Book Reviews/Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina is a realist novel written by Russian author Lev Tolstoy, world-renowned for this work and his earlier novel War and Peace. These two novels are staples in the Russian literary tradition but also regarded as masterpieces in the world literary tradition. Anna Karenina deals with the major themes of love, family, and betrayal which make it relevant to readers still today.

Vasili Tropinin, Portrait of Lev Tolstoy, 1887

Recommended Translation: Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina: A Novel in Eight Parts. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York, NY: Penguin, 2002.

Author's Background edit

Lev Tolstoy was born on August 28, 1828, on Yasnaya Polyana, into a family of Old Russian nobility. He studied a number of languages, knowing English, German and French extensively. From a young age, Tolstoy struggled with issues of morality, which would continue throughout his life and which he would explore through his writing. As a young adult, he dabbled in aristocratic high society, tried studying law, and finally began to write in 1850. In May of 1851, Tolstoy volunteered to go to the Caucasus to fight against the Chechens. This experience in the Caucasus would inform some of Tolstoy’s later writings. He retired from the military in 1856 and began traveling throughout Europe in 1857. Tolstoy settled down in Yasnaya Polyana in 1859 and shortly after married Sofiia Andreevna in 1862. The author became quite depressed and went through a period of crisis in the mid-1870s, throughout the writing of Anna Karenina (see Composition History). This resulted in his religious conversion to the teachings of Christ and his denouncement of everything written before that time as “nonsense.”

There are three recognized periods in Tolstoy’s writing career, the second of which ‘’Anna Karenina’’ belongs to:

  • The early period: 1852-1863
  • The great period: 1863-1878
  • The last period: 1878-1910

The Novel's Title edit

Anna Karenina is an ensemble novel, yet the title emphasizes Anna as the protagonist. The novel is made up of essentially two storylines, and Anna is the driving force of both. In the Levin/Kitty storyline, Anna intercepts Kitty's potential romance with Vronsky because Vronsky becomes infatuated by Anna at the Oblonsky ball. After a night of dancing, Vronsky's presence in Anna's life catalyzes the destruction of her family.

The title Anna Karenina points to the trappings of the family institution, specifically for women. In the Russian language "Karenina" literally means "of Karenin," pointing to her direct connection to her husband which she cannot escape. When readers are first introduced to the title character, she is referred to only by Anna. Only after she begins fraternizing with Vronsky is she referred to by her full name, Anna Karenina, as a subtle reminder of the hopelessness of her situation.

Plot edit

Part 1 The novel opens with Stiva Oblonsky waking up on the couch, having been ostracized by his wife, Dolly, who discovered his affair with the French governess. Because Dolly is upset, the whole house is in turmoil. Oblonsky welcomes his old friend, Konstantin Levin, a country landowner whose real aim for visiting is to pursue Dolly's younger sister, Kitty. Kitty, however, is hoping to marry the dashing army officer, Vronsky. Stiva goes to pick up his sister from the train station, and we meet both Anna and Vronsky for the first time. Vronsky is also waiting at the train station to meet his mother, who happened to have spent the ride talking with Anna Karenina. Vronsky sees Anna and is immediately infatuated with her.

Back at the Oblonsky estate, the family welcomes Anna with open arms. Anna talks to Dolly about Stiva and convinces her that he still loves her deeply. When Kitty sees Anna, she is thrilled. At just 18, Kitty admires Anna's beauty and charming personality. At the ball, however, Kitty is let down. Having just turned down Levin's marriage proposal with the expectation of a proposal from Vronsky, she is devastated when he chooses to dance with Anna over Kitty.

On the train back to St. Petersburg, Anna tries to convince herself that her dance with Vronsky meant nothing. When she arrives home, however, all she can notice about her husband is the largeness of his ears. Rejected by Kitty, Levin returns home.

Part 2 Kitty’s health declines as she suffers over her refusal of Levin for Vronsky, who subsequently abandoned her. Under doctor’s recommendations, Kitty and her mother travel to a German spa for recovery where Kitty befriends Varenka, a pious young woman who attends to the sick at the spa. Though Kitty tries to mirror Varenka in her piety, her father is not convinced by her efforts and Kitty eventually returns to her former self, and to Moscow.

