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Anna Karenina
Leo Tolstoy



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 Stiva.

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 she loves.

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:


  • 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


  • 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


  • Konstantin Dmitrich Levin (Kostya), Kitty's husband
  • Catherine Alexandrovna Levina (Kitty), Levin's wife, the youngest daughter of Prince Shcherbatsky
  • Mitya, their infant son
  • Nicholas Levin, Kostya's brother


  • Prince Alexander Shcherbatsky, the father of Kitty, Dolly, and Nataly
  • Princess Shcherbatskaya, the mother of Kitty, Dolly, and Nataly


  • 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


    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 her.

    She fights a magnificently tough but losing battle. As you will note, there are numerous angles from which to examine her downfall.


      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 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.


      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.


      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. -


      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.

    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:


      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.


      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 of Russia.


      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.


      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.


      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.


      Levin's understanding that birth, life, and death form a whole enables him to be open to the possibility of belief in God.

    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 leaving her.

    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.

    "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.

    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.

    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.

    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 Tolstoy opposed.

[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 predictable.

    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.

    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 impulses.

    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, cycle.

    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.

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

    3. Industrialization
      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.

    4. 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?

    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 self-centeredness.

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, precise language.

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.


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.


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.



ECC [Anna Karenina Contents] []

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