Anna Karenina

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Anna Karenina




When it was first serialized in the Russian periodical Ruskii Vestnik from 1873 to 1877, Anna Karenina was a powerful and controversial novel. Indeed, to many readers, including Tolstoy himself, it signaled a radical shift in the already impressive history of the novel as a literary form. With its sweeping and complex plot lines, subtle characterizations, and blend of romance and social commentary, Anna Karenina is often mentioned in the same breath as Cervantes's Don Quixote (1605) and Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759-1767), both of which have permanently altered and defined the novel. Indeed, these books reset the standard for novel writing.

Although Anna Karenina is often considered a novel about love, lust, and adultery, it is interesting to realize that one of the most crucial plot elements (the scene during which Anna and Vrónsky consummate their affair) is strategically underdeveloped. It is marked only by a series of ellipses linking chapters ten and eleven in the second part of the novel. Sex is ostensibly erased from a novel about passion and adultery, and thus the book emphasizes ideas rather than actions. Moreover, as Tolstoy underscores, it is the ripple of repercussions stemming from the characters' actions that lead ultimately to disappointment. In the final and tragic act of Anna's suicide, readers recognize the theme that Tolstoy has been building towards: Anna's love, like that of Shakespeare's Desdemona or Thomas

Hardy's Tess, is energized by the inevitability of tragedy rather than the joys of romance.

A recent edition of Anna Karenina, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, was published by Viking in 2000.


Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (known most commonly in English as Leo Tolstoy) was born into a wealthy Russian family on September 9, 1828. He was born on his family's estate in Tula province, and he had three brothers and one sister. His childhood was remarkable in the sense that it was spent enjoying the luxuries of the family estate and the opportunities available to him in Moscow. However, Tolstoy's childhood was also tragic given that his mother died when he was two. When he was nine, his father was murdered while traveling.

Tolstoy was left in the care of his aunt, Madame Ergolsky, who took on the responsibility of his upbringing and education. The latter proved quite the challenge; her nephew was an intelligent young man with very little interest or aptitude for formal academics. Persuaded to attend Kazan University when he turned sixteen, he studied law and Oriental languages, with a particular interest in what he considered the great heroic cultures of the past. In 1847, unpopular and disenchanted with university life, he left Kazan in the middle of a school term without completing his degree. Many critics suggest that Tolstoy's depictions of socially awkward and disenfranchised characters (Konstantin Lévin in Anna Karenina, for instance) are drawn from his experiences at the university.

In 1851, Tolstoy visited one of his brothers, who had enlisted in the Russian Army. Inspired by the experience, Tolstoy himself enlisted, serving in the Crimean War (1854-1856). Many of his experiences during this period were recounted in his collection of battlefield observations, Sebastopol Sketches (1855). It was a period of his life that figured prominently, too, in his trilogy of autobiographical novels: Childhood (1852), Boyhood (1854), and Youth (1857).

With his writing career underway and his military career completed, Tolstoy continued to develop as a thinker and writer. He gathered experience through further travels across Europe, worked to establish a school for peasant children, and began to focus his writing on expressing his liberal views on education and innovative educational theories and practices. Education as an ideal to which all people should aspire remained central to Tolstoy's quest to achieve moral stability in a rapidly changing world.

In 1862, Tolstoy married Sofya Andreyevna Behrs (1844-1919). The couple had a large family, and Sofya supported her husband as he wrote his two greatest novels: War and Peace (first serialized from 1865-1869) and Anna Karenina (1873-1877). While writing the latter novel, Tolstoy underwent a spiritual conversion. Imagining himself more as a sage than as an artist, Tolstoy, in opposition to his family's desires, rid himself of material possessions and began to live according to a radically new moral compass. His actions brought him into sharp disagreement not only with his wife and children but also with the Russian Orthodox Church, which excommunicated him in 1901.

Tolstoy died in Astapovo, Russia on November 20, 1910. He was buried in a peasant-style grave in a wood near his once noble family estate.


Part One, Chapters 1-34

Anna Karenina is a long, intricately patterned novel divided into eight parts, each consisting of a series of short chapters. It begins with one of the most famous lines in literature: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." This statement sets the tone for the complex plot that follows.

The novel opens in the home of Prince Stepán Arkádyich Oblónsky, known more commonly as Stiva. His is a household in chaos due, in part, to the discovery that Stiva has been unfaithful to his wife Dárya Alexandrovna (Dolly). Dolly is devastated by her discovery of a note that proves without doubt that her husband is an adulterer. Deeply troubled by the situation, Stiva remains oddly unremorseful, a man with a passion for amorous adventure that he cannot control. To his mind, his behavior is perfectly natural, so he finds the family pressure to apologize to his wife unusual and, in the end, ineffective. When he does finally visit Dolly in her room, Stiva is rejected openly despite his admonitions to remember the good times in their marriage. Hopeful that another woman might influence his wife more positively, Stiva asks his married sister, Anna Karenina, to come from her home in St. Petersburg and convince Dolly not to leave Stiva.


  • The first major film adaptation of Anna Karenina appeared under the same title in 1935, when director Clarence Brown cast Greta Garbo in the title role along with Frederic March (Vrónsky), Basil Rathbone (Karénin), and Maureen O'Sullivan (Kitty).
  • The story was once again adapted as a film of the same title in 1948, when Julien Duvivier cast Vivien Leigh as Anna and Kieron Moore as her lover. This is an almost melodramatic and very loosely based adaptation.
  • Yet another notable film adaptation made with the same title is the 1997 adaptation (directed by Bernard Rose), starring Sophie Marceau and Sean Bean. This was the first Western production of the novel to be filmed in Russia.
  • Television adaptations have also made regular appearances on small screens across the world, beginning in 1961 with a production under the same title with Claire Bloom as Anna and Sean Connery as Vrónsky.
  • The 1977 British miniseries produced under the same title was directed by Basil Coleman, and was nominated for two Emmy awards. The cast includes Nicola Pagett as Anna, and Stuart Wilson as Vrónsky.
  • More recently, a 2000 British miniseries based on the novel, and produced under the book's original title, won numerous production awards. More importantly, it provides an excellent sense of the parallel stories of the major couples in the novel. Directed by David Blair, this version stars Helen McCrory as Anna and Kevin McKidd as Vrónsky.
  • A 1985 American production of a made-for-television-film, directed by Simon Langton and starring Jacqueline Bisset (Anna) and Christopher Reeve (Vrónsky), was also released under the same title.
  • The novel was adapted under the same title into a ballet, performed by the Bolshoi Ballet (1974), with Maya Plisetskaya and Alexander Godunov dancing in the title roles.

Heading off to his office, Stiva is met by an old friend, Konstantin Lévin, who has just resigned his position within the zemstvo (village administrative committee) and has come to the city to discuss an important matter with his friend. Stiva surmises that the discussion will focus on Lévin's love for Ekaterína Shcherbátsky (Kitty).

During his stay in Moscow, Lévin stays with his half-brother Sergéi Kóznyshev, whose philosophic view of the world has often put him at odds with his family. The brothers discuss Lévin's intentions to reconnect with their estranged, and now sickly, brother Nikolái, despite Sergéi's admonition that Nikolái wishes to be left alone.

Going to the skating rink at Moscow's Zoological Gardens, Lévin searches for Kitty, who often ventures there for exercise. After finding her, the two spend time together skating until Kitty's mood suddenly changes, and she sends the now confused Lévin away. Unsure of what has happened, Lévin heads off to dinner with Stiva hoping to find the cause of Kitty's dramatic change in mood. Lévin finds out from Stiva that a military officer named Count Alexéi Vrónsky is also competing for Kitty's affections. The two men then turn to a discussion of Stiva's situation with Dolly. Lévin voices his displeasure with his old friend, which Stiva dismisses almost nonchalantly as the expected response of a moralist.

Meanwhile, Kitty's mother, Princess Shcherbátsky (known only as the Old Princess), considers the benefits and detriments of Lévin or Vrónsky as potential matches for her daughter. Relieved that no choice has been made, she is also keenly aware that the new generation of aristocratic women are turning away from the long-held tradition of having their marriages arranged by their parents. Lévin steps boldly forward, visiting Kitty one evening with a marriage proposal. Acknowledging her affection for him, Kitty declines his offer, telling him that it is Vrónsky that she loves. Lévin is devastated, a feeling that is exacerbated when he later meets his rival and finds that he is impressed by Vrónsky.

Vrónsky and Stiva cross paths at the train station. The former is there to meet his mother who is arriving from St. Petersburg, and the latter is there to meet Anna. When the train arrives, Vrónsky greets his mother, who introduces him to Anna. The connection between Anna and Vrónsky is immediate, based as much on personality and intellect as sexual energy. When the group leaves the train station, a worker is run over by a train and killed. A debate follows about whether the incident was accidental or a suicide. To Anna the point is moot because the death is "a bad omen" of things to come.

Upon meeting with Dolly, Anna convinces her sister-in-law that Stiva is suffering intense regret because of his betrayal. She also convinces Dolly that Stiva is capable of moving beyond what she calls his infatuation. People like Stiva "may be unfaithful," she explains, "but their hearth and wife are sacred to them."

With Dolly and Stiva reconciled, the household's focus turns to an upcoming ball. At the ball, Vrónsky sees Anna for the second time. She is dressed beautifully in a black gown. Although Vrónsky waltzes often with Kitty, she is stunned when, for the final mazurka (a Polish folk dance) of the evening, he instead chooses Anna as his partner.

Although the status of the relationship between Kitty and Vrónsky is the focus of much discussion within the Oblónsky home, it is Anna who struggles most profoundly with the presence of the young army officer in her life. Torn between her growing attraction to Vrónsky, her concern with Kitty's opinion of her, and her own sense of loyalty to her family in St. Petersburg, Anna decides to return home. On her way there, she is immediately relieved to leave the soldier behind, but at the same time she is tormented by doubt and anxiousness. Later, when Anna realizes that Vrónsky has followed her to St. Petersburg, she is overwhelmed by a combination of excitement and pride. Although Anna is unable to sleep after she discovers Vrónsky's intentions, there is "nothing unpleasant or gloomy" in the "reveries that filled her imagination." Thus, Anna is forced to acknowledge that there is "something joyful, burning, and exciting" about her feelings for Vrónsky.

Upon arriving in St. Petersburg, Vrónsky is introduced to Anna's husband, Alexéi Karénin. Watching the couple together, and noticing the absence of passion between Anna and her husband, the officer is certain that Karénin does not love his wife. Based on this belief, Vrónsky makes arrangements to attend the various social and cultural events that Anna attends.

Part Two, Chapters 1-35

Part Two of the novel opens with concern on the part of family and friends for Kitty's health, which declines dramatically following Vrónsky's public slight of her at the ball in Moscow. Doctors are consulted, but Dolly realizes that Kitty has been brought to near collapse by her rejection of Lévin followed by Vrónsky's rejection of her.

In St. Petersburg, Anna finds her life defined more and more by Vrónsky and his socialite cousin, Princess Elizavéta Tverskóy (Betsy). Anna becomes increasingly distant from her former family friend, the morally righteous Countess Lydia Ivánovna. As the breach between the two grows, rumors about Anna's scandalous relationship with Vrónsky begin to spread.