Stiva, at this time, is with Levin at his estate in the country and in the process of making a sale. Levin becomes frustrated with Stiva’s poor decision-making and skewed view of the country. In hopes of encountering Vronsky, Anna joins the social group of Princess Betsy in St. Petersburg, a well-known figure of Russian society and also Vronsky’s cousin. Karenin notices the special attention Anna pays to Vronsky and warns her of the indecency of her behavior and its possible effect on her reputation. Despite his warning, Anna and Vronsky begin their affair.

Shortly after Anna becomes pregnant with Vronsky’s child, he endures a fall after riding his horse to the point of collapse in a steeplechase and Anna responds dramatically. In the car ride home with Karenin, Anna confesses everything about her affair to her husband and expresses her loathing for him. Karenin wishes her to end the affair and to continue their marriage as before, to avoid gossip and impropriety. He threatens to prevent Anna from seeing her beloved son, Seryozha, if she does not end her relations with Vronsky.

Part 3 Levin throws himself into his work on the farm as a means of getting over his rejection from Kitty. He philosophizes about the agricultural reforms in Europe and the potential for them to be applied to the Russian land. When he has human contact with the peasants, he becomes frustrated. When he visits Dolly, he is upset by the inauthenticity of city life and decides to marry a peasant woman. When he spots Kitty, however, he realizes how deeply he loves her.

Part 4 Against Karenin’s wishes, Anna continues her affair with Vronsky, causing Karenin to consult a lawyer about a divorce. To obtain a divorce Anna would either need to confess or to be caught in the act, which would ruin Anna for society. Her love letters are not sufficient evidence to being divorce proceedings. Anna’s brother Stiva wishes to save the marriage and encourages Karenin to speak with Dolly, who suggests that Karenin reconsider his decision to obtain a divorce.

Anna’s difficult childbirth, anticipated to result in Anna’s death, conjures up Karenin’s sympathies. Karenin forgives Anna and Vronsky, leading to Vronsky’s suicide attempt due to humiliation. Vronsky injures himself by gunshot, but does not succeed in killing himself. Anna names her daughter after herself and eventually recovers. Unable to live with her husband, Anna stops Vronsky from leaving for his military posting in Tashkent and instead travels with him to Europe with their new daughter, leaving Karenin and her son, Seryozha, behind.

Stiva arranges a meeting between Levin and Kitty, in which they reconcile and become engaged. At the end of Part 4, Levin and Kitty marry.

Part 5 Levin struggled to adjust to married life. He struggles to balance his time between his wife and his work and misses the freedom he had to work when he was single. Three months into their marriage, Levin learns that his brother is dying of consumption. Against his better judgment, Kitty insists on going with him to take care of Nikolai and proves to be a strong woman and loyal wife. As a result, Levin grows to love her even more and Kitty learns she is pregnant.

Anna and Vronsky, on the other hand, are less happy. In Italy, they are not accepted in their situation and Vronsky begins to feel suffocated. Frustrated and isolated, they return to Russia where Anna is ostracized from her usual social circles and begins to fear that Vronsky is losing interest in her.

Karenin tries to convince Serozhya that Anna is dead, but he does not believe him. On her son's ninth birthday, Anna sneaks into her old home and visits her son. Discovered by Karenin and snubbed by her friends, Anna and Vronsky leave for Vronsky's country estate.

Part 6 Dolly, her children, and her mother, Princess Scherbatskaya, join Kitty and Levin, who are expecting a child, at their estate in the country for the summer. Levin feels overwhelmed with so many visitors, feeling especially jealous when one visitor, Veslovsky, flirts with Kitty in front of him. Levin eventually kicks Veslovsky out, who takes up residence with Anna and Vronsky. Shortly after, Dolly visits their estate as well and becomes worried about Anna. Neither Dolly nor Vronsky can convince Anna to seek divorce from Karenin. It is only when she begins feeling extreme jealousy of Vronsky when he departs for short trips that she is finally convinced to seek a divorce so that she can marry Vronsky. Anna and Vronsky depart for Moscow.

