vronsky loves
someone else, when, in fact, he is as much in love with her as ever. There is a
lot of tension beneath the surface and they quarrel frequently.
Anna, neither Vronsky's wife nor merely his mistress, depends entirely on his love
for her peace of mind. But this love isn't enough for her; no one, at this point,
could satisfy Anna's emotional needs. After a particularly bitter argument with Vronsky,
she takes her life.
Parallel with, and in sharp contrast to, Anna's story is the story of Levin and his
pure love (in Tolstoy's view). Levin, a wealthy landowner, comes to town to propose
to Kitty, a vivacious and attractive young woman, who is- or thinks she is- in love
with Vronsky. She refuses Levin. Vronsky, however, once having met Anna, has no interest
in any other woman.
Levin is heartbroken by Kitty's refusal. He returns to his country estate and buries
himself in work. He is writing a book meant to revolutionize farming practices in
Russia. He proposes that landowners strike a 50-50 partnership with laborers. That
way, he reasons, the laborers will work harder because they will have a real stake in
the harvest, and everyone's profits will rise.
Kitty, meanwhile, traumatized by Vronsky's rejection, falls ill. Her family takes
her to a German spa. There, she gradually recovers and admits that it was Levin
she loved all along.
Kitty and Levin meet sometime later. Levin proposes again, and Kitty accepts. They
marry and later have a son.
Through his happiness with Kitty, Levin is able gradually to come to terms with his
lifelong struggle to believe in God. Kitty helps Levin to deal with the death of
his brother Nicholas and his horror of death in general.
Anna's and Levin's stories veer close to each other at times through such major characters
as Stiva, Anna's brother, and Vronsky, who was once Levin's rival for Kitty.
Thematically, the quests of Anna and Levin are contrasted. Anna's is a search for
personal fulfillment through romantic love; Levin's is one of spiritual fulfillment
through marriage, family, and hard work. Through their stories, Tolstoy attempts
to evaluate Russia's past and present and to express his vision for its future.
[Anna Karenina Contents]
Many Russian novels have large numbers of characters, and Anna Karenina is no exception.
It can be difficult to keep them all straight, especially since each Russian uses
three names. A Russian has a given name (such as Anna or Stepan); a middle name
that refers to the father (patronymic), the suffix of which means either "son of" or
"daughter of" (for example, Anna Arkadyevna and Stepan Arkadyevich, children of
Arkady); and a family name, which also has masculine and feminine forms (Anna Arkadyevna
Oblonskaya and Stepan Arkadyevich Oblonsky). When a woman marries, she takes the feminine
form of her husband's family name (Anna Arkadyevna Karenina, wife of Karenin). Common
masculine suffixes are -ovich, -ievich,- ich, and -ych. Common feminine suffixes
are -a,- ovna, -ievna, and- ishna. (Not all English translations include such suffixes.
For instance, a popular translation by Rosemary Edmonds has the title Anna Karenin
[New York: Penguin, 1954]). Russians also have nicknames (such as Stiva.)