Despite the pending scandal, Anna and Vrónsky continue to meet regularly at Betsy's. They meet even though Anna pleads with Vrónsky to end their relationship and to ask Kitty for her forgiveness. Somewhat unaware of what is unfolding around him, Karénin reflects on his sense that his relationship with Anna is being undermined. Acknowledging his jealousy, he is at the same time aware that his jealousy is illogical, a response based in an unfounded emotion rather than a response based in logic and even open-mindedness. After confronting his wife one evening about the possible consequences of what he assumes to be her less-than-respectful behavior, Karénin is confused by Anna's indignation and her argument that she has a right to have some entertainment in her life. Karénin counters with the argument that such desires should be kept hidden. When Karénin reasserts his love for her, Anna responds by wondering what love really means.

Leaping forward in time by almost a year, the novel refocuses on Anna and Vrónsky in the moments following the sexual consummation of their relationship. Distraught, and fearing that she has lost everything, Anna sobs and says that all she has in her life now is Vrónsky. After falling into a fitful sleep, Anna dreams that both Karénin and Vrónsky are her husbands.

Unable to overcome his sadness over Kitty's rejection, Lévin keeps himself busy with the frustrating business of estate farming. He also cares for his half-brother Nikolái, who suffers from tuberculosis. Lévin's spirits are revived during a surprise visit from Stiva, who provides Lévin with details of Kitty's failing health. Lévin believes her illness is caused in part by her treatment of him, which he interprets as a sign of her feelings for him. Their discussion then turns to business, and more specifically to Stiva's plans to sell part of his family estate to a merchant who Lévin later slights. Stiva concludes the sale against his friend's best advice, and then he accuses Lévin of snobbery.

Vrónsky and Anna continue to deepen their relationship in full view of St. Petersburg high society. Upon learning that Anna is pregnant (and that he is likely the father of her unborn child), Vrónsky urges her to leave Karénin and to live openly and honestly with him. He does not realize that her devotion to her son, Sergéi, holds her in her marriage, which remains, on the surface at least, as it always has. Simmering below the surface, though, is Karénin's growing hostility towards his wife. He reminds her repeatedly that her worry when Vrónsky is injured during a horse race, for instance, is wholly improper. Pushed by her husband to quit her relationship with the officer, Anna confesses openly that she loves Vrónsky. Karénin is shocked, and demands that she continue to appear committed to their marriage until they agree upon a solution to the situation. As is so often his reaction to situations both personal and professional, Karénin shows himself to be a man almost obsessed with appearances and with how his actions might look to people of high standing within society.

While Anna's story continues to unfold in St. Petersburg, Kitty visits a German spa in the hopes of recovering her health. While she is there, Kitty meets and befriends a young woman named Varvára (Várenka) who has devoted her life to charity and good deeds. Kitty also meets a woman named Madame Stahl, a seemingly religious invalid who also presents Kitty with an influential model of piety and righteousness. However, Madame Stahl is also a vain woman whose piety is not necessarily sincere.

Part Three, Chapters 1-32

Lévin visits with his half-brother, Sergéi. The two men converse at length about the conditions of the rural peasantry, local politics, and the responsibility of the landowners to tend to the local affairs of their tenants. After working in his fields the next day, Lévin receives a letter from Dolly. Having moved to the country in order to reduce household expenses, Dolly is struggling to adapt to rural hardships. Lévin begins to visit Dolly again, which only serves to reawaken his feelings for Kitty. His love for Kitty is further renewed when he catches a glimpse of her in a passing carriage.

Back in St. Petersburg, Karénin struggles with his feelings for Anna following her admission of adultery. Growing increasingly distant from his family, he decides, nonetheless, that the best punishment for Anna is to deny her the divorce she so deeply desires. Anna is stunned by Karénin's decision, and she contemplates leaving him and taking their son with her. But in the end, Anna decides to agree to Karénin's plan, maintaining the appearances dictated by her social standing.

In light of Anna's pregnancy, Vrónsky is torn between continuing his military career (his primary source of income) and following a self-imposed code of conduct that would force him to resign his position (should he decide to make public his affair with a married woman). Setting off for Anna's country home, where she has arranged a meeting, Vrónsky tries to convince Anna to abandon her marriage and to apply for a divorce. Anna admits that her pride, as well as her love for her son, will keep her from ever doing so.

Meanwhile, Karénin's standing in society rises, bolstered only momentarily by a brilliant political speech that he delivers on the relocation of the Russian native tribes. Despite his wife's affair, he remains steadfast as he maintains the illusion of a happy marriage. His demands of Anna are simple: there will be no divorce and Vrónsky will never set foot in his home.

Back in the country, Lévin struggles with his renewed feelings for Kitty, and the matter is exacerbated by Dolly's persistent attempts to bring the two together for a meeting. Heading away from his farm (and from Kitty) to visit a friend, Lévin is drawn into deep philosophical discussions about farming and the conditions of the peasantry. He continues his journey, visiting his dying half-brother Nikolái. Their conversations bring him to contemplate death, and he resolves to live his life to the fullest.

Part Four, Chapters 1-13

Anna and Karénin continue to uphold the illusion of their marriage, sharing a house despite the fact that they are almost totally estranged from one another. Both wish for an end to the situation, but neither can see a workable solution. Breaking her husband's rule, Anna invites Vrónsky to her home when Karénin is out attending a meeting. Karénin returns earlier than expected, and he confronts his wife and her lover. A heated argument follows, during which Vrónsky recognizes a mean spiritedness and pettiness in Anna that leave him saddened. For her part, Anna erupts in anger against her husband, attacking his character. When her anger subsides, Anna tells Vrónsky that she has had a dream of her pending death during childbirth. Karénin tells Anna that he plans to initiate divorce proceedings, and he threatens to take their son away from her.

After visiting a lawyer in St. Petersburg in order to set the divorce in motion, Karénin goes off to work in the rural provinces, having been in a professional slide since his speech. He then encounters Stiva and Dolly, who, despite Karénin's obvious coldness, invite him to dinner. Lévin, Kitty, and a number of locals, will also be attending. Karénin accepts the invitation. At the dinner, he witnesses Lévin and Kitty's reconciliation, and he spends the evening listening to discussions on numerous topics, including education and women's rights.

The dinner brings numerous threads of the narrative together. Karénin confides to Dolly that he is divorcing Anna, despite the fact that it will ruin her. Lévin and Kitty reunite; they apologize for their past mistakes and decide to marry in the near future. Lévin believes that he should be totally honest with his affianced, so allows her to read his private journals, which reveal him to be an agnostic. The journals also reveal that he slept with a number of women prior to meeting Kitty. Upset at both of these discoveries, Kitty forgives him and the couple move forward with their plans.

Karénin, however, has been passed over in his bid for a coveted government post. To make matters worse, he receives news that Anna has delivered a baby girl, and that Anna is suffering what appears to be a fatal fever in the aftermath. Rushing home, he finds Anna being tended by Vrónsky. Certain that she is dying, Anna begs Karénin to forgive both her and her lover, which he does. Leaving the house, and tormented by thoughts of Anna's death, Vrónsky attempts suicide, but survives.

Karénin reflects upon his forgiveness, and on the affection he feels for the newborn child, also named Anna. Karénin overhears a conversation during which Betsy pleads with Anna to see the depressed and suicidal Vrónsky once more before he is stationed, and he informs his wife that he will tolerate the affair on the condition that the family is not disgraced. Stiva arrives and negotiates a solution to the situation: Karénin will claim to be the adulterer because a divorce on these grounds will protect Anna's reputation. Informed of the plan, Vrónsky visits Anna, affirming his love for her. Anna, however, argues that Karénin is being overly generous, and she rejects his plan for a divorce. Instead, Vrónsky resigns his commission with the army, and the two lovers go abroad.

Part Five, Chapters 1-33

Following his engagement to Kitty, Lévin attends a legally mandated meeting with a priest, and he also attends a bachelor party in his honor. After facing his last minute insecurities about the wedding, Lévin and Kitty are finally married amidst many tears and much celebration. Returning to their country estate, the couple settle somewhat uncomfortably into married life, with Lévin chafing at times under his sudden lack of freedom and his wife's jealousy. Nevertheless, the marriage is a happy one.

Less happy in his decision is Vrónsky, who finds life in Italy (where he and Anna are now staying), less than satisfying. Anna, on the other hand, feels her spirits lift once the taint of disgrace that had dogged her in Russia is no longer a factor. While Anna recovers from the emotional havoc caused by the rumors that have dogged her for so long, Vrónsky takes up painting as a means of fending off his growing frustration with his life. The attempt is unsuccessful. Anna and Vrónsky expand their circle of acquaintances to include a Russian painter who agrees to paint a portrait of Anna.

While Lévin and Kitty go to tend to Nikolái on his deathbed, Karénin struggles to understand why his life has become defined by failure and misery. At this point in the novel, the narrator steps forward for a brief period in order to fill readers in on Karénin's personal history.

Returning to St. Petersburg, Anna and Vrónsky settle into a hotel and attempt to revitalize their social life, but to no avail. High society shuns them, and Anna meanwhile struggles with her own waning sense of love for her daughter and with the knowledge that she has abandoned her son. In a futile effort to reenter society, Anna agrees to attend the opera with one of her old, unmarried aunts, much to Vrónsky's displeasure. Fearing the response that Anna might have to endure, Vrónsky follows his lover to the opera and spies on her. He watches in dismay as she is insulted repeatedly by the other patrons; for her part, Anna returns home angry, and with a sense of desperation. Anna and Vrónsky depart soon thereafter for the countryside, where they stay for a brief period before returning again to the city.

Part Six, Chapters 1-32

Unhappy with her place in the country, and unable to adjust to the conditions and culture of rural life, Dolly moves in with Lévin and Kitty for the summer. Kitty's friend Várenka and Lévin's half-brother Sergéi also join the group. The latter two are immediately attracted to each other, but nothing will ever come of it because Sergéi remains forever loyal to the memory of a deceased lover. Stiva joins the group with a friend, Veslóvsky, who irritates Lévin immensely. A clumsy man who consumes copious amounts of food and flirts openly with Kitty, Veslóvsky engages in conversations about love and social conventions in a tone that makes Kitty uncomfortable and leads Lévin to expel him from the house.

Dolly decides to visit Anna, and as she heads for the city, she reflects on her ideas about life, love, and living according to a set of rules that acknowledges the power of emotion and spirit. On the way, Dolly encounters Anna and some friends on horseback, an activity that Russian society considers inappropriate for a lady of Anna's standing. Dolly is simultaneously envious of her friend's freedom and anxious for her friend's future, and she promises Vrónsky that she will speak with Anna about accepting Karénin's offer for a respectable divorce.

During an elaborate and costly dinner, Anna and her group of friends discuss an eclectic range of issues, from Western architecture to the current state of local government. Following dinner, Dolly fulfills her promise to Vrónsky, approaching Anna about accepting Karénin's offer of divorce. Believing that to ask for her freedom is to acknowledge both privately and publicly that she has acted improperly, Anna refuses to humiliate herself by asking him again for that freedom, so Dolly decides to return to the country, suddenly thankful for the family and friends that she has.

Vrónsky announces that he is traveling to an outlying province on business, and his path crosses with Lévin. A series of political discussions between the two follow. When the former officer returns home, Anna is frustrated and irritable. She refuses to be separated from Vrónsky again, even on minor business trips, and she finally agrees to write Karénin to ask for the divorce that he had once offered her.

Part Seven, Chapters 1-31

Having returned to Moscow, Lévin and Kitty are anxious about the impending birth of their first child. Lévin is also anxious about life in the city, which he finds expensive, crowded, and driven only by profit and loss. After attending an evening concert, Lévin meets Stiva, Vrónsky, and others for an evening of drinking, gambling, and crude conversation. Stiva proposes a surprise visit to see Anna, whom Lévin has heard about but has never met. When Lévin and Anna finally do meet later that evening, they immediately feel comfortable in conversation. Anna tells Lévin that she does not believe that Kitty can ever truly forgive her without personally living the nightmare Anna's life has now become. Lévin agrees, and promises to relay this message to his wife.