Part 7 In Moscow, Kitty and Levin bicker. After Levin visits Anna, Kitty accuses him of falling in love with her and they realize the negative influence of city life so they return to the country. Vronsky and Anna have a harder time working through their problems. Anna feels neglected by Vronsky and is unsatisfied with her life as a patroness. We learn that he has begun an opium habit that is slowly getting worse. They continue to fight and the relationship is eventually over, culminating in Anna's suicide at the train station.

Part 8 Stiva is offered the job he wanted, Karenin takes over custody of Annie, and Vronsky is among a group of Russian volunteers to fight in the Orthodox Serbian revolt against the Turks.

The possible dangers of a lightning storm bring out Levin’s love for his son and his wife. Kitty is concerned that Levin is not a Christian, though he is such an unselfish and good man. Levin devotes himself to a more righteous way of life due to a conversation he has with a peasant and realizes at the end of the novel that he does not have to behave a certain way or be a Christian to live a righteous and meaningful life.

Character Descriptions edit

Anna Arkadyevna Karenina is is the eponymous protagonist who drives the action of the novel. She is a woman of high society, married to Count Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin, with a young son named Seryozha. Anna is from upper-class St. Petersburg. She is a typical Tolstoyan female protagonist in that she possesses an uncontainable life force and vivaciousness that is highly appealing despite the mistakes she makes throughout the novel.

Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin is Anna’s husband, a high-ranking government minister. Alexei is conventional and strictly believes in upholding societal rules. His anger towards Anna is largely driven by his concern for their reputation in Petersburg.

Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky is a rich cavalry officer who becomes infatuated with Anna. He is handsome and carefree, naive of the way his actions might affect those surrounding him. He appears to have a strong life force as Anna does, but this is driven by Petersburg society and his infatuation with Anna and doesn’t originate from within.

Konstantin Dmitrich Levin is a landowner who spends most of his time at his country estate, finding city life inauthentic and falls in love with Kitty Shcherbatsky. He idealizes the simplicity of the peasant lifestyle and wishes to devote his life to agriculture reform in Russia. At first, he struggles to balance his family life with his career ambitions but ultimately realizes that they can be reconciled. Levin brings a philosophical element to the novel, funneling Tolstoy’s views and making him an autobiographical character. Levin's story and thoughts drive the second plotline.

Ekaterina Alexandrovna Shcherbatskaya (Kitty) is the third daughter of Prince Shcherbatsky. She turns down Levin’s marriage proposal with the expectation that she will marry Vronsky and falls into a depression when he falls for Anna instead. Due to this episode, Kitty first appears as a weak character, but by the novel’s end, she proves to be a strong woman and devoted mother.

Stepan Arkadyich Oblonsky (Stiva) heads the Oblonsky household, and is married to Dolly. His plotline begins the novel, having had an affair with the French governess. Despite his lack of guilt for his affair, he is still a likable character because he is down to earth and charismatic. Stiva is a simple and straightforward character, with no malicious intentions. He plays the role of the mediator and enjoys bringing people together.

Darya Alexandrovna Oblonskaya (Dolly) is the eldest daughter of Prince Shcherbatsky and is the wife of Stepan Oblonsky. She is a very nurturing and motherly character. Although Dolly has little plot development throughout the novel, she provides constant solidarity for the other characters in their times of need.

Major Themes edit

Platonic vs. Non-Platonic love: Very early in the novel, the theme of platonic vs. non-platonic love is introduced during a conversation between Stiva and Levin about Stiva’s recent affair. Levin argues to Stiva, "Some people only understand the one [love], others the other. And those who understand only non-platonic love shouldn’t talk about drama. In such love, there can be no drama...And for platonic love, there can be no drama because in such love everything is clear and pure, because... (Tolstoy 42) This theme is exemplified further throughout the novel through the plotlines of the three principle couples: Anna and Vronsky, Kitty and Levin, and Dolly and Stiva. Anna and Vronsky represent purely non-platonic love, the couple who lusts after one another without deep care for the other person. Dolly and Stiva are the examples of a purely platonic couple, with a deep sense of familial love but little mutual attraction. Kitty and Levin exist in a happy medium between these two couples. They represent a relationship steeped in platonic love, but also with an element of non-platonic love. In this way, “the sinful love of Anna and Vronsky is opposed to the pure Christian love of Kitty and Levin and virtue triumphs” (Manning 506).