The seven principal characters in Anna Karenina are Anna herself, Levin, Vronsky,
Stiva (Stepan), Kitty, Dolly, and Karenin. Each of them is considered below in an
individual profile. To help you keep track of the others, here is a list of the
major and more important minor characters in Anna Karenina:
THE OBLONSKY FAMILY
- Prince Stepan Arkadyevich Oblonsky (Stiva), Anna's brother
Princess Darya Alexandrovna Oblonskaya (Dolly), Stiva's wife, Kitty's sister, and
eldest daughter of Prince Shcherbatsky
Tanya, Grisha, Alyosha, Nikolenka, children of Stiva and Dolly
THE KARENIN FAMILY
- Alexey Alexandrovich Karenin, Anna's husband
Anna Arkadyevna Karenina, Karenin's wife, Vronsky's lover, and Stiva's sister
Sergey Alexeyich Karenin (Seriozha), Anna and Alexey's son
THE LEVIN FAMILY
- Konstantin Dmitrich Levin (Kostya), Kitty's husband
Catherine Alexandrovna Levina (Kitty), Levin's wife, the youngest daughter of Prince
Mitya, their infant son
Nicholas Levin, Kostya's brother
THE SHCHERBATSKY FAMILY
- Prince Alexander Shcherbatsky, the father of Kitty, Dolly, and Nataly
Princess Shcherbatskaya, the mother of Kitty, Dolly, and Nataly
THE VRONSKY FAMILY
Count Alexey Kirilich Vronsky, Anna's lover
Countess Vronskaya, his mother
- Princess Natalie Alexandrovna Lvova, Kitty and Dolly's sister, who lives abroad
Prince Lvov (Arseny), her husband
Mary Nikolaevna (Masha), who lives with Levin's brother
Annushka, Anna's maid
Countess Lydia Ivanovna, Karenin's friend, a mystic Princess Elizabeth Fedorovna Tverskaya
(Betsy), a society lady who is especially cruel to Anna
- ANNA ARKADYEVNA KARENINA
Rarely in literature is a character so utterly ruined as Anna Karenina. Beautiful
and unaffected, she becomes deceptive, jealous, and spiteful. The change in her
will probably horrify you, yet even when Anna is destructive she arouses your compassion.
In conflict with her mixed-up society, she has no resources against the turmoil within
She fights a magnificently tough but losing battle. As you will note, there are numerous
angles from which to examine her downfall.
- ANNA IS FATALLY FLAWED.
Following this interpretation of Anna's ruin, readers generally contrast her to Levin,
the hero of the book. Levin thirsts for spiritual enlightenment, while Anna seeks
personal happiness. Levin attains his goal, Anna does not. In her quest, Anna does
not think of others. Levin, on the other hand, is obsessed with trying to establish peace
and equilibrium between himself and others.
Anna's quest is purely emotional, and by the end her reason fails her. She is described
as having "an excess of feeling," a trait shared by many of the female characters
in Tolstoy's books. Levin is above all lucid, as are all of Tolstoy's heroes. Tolstoy has often been criticized for endowing his female characters with feelings that
tend to overpower their brains. Even Anna, arguably the most intelligent and well-educated
female character Tolstoy ever created, can't hold on to her wits.
- ANNA BETRAYS THE FUNCTIONS OF HER SEX.
Anna is seen in relief against two other female characters- Dolly and Kitty. The
primary function of sex, believes Tolstoy, is to create children, not personal pleasure.
Both Dolly and Kitty are wives and mothers before all else. Anna refuses to have
children after she and Vronsky begin living together. Not only does Anna refuse her societal
role, but she breaks the natural cycle of birth-life-death.
Dolly and Kitty both make meaningful lives for themselves, Anna does not.
- ANNA IS A VICTIM OF HER SOCIETY.
Following the custom of her social set, Anna's marriage to Karenin was arranged by
relatives. Love- which Anna needs and desires before all else- was never a factor
in this match. There is no passion in her marriage with Karenin; their life contributes
to Anna's emotional delicacy because it suffocates and frustrates her.
Adultery is accepted in Anna's social circle, so long as it is carried on in the
proper style. It is understood that most husbands and wives have lovers, but they're
expected to be discreet. Anna finds this hypocritical, and Vronsky, madly in love,
makes no attempt to hide it either.
Yet her society has a strong hold on Anna. When Karenin asks what will give her peace,
she feels too guilty to say, "To divorce you, keep our son, and live with Vronsky."
Although Anna and Vronsky retire to their own world, Anna is again tripped up by convention.
Her friends abandon her because she is "living in sin." Vronsky, though, can go
where he wishes. Anna is enraged at the double standard. Loneliness drives her nearly insane. Reeling from the brutal treatment of her former friends, she's unable
to believe in Vronsky's love. Where once her love for him was passionate and tender,
it becomes possessive and vengeful. Pathologically insecure, Anna destroys herself
in order to spite Vronsky.
You could also say that neither Karenin nor Vronsky is a perfect match for Anna, for
both men, in different ways, are products of their society. False and corrupt, such
a society could never produce a worthy man for a woman as intelligent and honestly
passionate as Anna.