Returning home, Lévin is acutely aware of his growing fascination with Anna, and a jealous Kitty, sensing this, provokes an argument. In the meantime, Anna rebukes Vrónsky for his growing coldness towards her and for spending time away from her with his friends.

Soon after Lévin begins to grow accustomed to city life, Kitty awakens him in the middle of the night and announces that she is in labor. Fearful for Kitty's life, he is shocked by the birth of his son. Rather than being joyous or pensive, Lévin feels an odd mixture of pity and revulsion when he first sees his newborn son.

As the financial situation worsens in the Oblónsky household, Dolly demands full control over her portion of the family fortune. Her demand prompts Stiva to secure a government position, and this brings him into contact with Karénin. Karénin treats Stiva respectfully but tells him that he no longer has any interest in Anna or her life. Nevertheless, he promises to give Stiva a decision regarding the divorce. Soon after, following a conversation with Landau, a noted French psychic, Karénin refuses Anna's request for a respectable divorce.

Both Anna and Vrónsky are unhappy; they are being driven apart by Anna's almost paranoid jealousy. The lovers also argue about such issues as fidelity, women's rights, and education. When Stiva announces Karénin's decision, Anna demands that they leave for the country immediately. Vrónsky tries to explain that this is not possible because he has business to settle and has also planned to visit his mother. The couple argues all day, until Vrónsky leaves for the train station on his way to see his mother. Anna falls into despair, believing that the relationship is over. Desperate, she sends Vrónsky a telegram, begging him to return immediately. He replies with a curt telegram, saying that he cannot return right away, and she misinterprets this as a cold dismissal of her.

Anna is resolved to be at the station when Vrónsky returns, and she sets out across the city to get there in time to meet him. While she waits at the station, Anna is at times disoriented and without focus, and she comes to the conclusion that Vrónsky's passion for her has long faded, and that he is now staying with her out of a sense of duty rather than on account of his love for her. Anna's disgust with what she sees as the artificiality of the world and the shallowness of the people around her is coupled with a desire to punish Vrónsky, and she throws herself under the wheels of an approaching train. Her last moments are a powerful blend of confusion and regret.

Part Eight, Chapters 1-19

The closing section of the novel opens two months after Anna's suicide. Vrónsky has reenlisted in the army and speaks of Anna with animosity. Karénin has taken custody of the baby girl born to his late wife. The final pages of the novel are mostly devoted to Lévin, who undergoes a deep spiritual transformation that demonstrates Tolstoy's belief that life can be lived for a higher ideal. Lévin's transformation also underscores an alternative to the example set by Anna's life and death.


Varvára Andréevna

See Várenka


Betsy (Princess Elizavéta Fyódorovna Tverskóy) is Vrónsky's first cousin. She becomes a wealthy and influential friend of the disgraced Anna. Much like Anna herself, Betsy has a propensity for living life to the fullest, which often brings her into conflict with social conventions.


Dolly (Princess Dárya Alexándrovna Oblónsky) is Stiva's wife and Kitty's older sister. Her discovery of her husband's adultery opens the novel, and effectively introduces the moral and emotional issues that begin to further unfold with Anna's arrival. Dolly understands the subtleties of social and personal relationships, so when Anna is ostracized by society for her affair with Vrónsky, Dolly is very understanding and supportive. Appreciative of Anna's pursuit of happiness, she is at the same time increasingly aware of the happiness in her own life when confronted with Anna's sorrows.

Countess Lydia Ivánovna

Countess Lydia Ivánovna was originally a friend of Anna's. However, after learning about Anna's affair, the deeply religious woman becomes Anna's harshest critic. Ivánovna will not forgive Anna or speak with her, and she is secretly in love with Anna's husband. Ivánovna represents high society in Russia, which views adultery and infidelity with an unfounded moral righteousness.

Alexéi Alexándrovich Karénin

Alexéi Alexándrovich Karénin is an image-conscious, conservative, and duty-bound man. Holding various posts as a government official, Karénin is a passionless man trapped in a loveless marriage with the beautiful Anna. Distant from his wife and son, his primary concern is for his reputation and status. When he is made aware of his wife's affair with Vrónsky, for instance, Karénin briefly considers the idea of challenging Vrónsky to a duel, but opts instead to punish his wife by denying her the divorce that she desires. Later, when he does extend an offer of divorce, he does so only under the condition that their son remain in his custody. Throughout the novel, Karénin's motivations are, in fact, quite complex. At times, he worries about Anna's reputation should he grant her a divorce (she would lose all social standing given the scandal). At other times, he is concerned primarily about his own reputation (that of a man who lost his wife to a lover). And at other times still, the overwhelming sense is that he is simply trying to punish Anna for cuckolding him.

Standing as a marked contrast to Anna's emotional openness, and even to Kitty's gradual attainment of emotional maturity, Karénin locks his emotions away, hiding them. He suggests that Anna should do the same with her desires. Considered more broadly, Karénin represents what Tolstoy viewed as the rational inhumanity of an increasingly bureaucratic culture, which transforms the human condition into easily understood and manageable equations, rules, and measurable quotas. To leave Karénin, as Anna does, is to reject both literally and symbolically the superficial conventionality that he comes to represent.

Sergéi Alexéich Karénin

Also known as Seryózha, Sergéi Alexéich Karénin is Anna and Karénin's son. Although he is a boy with a good disposition, his father's treatment of him is cold and dismissive. When his mother deserts her family in order to be with her lover, she does so at the expense of her relationship with her son, though she never gives up in her attempts to visit him.

Anna Arkádyevna Karénina

Anna Arkádyevna Karénina is the protagonist of the novel that bears her name. Intelligent, well-read, and beautiful, she is aristocratic in birth and in spirit. Married to Alexéi Alexándrovich Karénin, a cold, unloving man, Anna wishes to live by her deeply held belief that love is stronger than anything, including responsibility, duty, or oppressive social conventions. Following a chance meeting with an army officer named Count Alexéei Kiríllovich Vrónsky, Anna begins her journey down a path that most of her peers see as adulterous but that she views as an honest expression of her desires for happiness and fulfillment. Her relationship with Vrónsky is, she believes, an authentic counterpoint to the stagnant, superficial marriage in which she is trapped. Remaining deeply devoted to her son, Anna confronts the double standards that shape the culture of St. Petersburg—she is held almost solely responsibly for her affair.

Pregnant with what is likely Vrónsky's child, Anna confesses her affair to her husband. He reacts with hostility tempered by practical resolve. Rather than granting her a divorce, he forces Anna to live a lie, pretending the marriage is sound in order to protect the family name and his own reputation. For a woman to whom artificiality is abhorrent, the arrangement wears heavily on Anna, and she finally flees with her lover to Italy before returning to Russia to live as an outcast within high society. Increasingly at odds with both Vrónsky and the world around her, Anna is isolated from her friends, out of touch with her children, and fearful of losing Vrónsky (whom she pushes away with her jealousy and paranoia). In a final and tragic statement of her desperation, Anna throws herself under a train.

Despite the tragic ending of her life, readers inevitably have mixed feelings and sympathy for Anna as a woman who harbors an intensely passionate spirit and determination to live her life fully and on her own terms. Forced to endure what she comes to see as the nightmare of her life, Anna remains a complex and troubling symbol of the quest for autonomy within an alienating and oppressive world.


Princess Ekaterína Alexándrovna Shcherbátsky is a vibrant and beautiful woman who is pursued early in the novel by both Lévin and Vrónsky. Initially, she rejects Lévin and chooses Vrónsky, only to be slighted when Vrónsky falls in love with Anna. Debilitated by this turn of events, Kitty falls into ill health, planning to visit a German spa as part of her recovery. She later reconnects with Lévin at a dinner party at the Oblónsky country house, where the two rekindle their affection for each other and eventually settle into a relatively harmonious marriage filled with mutual support and caring.

At first, Kitty is an evasive woman who is unable or unwilling to communicate her deepest emotions to those around her. Kitty is written by Tolstoy as the most obvious counterpoint to the way Anna expresses her feelings regardless of the consequences to herself or to those around her. Over a period of years, though, Kitty moves towards a more balanced understanding of her feelings for Lévin. This maturation allows her to settle into a life that is more peaceful and dramatically less tragic than Anna's life.


See Konstantín Dmítrich Lévin

Sergéi Ivánovich Kóznyshev

Sergéi Ivánovich Kóznyshev is the half-brother of Konstantín and Nikolái Lévin. A well-known but often ignored intellectual and writer, he represents the modern intellectuals who are unable to embrace life other than as an intellectual exercise. His intellectualism prevents him from feeling the passion and emotion that is essential in love and in political commitment.


Landau is the French psychic who consults with Karénin, and influences his decision not to give Anna a respectable divorce.

Konstantín Dmítrich Lévin

Also known as Kóstya, Konstantín Dmítrich Lévin develops across the course of the novel as a minor protagonist, a character as important to the development of the novel as its title figure. An idealistic landowner, Lévin is not as socially polished as many of the other characters in the novel. Nevertheless, his pursuit and long courtship of Kitty does finally settle into a stable, loving marriage. Moreover, his spiritual regeneration, not Anna's suicide, concludes the novel on a powerful note of personal and social redemption. Importantly, Lévin's final discovery is learned from a peasant. This underscores Tolstoy's belief in simplicity as essential to the future of modern society.

Lévin is arguably the most independent thinker in Tolstoy's novel, and he does not fit into any of the obvious categories that come to define Russian society. In contrast to most of the other characters, he is a balanced and analytical thinker, willing to acknowledge the benefits of theories on agricultural production, for instance, but at the same time he is critical of many of the practical limitations that render these self-same theories problematic in the real world. Preferring the isolation of his farm over the trendy intellectualism of the city, and the pleasures of hard labor over the social scene of Moscow or St. Petersburg, Lévin is a vital counterpoint to Anna's search for self-defined (or, perhaps, self-contained) happiness.

Nikolái Dmítrich Lévin

Nikolái Dmítrich Lévin is the Lévin's sickly half-brother. Tolstoy's depiction of Nikolái represents both the strengths and weaknesses of the radical democratic movement emerging in Russia near the end of the nineteenth century. At once intensely intellectual, idealistic, and deeply committed to his ideas, he is at the same time detached from the practical world. His ideas remain simply ideas, and are never put into action in such a way as to have a wide reaching impact on the culture around him.


Masha (Márya Nikoláevna) is a reformed prostitute who becomes Nikolái's final companion.

Márya Nikoláevna

See Masha

Princess Dárya Alexándrovna Oblónsky

See Dolly

Prince Stepán Arkádyich Oblónsky

See Stiva

Old Princess

Old Princess (Princess Shcherbátsky) is the mother of Dolly, Kitty, and Natalie. Unlike her practical husband, she initially advises Kitty to favor Vrónsky as a suitor over Lévin.


See Sergéi Alexéich Karénin

Prince Alexander Dmítrievich Shcherbátsky

Prince Alexander Dmítrievich Shcherbátsky is the aristocratic father of Dolly, Kitty, and Natalie. He is a very practical man in the sense that he sees Vrónsky's true nature, and would thus rather that his daughter Kitty chose Lévin as her husband instead.

Princess Ekaterína Alexándrovna Shcherbátsky

See Kitty

Princess Shcherbátsky

See Old Princess

Madame Stahl

Madame Stahl is a seemingly religious invalid who Kitty meets during her visit to a German health spa. An influential model of piety and righteousness, and a key figure in Kitty's spiritual education, Madame Stahl is a controversial figure. As Kitty's father points out, Madame Stahl is also a vain woman whose piety is actually a veneer for her faults, not a meaningful component of her being.