Family and Marriage: 'This theme is made apparent from the opening line of the novel - “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way (Tolstoy 1). There are three marriages: Dolly and Stiva, Levin and Kitty, and Anna and Alexie. Levin and Kitty represent an idealized marriage whereas Dolly and Stiva represent a real struggle between two people who love each other and ultimately choose to be together, despite issues of infidelity. Anna and Alexei represent the trap that marriage can be, especially for women.

Barbara Lonnqvist quotes Tolstoy having said, “In order for a work to be good, one must love its main basic idea, as in Anna Karenina I love the idea of family” (Knapp and Mandelkerr 80). The novel guides readers through various representations of family and marriage, illuminating the importance of platonic love.

Children in the novel are morally good and represent the truth. They are the physical representations of the consummation of a relationship and force the adults to face reality. Anna’s major mistake in the novel was not her affair but rather leaving her son, Seryozha. The guilt from this consumes her, ultimately leading to her demise.

City Life versus Country Life: The difference between city and country life is stark. Tolstoy spends many pages discussing Levin's farming. Gary Saul Morson reflects on why: “But agriculture? Why devote so much space to such an obviously parochial and unpoetic topic? I think that the answer to this question can provide a window on one of the book’s key themes: How can one make life better?” (Knapp 60). When Levin is in the city, he feels awkward and inauthentic. The city is also where he and Kitty bicker. For Tolstoy, the Russian country represents authenticity.

Tolstoy believes that “what we need is not what intellectuals usually have to offer” (Knapp and Mandelkerr 63). Instead, we need practical wisdom that can be applied to every day and turned into good habits. The character of Levin exemplifies this. In the novel, as Morson asserts, “most people’s ideas do not come from actually reflecting on their particular experiences but from learning a set of views held by people with whom they identify or wish to associate” (Knapp and Mandelkerr 64). For example, Stiva and many of the Petersburg ladies of high society live by widely accepted rules of propriety, and rarely question their way of life. Levin is the opposite, constantly evaluating his life choices and how they will make his life fulfilling. Kitty eventually becomes like Levin in this respect and the couple achieves happiness at his country estate.

The railroad is a symbol of city life and the intrusive presence of modern technology. The symbolism of the railroad has been extensively debated over. “The railroad has been variously described as signifying death, illicit passion, upper-class society, and the power of public opinion, as well as the brute intrusion of the modern into a traditional way of life” (Jahn 2). However, Jahn points out the flaw in seeing the railroad as a symbol for death because, while most of the primary characters are associated with the railroad in some way, only Anna perishes from it.

Composition History edit

Leo Tolstoy, 1799 - 1837

Leo Tolstoy began writing Anna Karenina on March 18, 1873. The novel was originally based around just three characters: the wife, the husband and the lover, who eventually became Anna Karenina, Alexei Karenin, and Alexei Vronsky. Stepan Oblonsky was the only other character initially included, acting as the mediator. In the first version of the novel, Alexei Karenin, Anna’s husband, was the “principal tragic character” and Tolstoy viewed Anna unfavorably, as a “disgusting woman” (Eikhenbaum 113-114). Tolstoy became unsatisfied with a novel solely based on themes of love, and subsequently introduced the theme of town versus country through the character and storyline of Levin. The introduction of Levin was a large factor changing Tolstoy’s view of Karenin, leading to the shift in focus to Anna. In the summer of 1874, Tolstoy halted the printing of Anna Karenina in the midst of his interest in pedagogical issues. He lost interest in his novel, believing that he was weakening in his writing and feeling a lack of inspiration.