Tolstoy made no secret of his contempt for city life and "society." Anna's death-
which he based on a true incident- can therefore be seen as his way of indicting
the society that destroyed her.
- ANNA REPRESENTS THE CITY.
For Tolstoy, the city denotes alienation and corruption. He believes that cities and
urban values would ultimately destroy Russia. As a woman of society, Anna embodies
the sparkle, sophistication and seductiveness- as well as the depravity- of the city.
By destroying her, Tolstoy scores a small victory in his battle to save Russia. -
- ANNA REPRESENTS TOLSTOY'S DARK SIDE.
Like Anna, Tolstoy had an adulterous affair, with a peasant woman on his estate. And,
like Anna, he abandoned the child he had with his extramarital lover.
Tolstoy felt terrible guilt over this affair. His death sentence for Anna has been
interpreted as a gesture of self-loathing.
- KONSTANTIN DMITRICH LEVIN (KOSTYA)
Levin is the hero of Anna Karenina. In fact, some readers believe Anna was created
by Tolstoy primarily to point up Levin's superiority. Where Anna maneuvers hysterically
to achieve the perfect romance, Levin strives to find coherence in life and death,
love and work. Anna is a portrait of alienation; Levin finds harmony with those around
him. In Anna, you see the moral collapse of urban society; in Levin, you see Tolstoy's
hopes for the future of Russia.
Levin changes during the course of the novel. He achieves harmony in several ways:
- LOVE AND PASSION
Before he married, Levin had numerous sexual involvements, all merely to satisfy
his youthful lustiness. His love for Kitty, however, is emotional and spiritual,
as well as physical. He is entirely faithful to his wife; for them, sex has a sacred
quality. In this, Levin contrasts with Stiva, who never finds sexual happiness in marriage,
and with Anna, who never finds emotional security in her sexual relations.
- LOVE AND WORK
Levin sometimes feels overwhelmed by his responsibilities as a husband, father, landowner,
and estate manager. Yet, by the end of Anna Karenina, he realizes that his mission-
working the land, sharing the proceeds with his peasants- not only provides him income but will provide his heirs with meaningful work and a foothold in the future
- INTELLECTUAL AND PHYSICAL WORK
Tolstoy did not admire Russia's urban intellectuals who, he felt, had no understanding
of, or appreciation for, the peasants, whom he considered the backbone of the country.
Levin, well-educated and himself an intellectual, finds deep satisfaction in toiling side-by-side with the peasants. Levin's book, which advances his (and Tolstoy's)
belief that peasants must be able to own land, represents a synthesis of physical
and mental labors.
- CITY AND COUNTRY
At the beginning of the novel, Levin is terribly uncomfortable in the city. At times,
he seems even somewhat boorish.
Kitty, though, is from the city and enjoys life there. When they spend the winter
in Moscow, Levin manages to make a life for himself in the city. Under his young
wife's beneficent influence, he shows you more social grace and polish than you would
have imagined possible.
- LIFE AND DEATH
Levin's greatest victory is arriving at a less panicky, more accepting attitude toward
death. In the early and middle part of the novel, Levin can hardly bear to look at
his dying brother, let alone talk to him about his impending death. When Levin isn't
shutting the eventuality of death entirely from his mind, he dwells on it morbidly.
For a time, Levin believes that death robs life of all meaning and that a God who
permits death must be evil.
In time- after his marriage, the death of his brother, and the birth of his son- Levin
realizes that life is a cycle, and that death has its rightful place in that cycle.
- ATHEISM AND FAITH
Levin's understanding that birth, life, and death form a whole enables him to be
open to the possibility of belief in God.
- COUNT ALEXEY KIRILICH VRONSKY
Vronsky is described (by Kitty's father) as "a perfect specimen of Saint Petersburg
gilded youth." He is an aristocrat, a soldier, a horseman, and a womanizer. He has
charm to burn, polish to spare, and looks that comrades envy. In his time and place,
he is far from unusual. As Kitty's father puts it, men like Vronsky "are a dime a dozen."