Stiva (Prince Stepán Arkádyich Oblónsky) is Anna's aristocratic brother and a government official cursed with what he calls an amorous nature; that is, he is a serial adulterer. His wife, Dolly, finds out about one of his affairs, which threatens to destroy their marriage. This discovery spurs Stiva to invite his sister, Anna, to visit, which in turn leads to her first meeting with Vrónsky.

Believing that life is meant to be lived fully without hesitation or regret, Stiva is drawn by Tolstoy as an amicable and likeable character. Despite his lack of self control, he is not a cruel man, but is, as he claims often, trapped by the contradictions between his nature and the conservatism of Russian culture. Although he regrets that his adultery is discovered, for instance, he does not regret engaging in adultery itself. At the same time, his selfish and shortsighted behavior serves as a commentary on the vacuous and even corrupt nature of the culture in which he lives.

Princess Elizavéta Fyódorovna Tverskóy

See Betsy


Várenka (Varvára Andréevna) is a virtuous young woman befriended by Kitty during her stay at a German spa. She becomes an inspiration to Kitty and spurs Kitty's recovery from ill health following the rejection by Vrónsky.

Later, in part six of the novel, while visiting Lévin at his country estate, Várenka meets his half-brother Sergéi. The two are immediately attracted to each other and their relationship flourishes. Out picking mushrooms together one day, both of them realize that Sergéi is on the cusp of proposing marriage. At the last moment, however, he finds himself unable to make the offer, choosing instead to remain loyal to the memory of a deceased lover to whom he has dedicated himself. The opportunity for the two to be together is lost forever, an example in the novel of allowing nostalgia or empty devotion to get in the way of a rejuvenating love.


Known commonly as Váska (Vásenka Veslóvsky) is a close friend of Stiva's. During a visit with the Lévins, Veslóvsky lavishes attention on Kitty to the point that her husband becomes jealous and throws him out of the house.

Vásenka Veslóvsky

See Váska

Count Alexéi Kiríllovich Vrónsky

Alexéi Kiríllovich Vrónsky is a handsome military officer who was, in Tolstoy's original drafts, a poetic hero of great passion committed to the ideals of independence and unrestrained living. As the novel took shape, however, Vrónsky became more of a common figure, conforming in many ways to the social ideals of his day. Indeed, Vrónsky is occupied with the practicalities of making a living, and, unlike Anna, he keeps a low profile in the face of social disgrace. He is imagined by Anna to be the polar opposite of her husband (with whom he shares a common first name), and Vrónsky is indeed capable of a great, accommodating love for Anna (unlike her husband). However, Vrónsky's preoccupation with the practical is a trait that is also held by Karénin.

Countess Vrónsky

Never given a first name, the Countess is the opinionated mother of Count Alexéi Kiríllovich Vrónsky.


Conflict between Personal Emotions and Social Conventions

One of the central concerns of Anna Karenina is the often tragic conflict between the energies of private passion and inner emotions and the social conventions that are put in place to contain or control them. In such characters as Anna and Stiva, readers recognize lives being guided wholly by emotional responses and desires. Anna feels unloved by Karénin, so she responds openly to her feelings for Vrónsky. When she finally confesses her feelings to her husband, nothing really changes. Social conventions dictate that Anna and her husband should maintain the status quo, which means that they must continue to appear together as a married couple.

Anna, the adulterous wife, is aligned neatly with a life lived honestly, while her wronged husband is guilty of both a public and private duplicity. Willing to live a false life and to repress the truth of his own emotions as well as those of his wife, Karénin becomes both a not so subtle representation of a culture that values an outward image of propriety over any real integrity. In the end, too, Karénin's approach to life, not Anna's, can be seen as one of the primary sources of the tragedy of the human condition.


  • Given that Tolstoy very carefully marks the idea of vengeance as crucial to his novel (see the epigraph that he has chosen), the idea of avenging oneself is often overlooked in discussions of the novel. Write an essay discussing how various actions and reactions in the novel are grounded in a belief in vengeance rather than in the Christian values of selflessness and charity.
  • Select some film or television adaptations of the novel and view them with your class. Afterwards, conduct a discussion contrasting and comparing these adaptations to the original novel. How are the themes presented in each version? What has been changed? How do these changes make the adaptation more, or less, effective?
  • Construct a journal of works of nineteenth or early twentieth-century art (paintings and photographs, most obviously) that you feel would effectively reflect the various backdrops against which this novel is set: Moscow, St. Petersburg, and the Russian countryside.
  • Rewrite one or more parts of Anna Karenina in terms of the culture of your day. Whereas Tolstoy's characters spend a great deal of time discussing agricultural methods and the influence of Western Europe, what would a more contemporary version of Lévin, for instance, spend his time contemplating?
  • Construct a timeline of the important social, cultural, and scientific events that occurred during the original serialization of Anna Karenina (1873-1877). Include clear references to the points in the novel that draw on these events, ideas, or creations, either in a primary role or as a part of the backdrop against which the story unfolds.

Sadly, as Tolstoy indicates throughout the novel, the Karénins' duplicitous arrangement is more commonplace than one might imagine among aristocratic Russians. In part four, for instance, there is mention made of Stiva's new mistress (a ballerina) while he visits his wife Dolly in the country. The implications are clear: either he has learned to hide the evidence of his amorous nature more carefully or his wife has decided to turn a blind eye to his philandering. The upper levels of Russian culture are, Tolstoy seems to suggest, defined in large part by a commitment to illusion and deception.

Few characters in the novel go unscathed. Regarding Anna, Tolstoy points out through a series of parallel relationships that a life ruled by emotion and passion can be equally as dangerous as a life ruled by social convention. Anna suffers greatly for conducting her affair with Vrónsky so publicly. Vrónsky also grows colder towards Anna over time. When Kitty becomes deeply enamored with the devoted and apparently virtuous Madame Stahl, she commits herself very quickly to a life of piety, devotion, and charity. Her father points out to Kitty, however, that Madame Stahl is not so much an angel of virtue as she is a vain woman, bedridden by choice in order to conceal her stubby and unsightly legs.

Thus, if Karénin is painfully closed off, hiding behind appearance and surface, then Anna and Kitty live openly in their interaction with things as they appear at the surface. This causes unnecessary disappointment and pain for those around Anna and Kitty. In other words, readers are invited to see what either woman might choose not to see: that Madame Stahl is a hypocrite and that Vrónsky is simply another, ordinary man with his own foibles and limitations.


There are a number of key moments in Anna Karenina during which the Christian doctrine of forgiveness figures prominently, most notably Karénin's forgiveness of Anna and Vrónsky, and Lévin and Kitty's mutual forgiveness as they set the stage for their reconciliation. But as is often the case in Tolstoy's masterpiece, such generalized solutions rarely solve problems directly, if at all. Although Lévin and Kitty do manage to move through forgiveness towards a harmonious and mutually beneficial marriage, Anna turns away from Karénin's selfless gesture. Rejecting his plans for a respectable divorce, she instead flees from St. Petersburg with her lover. Tolstoy seems determined to remind readers through these characterizations, as well as through his epigraph to the novel ("Vengeance is mine; I will repay"), that the modern world is one in which the ideals of Christian doctrine can no longer function as a universal balm for the ills of the individual.


Tolstoy is very careful in his depiction of the two adulterers in Anna Karenina, resisting traditional representations of the adulterous woman, in particular, as being driven by an unrestrained and morally degenerative passion. While Anna and Vrónsky are clearly attracted to each other as sexual beings, they are drawn together more powerfully by an attraction grounded in the abstractions of spirit, personality, and intellect. Appearing at the ball in a tasteful but elegant black dress, Anna rejects the familiar stereotype of the dangerous woman dressed in such flamboyant colors as lilac (as Kitty suggests) or, more conventionally, red. In fact, Anna herself is often startled by her reactions to Vrónsky, finding herself torn between her passions and her devotion to her own maternal, familial loyalties.

Although she is most obviously compared with her brother Stiva, Anna is also very closely aligned with Lévin. Both are confronted with obstacles to their happiness and, as they see it, to the truthful expression of their personal desires. Whereas Lévin withdraws from society following his rejection by Kitty, Anna slowly realizes that she would rather suffer within her adulterous relationship (which to her is a true expression of her feelings) than to continue to survive in a loveless marriage. While Tolstoy does argue against adultery as an abstract idea, he also represents in Anna a woman whose transgressive behavior is motivated by a desire to fulfill her emotional and spiritual needs with sincerity and honesty.

Adultery is an almost natural by-product of modern culture, Tolstoy seems to suggest. Tragically, it is a by-product that threatens the stabilities and foundations upon which society has been built.


Literary Realism

Often viewed as a predecessor to modernism, literary realism found its influential beginnings, most critics agree, in the novels of the Russian writer Tolstoy (including Anna Karenina) and the French novelist Honoré de Balzac (La Comédie humaine, 1845), as well as the English writer George Eliot (Middlemarch, 1871) and the American writer William Dean Howells (The Rise of Silas Lapham, 1885). Dedicated to the detailed depiction of life and society as they are rather than as we wish they might be, realism establishes fidelity and truthfulness as key components of the movement while at the same time addressing a set of philosophic assumptions about life (just as Anna Karenina does).

Generally, realist writers have been associated with a belief in pragmatism, which connects the truth with a discernible set of consequences and experiences that are at once practical and realistic. Tolstoy's character Lévin, for instance, finds a kind of refuge from the heady intellectualism and intrusive bureaucracy of his day by spending time working his farm. More importantly, he stands as a kind of practical counterpoint to the idealistic and emotionally volatile Anna or the detached intellectualism of his own half-brother Sergéi. Generally, characters within the realist model are isolated (though not always lonely) characters concerned with the workings of everyday life.

Realist writers are also often supporters, if not advocates, of democratic ideas, and prove useful interrogators of the relationship between state institutions and the lives of average citizens. Lévin's interest and concern for the lives of the peasants is a clear example of this stance. Significantly, Tolstoy emphasizes the role of the peasantry at the end of the novel, when the landed farmer (Lévin) reaches his spiritual regeneration through consideration of the virtues and ideals of peasants. Where romantics (like Anna) attempt to transcend the constraints of the immediate to achieve the ideal (in her case, happiness), realistic characters focus their attention primarily on questions in the here and now (to dealing with the immediate), proposing specific actions that can be brought into practice to accomplish visible results.

Interior Monologue

Tolstoy relied heavily on interior monologue as a narrative strategy that brings his characters to life. A type of stream of consciousness writing, interior monologue (sometimes called quoted stream of consciousness) presents a character's thoughts, ideas, impressions, and sensations in the form of a silent inner speech or as a silent form of talking to oneself. It is as if the reader is inside the character's head, and is privy to all that goes on there. The result is meant to mimic the free flow of thought, the free association of ideas, and the jumps (sometimes suddenly and without logic) from one impression to the next. As in the case of Tolstoy's novel, this strategy brings a vividness to the characters, to the ideas being debated and, in the case of Anna, to the emotions being explored.