But Vronsky's affair with Anna Karenina sets him apart from his peers. Many readers
feel that Vronsky is the worst villain in this story. Others feel that he is more
limited than corrupt, more baffled than cunning, more desperate than cruel. As you
read, you will have to come up with your own assessment.
At the beginning of Anna Karenina, Vronsky leads Kitty on with little thought for
her feelings. He also gives the stationmaster's wife 200 rubles just to impress Anna
Karenina. Neither of these incidents makes you think that Vronsky is very deep. Perhaps
the most damning event of all is the steeplechase: Vronsky, distracted by the praise
of the crowd, makes a mistake that costs his horse her life.
On the other hand, Vronsky is not satisfied with a secretive liaison with Anna. He
wants to marry her and have a family life. He gives up his dreams of being a career
soldier in order to be with Anna. He is more mature than Anna in terms of their relationship.
Many readers criticize Vronsky for not insisting that Anna's former friends include
her in their activities- after all, they're his friends, too. It may be that his
sympathies are limited. Society doesn't punish Vronsky the way it does Anna for
living with him. He is unable- because he doesn't experience it himself- to appreciate Anna's
pain. It may also be that Vronsky needs some time to socialize by himself- Anna,
by this point, is extremely hard to live with. Yet in spite of her jealousy, her
temper, and her tears, Vronsky continues to love Anna, is faithful to her, and does not consider
Vronsky is devastated by Anna's suicide. At the end, you see him going off to fight
the Turks on behalf of the Slavs. Some readers say that he wants to do something
with his life; others that he is backing into an "honorable" suicide.
- PRINCE STEPAN ARKADYEVICH OBLONSKY (STIVA)
"Everything was upset in the Oblonskys' house," Tolstoy writes at the beginning of
Anna Karenina- and it's all because of Stiva, Anna's brother. Dolly, Stiva's wife,
has learned of yet another of his love affairs, and this time she's threatening divorce.
Stiva is charming and sentimental. He loves good food, good wine, lively conversation,
music, the theater, parties- and women. Everyone likes Stiva, he is so much fun to
have around. And no one is a better host.
However, Stiva is also deceitful, and in certain ways cruel. He never intended to
be, and never is faithful to his wife, who loves him. He can't help himself, and
besides, he's only behaving like most of the men he knows. Does he rate a plus or
a minus in your estimation?
The bane of Stiva's existence is money. Years of high living have depleted his money,
and now he's starting to use his wife's inheritance to pay his gambling debts.
It has been said that Stiva is but a shallower version of Anna. He lives by his passions,
but nowhere nearly as intensely as his sister.
Good-natured Stiva is Tolstoy's portrait of decadence, hypocrisy, and self-indulgence.
Still, he radiates charm.
- PRINCESS CATHERINE ALEXANDROVNA SHCHERBATSKY (KITTY)
Kitty finds her deepest happiness in being a wife and mother, a role for women that
Tolstoy favored. Absolutely clear about her place, she brings harmony to her home
and peace of mind to her husband. She has an instinctive appreciation for the human
cycle- birth, life, death- and does not fear it. Though not well-read, Kitty is very intelligent
and extremely practical. She has abiding faith and trust in the goodness of God.
- PRINCESS DARYA ALEXANDROVNA OBLONSKAYA (DOLLY)
Dolly is Kitty's sister, Stiva's wife, and Anna's sister-in-law. She represents the
long-suffering betrayed wife and devoted mother. In many ways, Dolly is heroic. She
makes do with little money, she raises good children, she is, in general, clear-
though unhappy- about her lot in life. Her husband's infidelities have robbed her of dignity,
financial and emotional security, and a sense of herself as an attractive woman.
Yet she carries on with almost no bitterness. In spite of Stiva's failings, she loves
and is true to him. You might say that Dolly is a fool, but given the society she
lives in, she makes the best of her options (which are, anyway, very few).
Dolly is also compassionate and a true friend. Although everyone else avoids Anna,
she visits her and remains her friend.
Dolly devotes herself to those she loves, which makes her a type of heroine according
to Tolstoy. Many readers feel she gets a raw deal in the novel.
- ALEXEY ALEXANDROVICH KARENIN
Karenin is obsessed with appearances, with doing what is "correct," with order. He
is very rational, and has hardly any imagination. He's ponderous rather than passionate
and is frightened of strong emotions. By the end, Karenin is pathetic.
He and Anna have a proper marriage. Their ways are regular and their household is
prosperous, but the sexual charge between them is essentially dead. This is fine
with Karenin- he doesn't go in for romance. In fact, he married Anna, at the insistence
of Anna's aunt, after he had flirted with Anna at a ball. He loves Anna, less because
of the woman she is- he remains indifferent to that aspect of conjugal intimacy-
than because she is simply his wife. Once married, Karenin plays the role of husband
completely. Unlike Stiva, he is faithful; Karenin obeys every letter of the law.
When Karenin learns of Anna's affair with Vronsky, the only demand he makes is that
their life go on as usual, so that no one might find out that anything is wrong
in their home life. He is concerned more with superficial honor than with his own
or his wife's happiness.
At what he believes is Anna's deathbed, Karenin undergoes a sort of religious awakening.
He vows to forgive her and Vronsky, to give her anything she wants, so long as it
brings peace. But he's unable to fulfill the Christian ideal of forgiveness- she's
too egotistical. He tells himself he keeps custody of his and Anna's son out of consideration
for the boy. Can you suggest another reason?
Karenin is as easily manipulated as he is manipulative. You know that he was maneuvered
into his marriage. And virtually all his actions are dictated by the conventions
of society. At the end, having failed in his efforts to be a true Christian, he is
easy prey for Lydia Ivanovna, a mystic who uses her "religion" as a way of keeping Karenin
close to herself and an enemy to Anna.
You might contrast Levin's religious awakening with Karenin's. After his, Levin resolves
to be more humane; Karenin, however, is confirmed in his plans for vengeance.
[Anna Karenina Contents]
The setting of Anna Karenina shifts back and forth between the city and the countryside.
Tolstoy believed that the land was Russia's most precious asset and that country
life was the truly Russian way of life. His use of setting in the novel is closely
tied to this theme.
In the city, Tolstoy shows you a shallow, hypocritical drawing-room society made up
mostly of idle aristocrats, bureaucrats, and "professional social gadflies." Episodes
that contain the seeds of disaster, scenes of cruelty, and examples of self-delusion
and deceit take place in the city. Anna gives in to Vronsky's charms in the city,
where the two also first make love; Karenin's fake fulfillment of the Christian ideal
of forgiveness happens at Anna's bedside in Saint Petersburg; Anna's former friends
ostracize her at the Saint Petersburg opera house.
All the characters are affected negatively by city life. Anna and Vronsky fight more
in the city than in the country. Kitty and Levin, too, are happier in the country
than in the city. Levin, usually so careful and thrifty, finds that he overspends
during the winter, when he and his family live in the city.
Scenes of quite different character occur in the country, where Levin, for example,
creates a meaningful, enlightened life with his family and farm workers. In the
country, Levin has a true spiritual illumination.
Tolstoy expresses his hope for the future of Russia in Levin's new farming system
and relationship with peasants. But Tolstoy was afraid that urban priorities would
destroy country life and, in his view, Russia. In describing Stiva's sale of his
forest, Tolstoy depicts the ignorance that city people have of the value of land. Tolstoy gives
form to another of his fears in writing of Stiva's management of a partnership between
banks and the railroads to develop train transportation all through Russia. This
plan would necessitate the destruction of great tracts of fertile farm land.
In Anna Karenina, the train station is synonymous with disaster. Anna and Vronsky
first meet at a train station. Anna has a recurring nightmare set in a train station,
and she commits suicide by throwing herself under a train. Our last encounter with
Vronsky is at a train station: he is departing for the Slavonic war in Turkey, a cause
[Russian Internet Resources]
"I will write a novel about a woman who commits adultery," Tolstoy reportedly said
to his wife as he began Anna Karenina. But his concerns were broader than that, and
in telling Anna's story, he touches on a number of important themes.