Economic Crisis and Transition

The late nineteenth century was a time of crisis in Russia. Technology and industry continued to develop rapidly, but lagged in substantive ways to the progress being made in Western Europe and even in North America. New markets, technologies, and theories developed on account of the dynamic powers emerging in a unified Germany, a modernized Japan, and a reunified (post-Civil War) United States. Russia was undeniably a powerful presence on the global scene, but it was also a society marked by deep class divisions, as Tolstoy underscores neatly in Anna Karenina. Urban dwellers like Dolly were unaware of, and uncomfortable with, the struggles facing rural farmers; industrial expansion threatened traditional agrarian lifestyles; and political ferment was beginning among the youthful, idealistic intelligentsia. This, to put it simply, was a time of great change and of great opportunity in Russia.

During the 1870s, Russia's economy was developing, as the character of Lévin recognizes, more slowly than the major European nations to its west. This development was hampered in part by a population that was substantially larger than those of the more developed Western countries. More significantly, as Tolstoy points out, was the fact that the vast majority of this massive population still lived in rural communities and still engaged in relatively primitive agriculture. Between 1850 and 1900, for instance, Russia's population doubled, the fastest expansion of all the major countries except for the United States. Yet at the same time the country remained overwhelmingly agricultural, and that practice itself was technologically underdeveloped. As the experiences of Lévin illuminate, control of this sector of the economy remained in the hands of former serfs and peasants. These two groups, in fact, constituted about eighty percent of the rural population. Large estates did account for about twenty percent of all farmland, but few such estates were run according to efficient, large-scale models of production.

Furthermore, the still clumsy industrial growth was focused on a small number of urban regions, most notably Moscow and St. Petersburg. But even such a faltering process did make significant impacts on the Russian way of life. By 1890, the country had over 30,000 kilometers of railroads, often used to move the 1.4 million factory workers to and from the textile factories and steel plants that increasingly began to define the landscape.


  • 1870s: During the nineteenth century, Russia responds to political and economic pressures with hesitant reforms. The tradition of serfdom is abolished in 1861, which leads to a series of reforms that end with the beginning of World War I in 1914.

    1990s: In 1991, the Soviet Union officially breaks apart, forcing Russia towards a multiparty electoral system. Movement in this direction is sporadic, at best, leading to a constitutional crisis in 1993.

    Today: Russia and the other former Soviet bloc countries continue to struggle with the adjustment to a more democratic system of government. Indeed, in September 2007, Russian President Vladimir Putin surprised the world by dismissing Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, dissolving the Prime Minister's cabinet, and then appointing a new prime minister. It is believed that this political maneuver was designed to control the elections for Putin's successor in 2008.

  • 1870s: Russian agriculture is under pressure to adjust to new technologies, and this pressure is even greater due to the breakdown of the serf system and competition from expanding European markets.

    1990s: Following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, large state-run farms must deal with the abrupt loss of government subsidies. Livestock inventories go into significant decline, which creates a substantive ripple effect, as the planting and harvesting of feed grain declines by twenty-five percent for a period of ten years.

    Today: Due to good weather during the early 2000s, Russia experiences a rebound in grain harvests and a subsequent increase in livestock production. It is generally believed that grain harvests will continue to gradually improve in the near future. Large farms, many of which were formerly run by the government, continue to dominate grain production.

  • 1870s: Novels about adultery are a relatively new phenomenon when Anna Karenina is first serialized. To this point, Russian marriages are frequently arranged by matchmakers, and are built on the assumption of future fidelity. Divorce is difficult to obtain and inevitably leaves a social taint on at least one of the partners. Because divorce is so prohibitive, it is correspondingly rare.

    1990s: Divorce in Russia is actually more liberal than it is in Western countries, which has led to an upward rise in the divorce and remarriage rate.

    Today: The newspaper Pravda published an article in 2007 stating that the divorce rate in Russia may be as high as 80 percent.

The Abolition of Serfdom

Following the Crimean War (1854-1856), during which Tolstoy had served in the military, there was a growing movement within Russia for substantive political and social reform. At the forefront of these discussions was a movement to abolish serfdom in Russia, a change that would affect an estimated twenty million or more people. Initiated in 1861, the emancipation of the serfs signaled the end of the aristocratic monopoly over land and economic power. It also set into motion a dramatic reshuffling of traditional class structures and social conventions within the population of Russia. The old ideas and practices were no longer applicable, as newly emancipated workers moved to the industrial cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg in search of work. It was not long before these cities, already overcrowded, became hotbeds for racial and economic tensions as well as home to what might be best described as an underclass ripe for revolution and change.

For those former serfs who decided to remain in the country to work the land, the situation was particularly frustrating. While it was initially thought that they would receive their land as a gift, the freed serfs were forced instead to pay a special and recurring tax to the government, which in turn generously reimbursed the aristocratic landlords for the land that they had lost due to emancipation. In numerous instances, peasants were forced off their land or found themselves left with over farmed plots. Moreover, land that was turned over to the peasants was owned collectively by the village community, which divided the land amongst the peasants. These circumstances provide ample fuel for discussion throughout Anna Karenina.


As A. V. Knowles summarizes in his 1978 essay in the Slavic and East European Journal, Tolstoy's reading public reacted to his newest novel with enthusiasm. At the time, comparisons were made to Russian writers (and Tolstoy's contemporaries) Nikolai Gogol and Alexander Pushkin, and the "poet A. A. Fet declared that Tolsto[y] had shown himself to be quite without equal." The novel was discussed widely in the reading public, and everyone inevitably held an opinion about its message, its politics, and its morality. While generally praised, Knowles reports that the novel was chided by some fellow writers as "concentrating only on the genitals", as carrying with it "the idyllic fragrance of babies' diapers," or, as I. S. Turgenev (another writer who was a contemporary of Tolstoy's) charged, showing the unwieldy influence "of Moscow, the Slavophiles, aristocrats, and old spinsters." A critic and scholar openly concerned with how language could be used to express the

subtleties of the most powerful relationships defining a culture, Turgenev felt that Tolstoy reinforced too easily the manners of high society. Despite the rejuvenation that defines the close of the novel, Turgenev felt that customs of the peasantry were not portrayed in an authentic or meaningful way.

Knowles further states that critics, as distinct from the more general reading public, "remained unimpressed by, and unsympathetic" to, Tolstoy's newest endeavor. Some were even openly hostile. On a positive note, the novel was praised for its form and structure, and for its attention to such contemporary problems as the relationship between landowners and peasants, state policies towards agriculture and economic disparity, and the role of women in Russian society. Ironically, Knowles claims, some of the harshest criticism argued that the novel was a thinly veiled "protest by the best elements of the upper classes against the inroads being made into society by the new middle and professional classes." According to Knowles, such critiques inevitably suggested that Tolstoy was positioning himself at a distance from mainstream Russian culture, in "a corner of society which led its own life based on traditions that were quite foreign and even antipathetic to the majority" of his readers. Tracing the substantive and tendentious history of the critical views on the novel, Knowles concludes that the main reason that the book was treated so diversely was that it was approached more as a social document than as a literary text. "It was judged," Knowles observes, "from political, sociological, and ethical viewpoints" that, while useful to varying degrees, inevitably clouded the larger picture of the story's literary merits.

Picking up on many of these comments, the prominent Victorian critic Matthew Arnold, in his Essays in Criticism: Second Series, praises Tolstoy for "his extraordinary fineness of perception, and his sincere fidelity to it." Anna Karenina, he concludes, is not to be considered or evaluated as a work of art. Rather "we are to take it as a piece of life." William Dean Howells concurs, noting in Selected Literary Criticism that he sees the novel as "a sort of revelation of human nature."

As the famous critic F. R. Leavis argues in Anna Karenina and Other Essays, Tolstoy's Anna Karenina is one of "the greatest of novels." Leavis calls the book a story of "magnitude," one in which its "greatness" entails its "largeness." Celebrating the expansiveness of Tolstoy's vision, Leavis goes on to call the novel "the great novel of modern—of our—civilization." Anna Karenina, he concludes, "in its human centrality, gives us modern man; Tolstoy's essential problems, moral and spiritual, are ours."


Klay Dyer

Dyer holds a Ph.D. in English literature and has published extensively on fiction, poetry, film, and television. He is also a freelance university teacher, writer, and educational consultant. In the following essay, he discusses the social pressures brought to bear on Russian married women in the nineteenth century, focusing particularly on Dolly (who, unlike Anna, chooses to stay in her loveless marriage).


  • Readers interested in balancing their reading of Anna Karenina with a novel of similar majesty and import would do well to approach Tolstoy's other masterwork, War and Peace (1865-1869), an epic exploration of Russia during the Napoleonic era.
  • George Eliot's Middlemarch (1871) is a seminal example of British realism. Balancing philosophy, politics, and sophisticated narrative structures, it interweaves the stories of various friends, acquaintances, and relations in the fictional town of Middlemarch during the 1830s.
  • Gloria Goldreich's novel Dinner with Anna Karenina (2006) tells the story of six very different women, all from different backgrounds, who gather over good food and wine as part of a regular book club. The novel traces their discussions of their favorite novels over the course of a year.
  • Nikolai Gogol, a Russian writer and contemporary of Tolstoy, to whom Tolstoy is often compared, wrote some of the most influential stories of his generation. The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol (1999) provides a wonderful overview of his work.
  • Marshall T. Poe's very readable The Russian Moment in World History (2006) discusses how Russia both integrated and resisted Western influences during the course of its history. As is often a point of discussion in Anna Karenina, Russian culture was both fascinated and bothered by questions about what it meant to be Russian and how to keep Russia a distinct social and cultural force in an increasingly homogeneous world.

Reflecting Tolstoy's own intensifying feelings of isolation and alienation from the high society into which he had been born, AnnaKarenina reveals an immediate and personal understanding of the social roles that ultimately shaped the lives of nineteenth-century Russians. Indeed, as the nineteenth century progressed, and with a radical transformation underway following the Crimean War, many of these roles (most notably, those pertaining to class and gender) were increasingly being reconsidered as open to debate and negotiation. With the abolition of serfdom, women also slowly but surely began to raise their voices against their own serfdom, one of subordination, vulnerability, and sexual propriety.

For women readers of the day, stories of female characters whose lives led inevitably toward marriage and toward the often idealized role of wife and mother were commonplace. Such stories reinforced the social status quo and were also a reassuring narrative design, functioning as a kind of moral and social road map that would reveal the path to a happy life. A female character who demonstrated that she valued anything outside of these accepted standards most naturally, it seemed, failed to achieve happiness.

When Tolstoy began to write Anna Karenina in the early 1870s, such social codes were already seen in some quarters as powerful impositions upon women's independence. Tolstoy proved himself especially open to exploring the implications of his female characters' physical, mental, and emotional susceptibility to the pressures of social convention. More importantly, he was committed to understanding the consequences of their willingness (or unwillingness, as in the case of Anna) to give in to such overwhelming social pressures. Acutely aware that this complex interrogation of female options within the culture of the day could be read as a powerful threat to tradition, Tolstoy nonetheless made the tensions informing this debate central to his most powerful novel. Obviously, Anna is the most fully realized embodiment of Tolstoy's challenge to the conventionality of Russian culture, a dissident, rebellious woman forced to the margins of her own world and, inevitably it seems, to a tragic death that is her response, at least in part, to a marriage that she cannot escape, and to the punishments that she must endure for even attempting to do so. But what of the other women in the novel, and, more particularly, what of Dolly, whose marital predicament not only opens the novel but indirectly brings about the meeting between Anna and Vrónsky? How does Dolly come to negotiate the consequences of her husband's amorous nature while keeping their marriage intact, and aligned safely within the social expectations of the day?