Many readers think Anna Karenina is the greatest novel about marriage ever written.
Tolstoy draws portraits of three marriages: Dolly and Stiva's, Anna and Karenin's,
Kitty and Levin's, as well as Anna and Vronsky's domestic relationship. All but Kitty
and Levin are unhappy.
Stiva regards marriage as a social convention, something one has to submit to. He
would like Dolly to make as few emotional demands upon him as possible; her job is
to run the household, supervise the education of the children, and make as much money
as possible available to him for his personal pleasure.
Outwardly, Anna and Karenin appear to have a happy home. But appearances are deceiving;
they have no romance or sexual excitement between them. For Anna, their life is suffocatingly
Anna and Vronsky's relationship fails for the opposite reason: theirs is little more
than a romantic entanglement in which sex (for Anna, at any rate) is more important
than anything else.
The marriage of Kitty and Levin is typical of what Tolstoy considered ideal. It is
a voluntary, rather than arranged, match between a man who is happy in his work
and spiritually at peace and a woman who feels that her purpose in life is to devote
herself to her family.
- WOMAN'S ROLE
Some readers believe that Anna suffers because she betrays the functions of her sex.
Her life disintegrates because by refusing to fulfill her "proper" role in life,
she clashes not only with her husband, but also with her society and the man she
truly loves. Out of sync with the scheme of things, she's unable to restrain her self-destructive
But there's another way to consider Anna's failure as a woman. She refuses to have
more children with Vronsky because she fears that pregnancy, nursing, and the other
responsibilities of motherhood will lessen her sexual attractiveness. For Vronsky,
she wants to be constantly beguiling and romantic- in short, an object of perennial delight.
In Tolstoy's terms, this desire of Anna's denotes failure because it places her outside
the grand cycle of birth-life-death. In twentieth- century feminist terms, Anna fails
on this score because she strives to be an object rather than a person.
Tolstoy treats the theme of religion in much the same way that he handles the theme
of marriage- by using several characters to embody particular viewpoints and experiences.
Kitty has an unquestioning faith in God and His goodness. Death holds no horror for
Kitty, since she believes that death has not only a rightful place in the natural
order, but a higher, spiritual purpose as well.
Karenin tries hard to be a good Christian. After learning of Anna's love affair with
Vronsky, he strives to turn the other cheek. But he cannot. What he really wants
is to be "virtuous," in order to satisfy his ego rather than his soul.
Until the very end of the novel, Levin battles with his lack of faith. His first struggles
are with the fact of death- which, he holds, doesn't allow for the possibility of
the existence of God. It is through Kitty, who knows how to care for his dying brother, that Levin perceives that death may be part of a benign, though mysterious,
Part VIII, Chapter 12 is when Levin has his final spiritual illumination. After a
talk with a peasant, Levin realizes that we must live for "what is good," Goodness-
because it is outside cause and effect- is what Levin construes as God.
"Vengeance is mine; I will repay" is one of the most puzzling epigraphs in world literature.
Biblical in origin (from St. Paul's letter to the Romans), the sentence in its entirety
reads, "'Vengeance is mine; I will repay,' saith the Lord."
Karenin takes vengeance on Anna, Anna's former friends take vengeance on her, and
Anna takes vengeance on Vronsky.
But Tolstoy said he was concerned primarily with the vengeance of God. He believes
that God punishes those who live only for themselves. And so Anna and Vronsky's passion
for one another becomes their torment and their doom.
Anna Karenina is also a panoramic novel of Russia. Tolstoy addresses himself to what
he considered to be the crucial issues in his nation.
- City vs. Country
Tolstoy is convinced that city "society" will ruin Russia. He feels the backbone of
Russia is the rural areas and peasantry. Stiva, therefore, as the personification
of urban values is one of the villains in the novel. Levin, the enlightened landowner,
is the hero.
- The Emancipation of the Serfs
Tolstoy favored the 1861 Emancipation. Before that, Russian peasants were essentially
slaves, bound to their landowners, not all of whom, needless to say, treated them
with the concern that Levin (and Tolstoy) showed their serfs. When the Czar decreed
the serfs free in 1861, the peasants were permitted to own land, to accumulate capital,
to employ others, and to form local governing bodies.
The 19th century was a time of rapid industrialization in Europe. Tolstoy (and Levin)
concluded- after a tour of Europe- that Russia was not meant to be industrialized,
that the "gold-mine" of Russia is in the land, in farming.
Tolstoy held that Europe and Russia were vastly different, not only in terms of their
resources, but in temperament, soul, and destiny, as well.
- The Slavic Question
In 1875 (while Tolstoy was finishing the novel), the Slavs living in the Ottoman Empire
revolted against the discrimination they had long suffered. Many Russians favored
supporting the Slavs and fought against the Turks. Stiva and Vronsky support the
campaign; Levin does not. Where do you think Tolstoy stood on this question?
In Anna Karenina, the only happy characters are those who strike a balance between
the various demands made upon them, who manage to resolve conflicts between themselves
and those to whom they are close, and between competing ambitions.
Think of Levin, Anna, and Stiva. Which character achieves balance in his life?
- ANNA AND LEVIN
The title of the novel bears the name of the heroine, but the story belongs equally
to the hero.
Tolstoy compares and contrasts Anna and Levin. Trace the development of these two
characters. Think about the ways they are affected by the society in which they live,
their goals, and the obstacles they try to overcome.
Henry James (whose novels are models of structural clarity and symmetry) once referred
to Tolstoy's War and Peace as a "loose and baggy monster." He might have said the
same about Anna Karenina, which, like War and Peace, is an epic, a sweeping story
on a grand scale. On the other hand, Anna Karenina is more compact than War and Peace,
and might be said to be a psychological rather than a historical epic. It's easy
to imagine Tolstoy thinking of his novels much the way he thought of Russia- as territories so vast their boundaries are out of sight.
Tolstoy's epics are extremely realistic. They are filled with precise physical details
intended to convey to you an idea, a mood, a feeling. Every time Karenin cracks
his knuckles, for example, you know he is nervous. When Anna screws up her eyes,
you know she is straining to see, trying to understand what is happening either in front
of or inside her. Kitty's "truthful eyes" are a window to her undeceiving nature.
And Stiva's frequent playing with his whiskers is an indication of his vanity and
Tolstoy's set pieces- minutely rendered, theatrically staged sequences- by themselves
would have guaranteed him a permanent place in literature. Not only does he give
you an indelible picture of a specific incident but he intertwines the advancement
of plot, the development of character, and the elaboration of major themes. Notable set
pieces in Anna Karenina include Kitty and Levin's wedding, the steeplechase, the
harvest, and the hunt.
Symbolism and foreshadowing are also important techniques; Tolstoy often uses them
together. A symbol is something that stands for something else. Tolstoy often uses
a stormy sky to symbolize- or represent- the turmoil in Levin's soul. One event
is said to foreshadow another if it gives a hint of what is to happen later. For example, Vronsky's
killing his horse in the steeplechase foreshadows his responsibility in Anna's death
later on. It also symbolizes Vronsky's careless egotism. The train station is a symbol of disaster. Anna's recurring dream set in a train station foretells- or foreshadows-
that she will die in such a place.
Tolstoy did not go in for fancy language. What he wanted, above all, was to communicate
directly to his readers, and he does so through fine observations presented in vivid,
The translation considered the closest to Tolstoy's style is that of Aylmer Maude
(1918; revised 1938). In 1901, Constance Garnett, the renowned translator of Dostoevsky
and other Russian writers, did an English version of Anna Karenina. Garnett's translation is a more old- fashioned reading than Maude's. Compare the following passages
from Part VII, Chapter 23:
In order to carry through any undertaking in family life, there must necessarily be
either complete division between the husband and wife, or loving agreement. When
the relations of a couple are vacillating and neither one thing nor the other, no
sort of enterprise can be undertaken.
Before any definite step can be taken in a household, there must be either complete
division or loving accord between husband and wife. When their relations are indefinite
it is impossible for them to make any move.