The very concept of marriage itself is often discussed in the novel. Considered by such a character as Kitty to be a profound source of female happiness, it is recognized by Dolly as an economic and social arrangement, and by Anna as an emotional and spiritual prison. But such a simple contrast is soon proven to be a dangerously false one that collapses under the weight of Tolstoy's argument within Anna Karenina. Indeed, Tolstoy indicates that marriage as a social convention leads to the victimization of all the women in the novel. By extension, the story illustrates that women are thus not able to secure a viable position within Russian culture. Through Dolly and Kitty, Tolstoy depicts women as being denied access to any social role beyond that of housewife and mother, while in the more radical Anna he envisions the dismal end to which resourceful, resistant women are inevitably doomed. Anna Karenina is, in the end, a novel in which neither conformity nor resistance prove to be reasonable options.

Unwilling to raise her voice against the social institution of marriage, Dolly will go so far as to sacrifice her own sense of propriety, as well as her dignity, by turning a blind eye to Stiva's persistent infidelities. Later, when the couple have moved to the country, readers discover that he has become involved with a ballerina; whether Dolly knows of this affair and ignores it, or whether Stiva has become more adept at hiding his transgressions, is left open to interpretation. What is clear, though, is that Dolly has become acutely aware of how her own decisions in relation to the social conventions of the day reflect not only upon herself but will reflect, ultimately, upon members of her immediate and extended family. To remain silent about such affairs, Dolly understands, is necessary in order to protect the stability, reputation, and future opportunities of her family.

Dolly's concern for social propriety, and by extension her concern for the role into which she has been forced, is so overpowering that despite the fact that her love for Stiva wanes as his infidelities accumulate, she still feels obliged to remain supportive of their union. By the time Dolly goes to visit Anna near the end of the novel, she is no longer interested in marriage for the sake of love and passion, but sees it—somewhat uncomfortably, she must admit—as a necessary means to an end. Supportive of her husband's career, and unhappily bearing the brunt of their financial instabilities, Dolly reimagines her marriage as the only career she can pursue, effectively overlooking any options that might transgress what she considers acceptable standards of behavior, but that might also actually work to circumvent the pressures that bear on her reality. Understanding that her husband remains a key to the financial well being of her family, Dolly silences herself in order to avoid a confrontation that could lead her (or her family) to economic hardship and the loss of social standing.

Knowing of no other viable alternative by which she might sustain her standing in society, Dolly fulfills neatly the conventional role that she has internalized. It is a role that she reinforces for herself later in the novel when she is allowed the opportunity to review the course she has taken (through her observations of Kitty and Lévin) as well as the course she has narrowly avoided (through her observations of Anna's battles with Karénin over a divorce). As she reflects upon Anna's nightmarish battles with her husband, her loss of social standing, and her separation from her son, Dolly finds her reward in knowing that she has not put herself or her family in such dire straights: "She had pitied Anna with all her soul while talking with her," Dolly thinks to herself, "but now she was unable to make herself think about her. Memories of her home and children arose in her imagination with some new radiance, some special loveliness she had not known before. That world of hers now seemed so precious and dear that she did not want to spend an extra day outside it for anything."

Having seen the perils of the path not taken, Dolly returns to the family that she has helped sustain, often at the cost of her dignity and personal happiness. Setting off from Anna, whom she will never see alive again, Dolly journeys back towards her personal happy ending, one that both circumscribes and defines her. Reimagining herself within a world of precious radiance, Dolly also reimagines herself as a woman in paradise. Unlike Anna, who throws herself under a train as the ultimate statement of her resistance to things as they are, Dolly adapts and learns to survive within her marriage, reconciling her own dreams and passions to conform to the codes and social expectations of Russian culture.

As is often his strategy, Tolstoy leaves the final assessment of Dolly's decisions to the reader. It is unclear whether her story ends with an ironic iteration of her willful blindness or in a conscious and mature acceptance of a compromise made in wisdom, dignity, and courage. Again, this is a distinction that is also left to the readers.

Source: Klay Dyer, Critical Essay on Anna Karenina, in Novels for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.

Amy Mandelker

In the following excerpt, Mandelker discusses the shadow imagery in Anna Karenina, with particular attention to how it affects the overall meaning of the story. Mandelker also links the themes evoked by the shadow imagery to those found in the story of the Biblical Fall, the legend of Faust, and the myth of Amor and Psyche.

… The story of the temptation of a woman and the exchange of her shadow for eternal beauty is told in a work with which Tolstoy may have been familiar, a poem by the Austrian poet, Nikolaus Lenau (1802-1850) entitled, significantly enough, "Anna". Anna of the poem appears at the beginning admiring her reflected beauty in a pond, when a supernatural figure appears to offer her eternal beauty in exchange for her shadow and the promise that she will renounce childbearing. The narcissism of this Anna recurs in Anna Karenina, who practices birth control to remain sexually attractive to Vronsky. Thus, the transformation of gender in Anna Karenina, from a "man without a shadow"

to a "woman without a shadow" abrogates any straightforward, psychological reading of Tolstoy's use of the "man without a shadow" as a metaphor for the struggle between the rational and the irrational self. When this psychic struggle is enacted by a female protagonist, the motif evokes male anxiety about female sexuality and the desirability of the female body. The shadow (feminine in gender in Russian) is a penumbral, feminine Other, a demonic seductress, an archetypal Eve. Returning to the primary text of original sin reveals the shadow in its originary shape as the Serpent in Eden. When God condemns it to slide along the ground worrying the heel of woman and her offspring, forever crushed beneath her heel, the early conflation of serpent, shadow, and woman is revealed.

Early variants of the novel emphasized the demonic nature of Anna's vitality: the title of the chapter describing Anna's passion for Vronsky was "The Devil" in an early draft, and Anna and Vronsky refer to her jealousy as "the demon." Anna has "something uncanny, demonic and fascinating in her," her face glows "with a bright light, but this glow was not one of joyfulness, but suggested the terrible glow of a conflagration in the middle of a dark night."

Vronsky's role as shadow-demon is implied by imagery which associates Vronsky both with shadow and with Faust: in the early stages of his pursuit of Anna, he is cast as Mephistopheles in the form in which he first appeared to Faust, a dog. Vronsky is repeatedly described as expressing "humble submission," "reverential ecstacy," the look of a dog who wishes to please. It is this "utter subjection, that slavish devotion, which [does] so much to win her." At the scene of their first meeting, the whining of a dog in the luggage compartment is audible as Anna's train arrives from Petersburg. In an episode subsequently removed from the novel, Levin is terrorized by a mad dog which exacerbates his obsessive dread of death, and is somehow linked in his mind with the fearful image of a peasant. The emblem of Levin's panic thus connects the demonic Mephistopheles in his incarnation as a dog with Levin's vision of a peasant with a matted beard, undoubtedly the same disheveled peasant who haunts Anna and Vronsky and plays the role in the novel of the "shadow of death." The heirophantic nature of this peasant with matted beard and sack recalls the Tiresias figure of the blind, leprous peasant who fulfilled a similar function in Madame Bovary. An enigmatic statement of Anna's may be explained as an obscure reference to Mephistopheles in his canine incarnation and as projection of a troubled psyche: on her final journey to the train station, Anna silently addresses a family embarking on an outing, "The dog you're taking with you will be of no help to you—you can't get away from yourselves." Her observation is immediately followed by recollections of the early days of Vronsky's courtship, and her memories of him as an "abject setter-dog."

In addition to his dog-like servility, Vronsky is repeatedly accompanied by shadows throughout the novel. In the fateful meeting at Bologoe station, as Anna steps onto the platform, "the bent shadow of a man glided by at her feet…" Vronsky then interposes himself between Anna and the light of the lamppost, and stands in the shadow. Anna must "gaze into the shadow" to read his expression. Whenever Vronsky contemplates nature, his vision includes shadows, as when he admires the cloud of midges and the shadow over his carriage "in the already lengthening shadow of a lush lime tree," or the slanting shadows over the fields as he rides to a rendez-vous with Anna:

Everything he saw from the carriage window…was as fresh, and gay, and strong as he was himself:…the slanting shadows that fell from the houses, and trees, and bushes, and even from the rows of potatos…

Later, at his estate, his face will be shadowed by leaves as he discusses his relationship to Anna with Dolly: "Daria Aleksandrovna looked with timid inquiry into his energetic face, which under the lime trees was continually being lighted up in patches by the sunshine, and then passing into complete shadow again." After Anna's death, as he waits at the train station to depart for the Balkans, "In the slanting shadows cast by sacks piled up on the platform, Vronsky…strode up and down like a wild beast in a cage."

The definitive association of Vronsky with the shadow figure occurs in the conversation quoted above. In the various redactions of the dialogue, an interesting evolution in grammatical structure suggests a shift in emphasis which resulted from the introduction of the shadow sub-text. In the earlier versions of the passage, before the shadow story was mentioned, the acquaintance states that Vronsky has become Anna's shadow (sdelalsia eia teniu). In the final version of the passage, when the reference to the shadow story is introduced, Anna is said to have brought back with her the "shadow of Aleksei Vronsky" (ten Alekseia Vronskogo): Vronsky no longer exists; his shadow has been snared by Anna. His diabolical nature is expressed in his exultant acquiescence in the "terror" of their passion: "Our love, if it could be stronger, will be strengthened because there is something terrible in it," a demonic statement which was even more villainous in the earlier version, where their love was to be strengthened "by the crime, the evil that we have done to [Karenin]." Tolstoy's revisions minimize Vronsky's role: no longer the primary actor ("he became her shadow"/sdelalsia eia teniu), he becomes the passive agent of Anna, who "brings back with her" the shadow of Vronsky.

If we view Vronsky as a shadow and the power relationship of Anna and Vronsky as that of owner and shadow, or a lady and a dog, Anna would appear to be the passive victim who succumbs to, rather than offering temptation, as Princess Miagkaia subsequently argues: "How can she help it if they're all in love with her and follow her about like shadows?" Pursuing this interpretation, it is Vronsky who, having become possessed and yielded to his shadow, now seduces and compromises Anna to gain authority over her soul. In the course of the novel, Vronsky assumes the powerful position, just as the shadow usurps the scholar's position, or the man in gray (Mephistopheles) gains power over Peter Schlemihl. Vronsky's power over Anna gives him the responsibility and culpability for the problematic aspect of their "position." The description of Vronsky as a murderer bending over Anna's body after the consummation of their love affair suggests that he is morally responsible for her fall, just as he is responsible for the death of his horse, Frou-Frou…

Has Tolstoy condemned Anna? Or has he presented a tragic vision of entrapment? Within the confines of a life which denies her spiritual growth, Anna's only avenue for the pursuit of complete psychic awareness is through adulterous passion. Thus, Anna's captivation by a shadowy demon lover may be read as a version of the originary myth of the ecstatic lover, who engages in the passionate, erotic pursuit of endless desire ultimately subtended by the death drive. Jung would consider the allure of this type of shadow figure to reflect animus possession, domination by a demonic lover who, like Eros in the Psyche myth, "lures women away from all human relationships and…cut[s] a woman off from the reality of life" (von Franz, 202).