Another comparison, from Part I, Chapter 22, will show further the difference between
the two translations:
It was one of Kitty's happy days. Her dress did not feel tight anywhere, the lace
around her bodice did not slip, the bows did not crumple or come off, the pink shoes
with their high curved heels did not pinch but seemed to make her feet lighter. The
thick rolls of fair hair kept up as if they had grown naturally on the little head. All
three buttons on each of her long gloves, which fitted without changing the shape
of her hand, fastened without coming off. The black velvet ribbon of her locket clasped
her neck with unusual softness. The ribbon was charming, and when Kitty had looked
at her neck in the glass at home, she felt that that ribbon was eloquent.
It was one of Kitty's best days. Her dress was not uncomfortable anywhere; her lace
berthe did not droop anywhere; her rosettes were not crushed nor torn off, her pink
slippers with high, hollowed-out heels did not pinch, but gladdened her feet; and
the thick rolls of fair chignon kept up on her head as if they were her own hair. All
the three buttons buttoned up without tearing on the long glove that covered her
hand without concealing its lines. The black velvet of her locket nestled with special
softness round her neck. That velvet was delicious; at home, looking at her neck in the
looking-glass, Kitty had felt that the velvet was speaking.
Again, Garnett's version is a bit dated- we don't refer to "berthes" any longer, nor
do we say that shoes "gladden" our feet. But note an interesting difference, less
to do with language than with perception. Garnett, a woman, imagines more fully the
feel of the velvet locket on her neck; she sees it as speaking to the wearer. According
to Maude, a man, the locket speaks to Kitty's admirers.
Look through both translations. Maude's is said to come closer to Tolstoy's vigor.
Yet, keep in mind that Garnett was one of the earliest major English language translators
of Russian literature. All translations done after hers owe her some debt.
POINT OF VIEW
Tolstoy uses an omniscient, or all-knowing, narrator. This means that the governing
point of view in Anna Karenina is Tolstoy's. Tolstoy was always forthright about
the fact that he was a moralist. He does not just depict the world in his novels,
he passes judgment on it as well.
Tolstoy expresses his own viewpoint, and manipulates ours, through his characters.
His hero, Levin, is essentially a mouthpiece for him. Anna, although she has many
traits that Tolstoy admired, went against Tolstoy's moral code, and so he had to
destroy her. Karenin, who represents a type of person Tolstoy detested, is the obvious villain
in the story.
Through the device of the interior monologue, Tolstoy describes in detail the thoughts
of some of his characters. For example, Anna's carriage ride to the train station
where she commits suicide is told through Anna's eyes, and the ball at which she
steals Vronsky's heart is told through Kitty's eyes. By occasionally shifting points of
view, Tolstoy heightens the drama of the story.
FORM AND STRUCTURE
The structure of Anna Karenina is based on the major characters and what happens to
them. The two principal stories in the book are Anna's and Levin's. A third plot
element is the domestic and financial saga of the Oblonskys. Kitty's time at the
German spa- during which she comes to terms with her true feelings for Levin- also gets lengthy
treatment. Tolstoy shifts back and forth between these stories, telling each chronologically.
The novel is divided into Books I and II; each Book is divided into four Parts. (Book
I contains Parts I-IV; Book II, Parts V-VIII.) The turning points for Anna and Levin-
Anna's leaving Karenin to live with Vronsky and Levin's becoming engaged to Kitty-
take place at the close of Book I.
The last section of the novel- Book II, Part VIII- deals with the Russian involvement
in the war between the Turks and Slavs. Tolstoy's intention in this part was to
reunite his characters' stories with the story of Russia. The Turkish War was going
on in 1875-76, when Tolstoy was completing the novel. Tolstoy wrote this chapter to underscore
the relevance of Anna Karenina and to present his readers with urgent questions
regarding their day-to-day lives.
THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
[Anna Karenina Contents] [PinkMonkey.com]
© Copyright 1985 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
Electronically Enhanced Text © Copyright 1993, World Library, Inc.
Further distribution without the written consent of PinkMonkey.com, Inc. is prohibited.