Interestingly, casting Vronsky as an animus, or Eros, the erotic death demon, is textually supported by echoes of Apuleius' "Amor and Psyche": Vronsky's role as the dutiful son of a mother reknowned for her beauty and promiscuity reflects the relations of Amor and Venus. Like Venus, Mme Vronskaia is responsible for introducing her son to the woman he will fall in love with and whom she will later persecute. Like Amor and Psyche, Vronsky and Anna have a daughter. The seclusion enforced on Anna by her separation from society encloses her in Amor's dwelling and provokes in her the types of doubt which drove Psyche to violate Amor's edict and examine the sleeping God by candlelight. In a tableau reminiscent of the myth, Anna illuminates the sleeping Vronsky:

He was asleep there, and sleeping soundly. She went up to him, and holding the candle above his face, she gazed a long while at him. Now when he was asleep, she loved him so much that at the sight of him, she could not keep back tears of tenderness. But she knew that if he awakened he would look at her with cold eyes…

Anna's illumination of Vronsky follows a scene where, reading by candlelight, she senses the inevitability of suicide as the only escape from her position. Her candle gutters, shadows descend upon her from every direction and plunge her in darkness. Anna's reading by candlelight becomes the controlling metaphor for the entire novel when Tolstoy repeats the metaphor to describe her last hours and death. Thus, lifting her lamp to see, casting shadows and light in order to read and know Love, interconnects every illumination in the novel and suggests the ultimate meaning of the shadow imagery. Anna's candlelight reading of the novel, of love, of life, repeats Psyche's transgression in pursuit of knowledge and her weakness in needing to affirm with the light of reason the intuitive life of passion associated mythologically with darkness and shadow. Yet, it is a light of knowledge which is suppressed by the patriarchy; the transgression consists of lighting a lamp to see the truth, but the light will drive the beloved away.

In the final sequence of the novel's penultimate part, Anna, like Psyche, is cast out of Amor's paradise of love and embarks on a journey as a result of Mme Vronskaia's machinations, recalling Venus' scourge on Psyche…

For Anna Karenina, a victim of the oppression and dependent status of women in the 19th century, the pursuit of passionate love is the only channel of action available which will liberate her from social constraints and place the life of the individual spirit above the life of the social body. The quest is Psyche's, who transgressed in her desire to know Love and thus is cast out of Paradise. Psyche's reward and apotheosis, like Ulysses' return, affirms the reader's positive view of Olympus. The death of the hero/ine may seem a punishment in this tradition of the folk tale or romance, where physical and material benefit (beauty rather than ugliness, wealth rather than poverty) reflect the evaluative dimension of good and evil. But mythic figures transcend this dichotomy, constituting an amalgam of oppositions and a restructuration of the material plane according to spritual imperatives. Such a process characterizes the action of myth, where heroes and heroines die in order to be transfigured for a cosmic benefit.

Within the tragic and mythic tradition, Anna's death does not constitute a punishment, but a liberation from her confinement in a social arena where the quest for the development of an autonomous self, emblematized as the acquisition of a shadow, constituted an urforgivable transgression.

Source: Amy Mandelker, "The Woman with a Shadow: Fables of Demon and Psyche in Anna Karenina," in Novel: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 24, No. 1, Autumn 1990, pp. 48-68.

Gary R. Jahn

In the following excerpt, Jahn explores the centrality and complexities of railway images in Anna Karenina. Jahn argues that the railway serves as a touchstone from which most readings of the novel originate, especially readings focusing on Anna's passion or the condition of her society.

… The idea that the main function of the railroad is to suggest or symbolize death in general may also be criticized on grounds specific to itself for, in fact, the railroad is the agent only of Anna's death. Many characters in the novel are associated in one way or another with the railroad, but only Anna perishes. That the railroad symbolizes upper-class society also seems, upon examination, to be problematical. Logic leads to the conclusion that Anna was killed by (or, more accurately, made herself the victim of) upper-class society, but, as has often been noted, the novel contains many representatives of that very sector of society who, in the morally objective sense, conduct themselves in the same manner as Anna with Vronskij and yet suffer no ill effects therefrom. Stiva Oblonskij, as we have seen, is even portrayed as attractive rather than repellent. It has been argued that there is a qualitative difference between Anna and these other characters which explains why her fate is different from theirs. This difference is said to reside in Anna's much greater genuineness and sincerity as opposed to the hypocrisy and conventionalism of the other characters. If this very cogent idea is applied only in the moral sphere, however, it leads to a fragmentation of the novel's unity. The different fates of the various characters must then be seen as the result of individual differences, as a simple capturing of the diversity of reality without any attempt at finding an underlying unity in the understanding of that reality on a conceptual level; while not unthinkable, this would, at least, be unlikely from the point of view of Tolstoj's usual practice. Moreover, if this principle is applied to the overtly parallel stories of Anna and Levin, we are left with a novel in which the two central characters are after all simply different types, involved in different stories, and the links between them (for example, their similar experiences, the slow growth in Levin from his absolute aversion to "fallen women" to his ultimate attraction to Anna) are a failed attempt to unify two stories that are in fact comparable only as opposite poles of the moral compass. The contrast between them becomes evident, but there seem to be no solid grounds for comparison. The novel is not one story with two facets, but two stories connected rather crudely at a single moral interface. Criticism has tended to resist this conclusion, but it seems inevitable in the light of the reasoning just presented.

The difficulties inherent in the interpretation of the railroad as an image of the Russian high society of the time may be overcome by taking the railroad to represent instead the much broader concept of the social aspect of human existence. The railroad is not, after all, uniformly identified with any particular sector of society in the novel, the remarks to the contrary in Levin's book notwithstanding. At the very first appearance of an actual train in the novel (Anna's arrival in Moscow; I, 17) the disembarking passengers demonstrate that the railroad is not the exclusive preserve of the idle rich: a guards officer, a merchant, and a peasant are the first to descend. In addition, the railroad is the connecting link among all the various particular societies presented in the novel: Moscow, St. Petersburg, Levin's estate, the German spa, Italy, Vronskij's estate, and so forth. Each of these individual societies is developed in some detail and discussed as to its workings, for example, the enumeration and description of the various subdivisions of Petersburg society in II, 4. This close attention to the structure and operation of various concrete social entities suggests that all human activity presupposes a social framework, that the social is an integral and necessary adjunct to the individual. The railroad, as the physical link among the various societies, is an eminently suitable means for the representation of the generalized or abstract link among them also.

If the railroad is the image of the concept of the social, it is no surprise to find that the novel's most social character, Stiva Oblonskij, who is specifically stated to have friends at every level of society and who is at home in any social context (I, 5), is also the character most closely associated with the railroad. He shares with the railroad the operative function of connecting the various social loci of the novel (for example, Moscow and Levin's estate, when he goes to sell his wife's forest land [II, 14], Moscow and Petersburg, when he goes to plead Anna's case for divorce to Karenin [VII, 18]). He is present at both the first railway scene and the last (Vronskij's departure for the Balkans; VIII, 2). He is the witness of both episodes involving the children's game of "Railroad." Finally, as though realizing his metaphorical function, he seeks and finally obtains a post in an agency which superintends the operation of the railways.

This interpretation of the railroad image and Stiva's close connection with it explains the anomaly of his belonging to upper-class society and yet remaining relatively free from the stigma of his membership therein. In the same way the association of the children with the railroad may be explained. The railroad, as the symbol of the social, represents a morally neutral force which is the foundation of all actual societies. Particular social groups may, on the whole, be morally better or worse, and, from Levin's point of view, a dependence on the railroad does signify moral laxity. At the same time, however, the railroad is connected to the broader concept of the social in general, and in this respect its function is to illustrate rather than to condemn.

Princess Betsy and her coterie are clearly no more than targets for Tolstoj's invective against the moral shortcomings of a particular social entity. Stiva's function is more broadly conceived. Through the railroad he is associated with the general concept of the social and he thus escapes, in some measure, the opprobrium heaped upon the others even though his conduct is not, in the objective sense, far different from theirs. Turning to the children, it would seem that in their game of "Railroad" they become familiar with the pressure of the social. As they mature, they gradually leave the spontaneous, self-centered, and natural world of childhood and begin to contend with the inevitable constraints of the social. Thus, although the naturalness and spontaneity of the children is highly attractive, it is also not destined to be fully developed by the adult. Anna, who attempts to indulge the individual, spontaneous, and natural force within her, perishes beneath the train.

Several particular qualities of the "social" are suggested by the use of the railroad as its sign. First, the social involves rules and orderliness as suggested by the tracks along which the train must run and in the mechanical (that is, also, logical) nature of the object. Second, the social is an inevitable part of life. In the children's game passengers are not allowed to sit on top of the train. All must remain inside because it is too dangerous for the passengers to take a position outside the train. If they attempt to ride on top of the train (that is, to be above society) they will surely end by being crushed beneath it, as, in fact, the fate of Anna demonstrates. It seems to be a case of acceptance of the social or death. Third, the social is a powerful force, as suggested by the earth-shaking strength of the engine and the great speed of the train. Fourth, it must be remembered that the social also has its attractive features. These are suggested by the warmth, comfort, and security inside the carriage on Anna's return journey to Petersburg in I, 29. These are especially emphasized by contrast with the cold and howling winds of the storm outside. Furthermore, the interior of the train is associated with the idyll of conventional happiness represented by the novel of English life which Anna reads in the carriage. Fifth, despite (or perhaps because of) its attractions, the social is also clearly shown to be an affront to the individual. This is suggesed by the fact that in the children's game the passengers in fact want to leave the train, to be above it by riding on its top. Anna, too, experiences this sensation. She finds the interior of the train not only warm, but hot; not only secure, but stifling. Ultimately, in Anna's case at least, the train is the agent of the extinction of the individual: having left the train for good in response to the demands of the individual, she ends by being crushed beneath it.

The passage in which Anna's return journey from Moscow to Petersburg is described (I, 29-30) is the most extended appearance of the railroad in the novel and provides the clearest model of that conflict between the social and the individual with which the image of the railroad is at a deep level connected. Beyond the interior security of the carriage lies an exterior setting which is fraught with discomfort and danger. A winter storm is raging; its foremost characterisitcs are cold, snow, and a driving, howling wind. The natural (the exterior) is contrasted to the artificial (the interior of the train), and, it is important to note, the natural not in its benevolent aspect but wild, uncontrolled, and dangerous. This exterior setting surrounds the first open acknowledgment of the developing illicit passion between Vronskij and Anna. Thus, there is a pointed contrast between the conventional but somewhat tedious marital happiness presented in the English novel which Anna reads in the carriage and which is associated with the comfort and security of the train's interior and the illicit passion between Anna and Vronskij which develops in the context of the exhilarating danger of the storm and wind.

The wind is the most significant detail of the exterior setting. Immediately following Vronskij's statement of his love for Anna, the text continues: "At that moment the wind, as if it had mastered all obstacles, scattered the snow from the carriage roofs…The awfulness of the storm appeared still more beautiful to [Anna] now. He had said just what her soul desired but her reason dreaded." (I, 30). The passage is replete with paradoxical contrasts. The interior of the train is comfortable yet somehow repellent, the exterior is awful but attractive (as shown by Anna's resting her forehead against the cold glass of the carriage window), and these conflicting feelings are bound up with the clearly divided nature of Anna herself: what her soul desires, her reason dreads.

The passage does not suggest that Anna's passion for Vronskij is illicit because it is morally wrong (although there can be no doubt that Tolstoj believed such a passion to be morally wrong), but rather because it is carried on outside of and in defiance of the social. Anna is very quick to realize this as a fact (although not, perhaps, with all its attendant implications) when she tells Vronskij following the consummation of their passion that he is now all that she has (II, 11). She does not at this moment say that she has committed a moral wrong (although she will say this as the novel progresses). Rather, she portrays herself as having forsaken all else, retaining only Vronskij. She has severed her connection with her society, and, on the deep thematic level, she has rejected the claims of the social in favor of the gratification of her individual passion. Her eventual decline and death are clearly and proportionally related to her growing conviction that Vronskij, the single element of the social remaining to her, is tempted to abandon her. Anna's increasing jealousy and possessiveness toward Vronskij are not simply a function of madness. Rather, they signify a recognition of reality: the impossibility of life's continuance in conditions of complete isolation from the general context of the social.

In the scene of her return to Petersburg, Anna's passion is also associated with her often-mentioned characteristic of animation or fullness of life (oživlennost') which had been described as being kept under control and whose presence is bespoken by such superficial characteristics as the recalcitrant curl which continually escapes her coiffure, her shining eyes masked by their heavy lids, and her peculiar, involuntary smile. It is suggested that Anna's suppression of this fullness of life is connected with the feeling of being stifled which she experiences in the railway carriage. Anna's egress from the train suggests a desire to liberate her suppressed sense of the fullness of life, thus explaining the attractiveness of the seemingly unpleasant exterior conditions. The discomfort and danger outside the train go unnoticed by Anna in her hunger for individuality, spontaneity, and unreasoning, natural, passionate action.

Apparently, then, the passage suggests that this highly attractive quality and desire must be, at least to some extent, sacrificed or controlled in order to remain within the train, that is, within the pale of the social, for its full release begins only when the train has been abandoned. The social appears as an insuperable obstacle to the full and gratifying manifestation of fullness of life which Anna desires. Her passion, like the "wind which mastered all obstacles," is the means of this gratification.

The railroad, then, seems to be an image which is fully capable of supporting the various interpretations which it has evoked. It is connected to Anna's passion and her death; it is bound up with the nature of the particular society in which she lived; but at the hub from which these interpretations diverge and by which they are organized is the railroad as the representation of the requirements and privileges of the social in the context of the thematic exploration of the conflict between the desires of the individual and the restrictions placed upon the gratification of those desires by the social. At this basic level Anna Karenina is concerned with the representation of a universal human dilemma which is primarily metaphysical and only secondarily moral in its nature. The human being, in the terms of the novel, must live perpetually in the space between the Charybdis of an inescapable (determined) fate as a social being, with its danger of the ignominious loss of individuality and dignity in the swirling whirlpool of social convention and respectability, and the Scylla of unrestrained gratification of the spontaneous ego, of freedom, and of exalted individual worth, with its attendant dangers, discomforts, and ultimate and inevitable disaster. Thus, Anna truly is, as she says again and again, both guilty and yet not to blame. She is the tragic victim of human nature which calls both for the unhindered expression of the individual and the antithetical acknowledgment of the ultimate dependence of the individual upon the social.

The strength of this interpretation of the railroad in Anna Karenina is that it allows for the harmonious coexistence of both the attractive and the unattractive characteristics with which the image is endowed in the novel and that it is capable of expressing in some detail that which it represents. As is so often the case with Tolstoj's major images (the sky in War and Peace, the black bag in The Death of Ivan Il'ič, the snowstorm in Master and Man, the races in Anna Karenina itself), here again the motif is almost allegorically suited to that which it represents and at the same time is capable of evoking a variety of related responses and intuitions arising from its vivid realization as an object of natural experience in the novel. Thus, despite the neatness and artificiality which seem to inform Tolstoj's major images when they are subjected to an analysis such as that attempted here, they retain the quality of true symbols, signposts on the writer's actual arduous way to the truth and not mere reductive allegories of his journey. In 1853 Tolstoj wrote in his diary that "Reading a composition, and especially a purely literary one, the main interest is to be found in the character of the author as it expresses itself in the composition. Sometimes the author makes an open affectation of his view…[but] the best compositions are those in which the author, as it were, attempts to conceal his personal view but at the same time remains always faithful to it wherever it does appear." Tolstoj was clearly an author who felt an obligation to express his "views" in his work, and in Anna Karenina he appears to have selected the superior mode described in the passage just cited. His view of the truth about the nature of the conflict between the individual as individual and the individual as social being emerges not in the direct address of the author to his readers but in the telling use of image and symbol and, preeminently, in the image of the railroad.

Source: Gary R. Jahn, "The Image of the Railroad in Anna Karenina," in Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 25, No. 2, Summer 1981, pp. 1-10.

Prince Kropotkin

In the following excerpt, Kropotkin explains the moral problems posed in Anna Karenina and notes that most Russians who read the book when it was first published would not have felt that Anna deserved to meet such a tragic end. Because of this, Kropotkin notes, the novel first provoked an "unfavorable impression."

… Of all the Tolstóy's novels, Anna Karénina is the one which has been the most widely read in all languages. As a work of art it is a master-piece. From the very first appearance of the heroine, you feel that this woman must bring with her a drama; from the very outset her tragical end is as inevitable as it is in a drama of Shakespeare. In that sense the novel is true to life throughout. It is a corner of real life that we have before us. As a rule, Tolstóy is not at his best in picturing women—with the exception of very young girls—and I don't think that Anna Karénina herself is as deep, as psychologiclly complete, and as living a creation as she might have been; but the more ordinary woman, Dolly, is simply teeming with life. As to the various scenes of the novel—the ball scenes, the races of the officers, the inner family life of Dolly, the country scenes on Lévin's estate, the death of his brother, and so on—all these are depicted in such a way that for its artistic qualities Anna Karénina stands foremost even amongst the many beautiful things Tolstóy has written.

And yet, notwithstanding all that, the novel produced in Russia a decidedly unfavourable impression, which brought to Tolstóy congratulations from the reactionary camp and a very cool reception from the advanced portion of society. The fact is, that the question of marriage and of an eventual separation between husband and wife had been most earnestly debated in Russia by the best men and women, both in literature and in life. It is self-evident that such indifferent levity towards marriage as is continually unveiled before the Courts in "Society" divorce cases was absolutely and unconditionally condemned; and that any form of deceit, such as makes the subject of countless French novels and dramas, was ruled out of question in any honest discussion of the matter. But after the above levity and deceit had been severely branded, the rights of a new love, serious and deep, appearing after years of happy married life, had only been the more seriously analysed. Tchernyshévsky's novel, What is to be done, can be taken as the best expression of the opinions upon marriage which had become current amongst the better portion of the young generation. Once you are married, it was said, don't take lightly to love affairs, or so-called flirtation. Every fit of passion does not deserve the name of a new love; and what is sometimes described as love is in a very great number of cases nothing but temporary desire. Even if it were real love, before a real and deep love has grown up, there is in most cases a period when one has time to reflect upon the consequences that would follow if the beginnings of his or her new sympathy should attain the depth of such a love. But, with all that, there are cases when a new love does come, and there are cases when such an event must happen […] when, for instance, a girl has been married almost against her will, under the continued insistence of her lover, or when the two have married without properly understanding each other, or when one of the two has continued to progress in his or her development towards a higher ideal, while the other, after having worn for some time the mask of idealism, falls into the Philistine happiness of warmed slippers. In such cases separation not only becomes inevitable, but it often is to the interest of both. It would be much better for both to live through the sufferings which a separation would involve (honest natures are by such sufferings made better) than to spoil the entire subsequent existence of the one—in most cases, of both—and to face moreover the fatal results that living together under such circumstances would necessarily mean for the children. This was, at least, the conclusion to which both Russian literature and the best all-round portion of our society had come.

And now came Tolstóy with Anna Karénina, which bears the menacing biblical epigraph: "Vengeance is mine, and I will repay it," and in which the biblical revenge falls upon the unfortunate Karénina, who puts an end by suicide to her sufferings after her separation from her husband. Russian critics evidently could not accept Tolstóy's views. The case of Karénina was one of those where there could be no question of "vengeance." She was married as a young girl to an old and unattractive man. At that time she did not know exactly what she was doing, and nobody had explained it to her. She had never known love, and learned it for the first time when she saw Vrónskiy. Deceit, for her, was absolutely out of the question; and to keep up a merely conventional marriage would have been a sacrifice which would not have made her husband and child any happier. Separation, and a new life with Vrónskiy, who seriously loved her, was the only possible outcome. At any rate, if the story of Anna Karénina had to end in tragedy, it was not in the least in consequence of an act of supreme justice. As always, the honest artistic genius of Tolstóy had itself indicated another cause—the real one. It was the inconsistency of Vrónskiy and Karénina. After having separated from her husband and defied "public opinion"—that is, the opinion of women who, as Tolstóy shows it himself, were not honest enough to be allowed any voice in the matter—neither she nor Vrónskiy had the courage of breaking entirely with that society, the futility of which Tolstóy knows and describes so exquisitely. Instead of that, when Anna returned with Vrónskiy to St. Petersburg, her own and Vrónskiy's chief preoccupation was—How Betsey and other such women would receive her, if she made her appearance among them. And it was the opinion of the Betsies—surely not Superhuman Justice—which brought Karénina to suicide…

Source: Prince Kropotkin, "The Russian Public's Initial Reaction to Anna Karenina," in Ideals and Realities in Russian Literature, Alfred A. Knopf, 1915, pp. 88-150.


Alexandrov, Vladimir E., Limits to Interpretation: The Meanings of "Anna Karenina," University of Wisconsin Press, 2004.

Arnold, Matthew, Essays in Criticism: Second Series, Adamant Media, 2001, pp. 253-99, originally published by Macmillan, 1913.

Caws, Peter, "Moral Certainty in Tolstoy," in Philosophy and Literature, Vol. 24, No. 1, 2000, pp. 49-66.

Howells, William Dean, Selected Literary Criticism, Indiana University Press, 1993.

Knowles, A. V., "Russian Views of Anna Karenina, 1875-1878," in the Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 22, No. 3, 1978, pp. 301-12.

Leavis, F. R., Anna Karenina and Other Essays, Chatto & Windus, 1967.

Sansom, Dennis, "Tolstoy and the Moral Instructions of Death," in Philosophy and Literature, Vol. 28, No. 2, 2004, pp. 417-29.

Schefski, Harold K., "Tolstoy's Urban-Rural Continuum in War and Peace and Anna Karenina," in South Atlantic Review, Vol. 46, No. 1, 1981, pp. 27-41.

Seifrid, Thomas, "Gazing on Life's Page: Perspectival Vision in Tolstoy," in PMLA, Vol. 113, No. 3, 1998, pp. 436-48.

Tolstoy, Leo, Anna Karenina, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Viking, 2000.

Turner, C. J. G., "Psychology, Rhetoric and Morality in Anna Karenina: At the bottom of Whose Heart," in the Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 39, No. 2, 1995, pp. 261-68.

Whitcomb, Curt, "Treacherous ‘Charm’ in Anna Karenina," in the Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 39, No. 2, 1995, pp. 214-26.


Orwin, Donna, ed., Cambridge Companion to Tolstoy, Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Tolstoy remains one the most important writers of the nineteenth-century and his work has had an innovative influence on the history of the novel as a literary form. The essays in this collection focus on key dimensions of Tolstoy's life and writing, exploring such issues as his relationship to popular writing, his questioning of gender and sexual politics, and his personal aesthetics.

———, Tolstoy's Art and Thought, 1847-1880, Princeton University Press, 1993.

This insightful study, covering the creative period of Tolstoy's two great novels, discusses Anna Karenina and War and Peace as a balance of his deeply held beliefs and his changing political and spiritual understanding of human nature.

Wasiolek, Edward, Tolstoy's Major Fiction, University of Chicago Press, 1978.

This is one of the best books on Tolstoy in recent decades in that it offers a relatively straightforward but nonetheless convincing and elegantly argued reading of his novels.

Wilson, A. N., Tolstoy: A Biography, W. W. Norton, 2001.

Considered a landmark biography, this book captures the complexities of Tolstoy's life as a writer, an aristocrat, and as a visionary influence. Wilson sweeps away the long-held belief that Tolstoy's writing provides an exact mirror of his life. However, the biographer suggests that Tolstoy's art speaks very profoundly to his relationship with God, with women, and with Russia.