By 1876, many had become interested in previous installments and eagerly awaited the final chapters of the novel, which wouldn’t be finished for at least another year. In this period, Tolstoy began working on philosophical and religious texts, which had recently sparked his interest and he began formulating his own religious beliefs. This shift in thought pushed Levin more to the center of the novel and added the autobiographical element to his character. Tolstoy began a phase of deep questioning, asking a friend in a letter, “how you do you know why you are living, what guided you to live, and what is guiding you in life?” (Eikhenbaum 124). This extremely thoughtful state provided the inspiration for Tolstoy to begin writing again in December 1876 and the novel was finished in 1877. Many readers were extremely upset by Anna’s fate and accused Tolstoy of being “pitiless” (125).

Publication History edit

Anna Karenina was first published serially in the journal The Russian Messenger (Russkii Vestnik- Русский Вестник) between the years 1875 and 1877. The novel was published in book form for the first time in three volumes, in Moscow, 1878. The first English translation was by Nathan Haskell Dole in 1886 in New York under Thomas Y. Crowell & Co. Publishing.

Literary Significance edit

Tolstoy wrote in the realist tradition, which is characterized as “a reaction against romanticism,” and a wish to bring out the meaning in “mundane realiti[ies]” (Terras 190) As Victor Terras asserts, that Russian Realists,” like many of their Western colleagues...were not content merely to describe the world, but aspired to understand and interpret it” (Jones 191). This statement could be no truer than for Lev Tolstoy. Tolstoy wrote constantly, observing his own and other’s behavior, believing it possible to understand the world as it truly was and wishing to do so. Anna Karenina is a realist work and a family novel, which accounts for the moral considerations that are voiced throughout the novel. The moral element of the novel was extremely important to Tolstoy, as he “believed that art was an end in itself, but that is [also] existed to serve social and moral purposes” (Wasiolek 319).

Tolstoy was influenced by 19th-century French literature, and it is highly probable that Flaubert’s Madame Bovary provided some of the inspiration for Anna Karenina. Indeed, a Russian translation of the novel was found in Tolstoy’s library at the time. The novel, in turn, influenced some 19th-century French writers as well, such as Leon Daudet (Chamberlain 378).

Boris Eikhenbaum identified formal innovations that Tolstoy made in the writing of Anna Karenina. These include a stream of conscious narration, the portrayal of half-conscious and dream states, and a “cinematic” narration exemplified through the replaying of scenes from different characters’ viewpoints (i.e. steeplechase, Levin and Kitty’s wedding). These innovations influenced a great deal of literature that followed it's publication.

Another significant achievement of the novel is its character portrayals. The characters in Anna Karenina cannot be typified, and Tolstoy has been praised for his ability to make his characters alive and real on the page. Lydia Ginzburg points to Tolstoy's combination of "stability and fluidity" in his characterizations that helps to create these complex characters (Ginzburg 249). She argues that Tolstoy "arrest[ed] and fix[ed] personality as a mobile, changeable, yet identifiable structure" (Ginzburg 249). He juxtaposed this clear depiction of characters' personalities with "the motives underlying [their] actions and the actions themselves" (Ginzburg 249). The complex interplay of these various aspects of each character created a cast and a world that is difficult to distinguish from real life.

Anna Karenina takes place in a historical period of change, with the“demise of the landed gentry and ascendancy of capitalism, the crisis in Russian agriculture, confusion in the upper-class family structure” (Jones-Terras 203). All of these issues play a role in the narrative of the novel and provide the context for the storylines to take place.

The Anna Karenina Principle has been created in the field of psychology "which holds that it is possible to fail in many ways but to succeed in only one way, by avoiding each of the routes to failure" (Peterson, The Anna Karenina Principle).

Adaptations edit

‘’Anna Karenina’’ is one of the most adapted works of literature. It has been adapted across mediums: theater, musical, film, radio, television, and Opera. There is also a novel adaptation by Ben H. Winters called ‘’Android Karenina.’’

All Hollywood adaptations minimize the Levin plotline almost entirely and focus on Anna’s story “in an effort to promote sympathy with Anna and simplify the plot” (Gibaldi 182).

The next film version starring Kiera will be released at the end of 2012

Visit Adaptations of Anna Karenina for an extensive list of adaptations.

Study Questions edit

1. Levin is known to be at least partially an autobiographical representation of Tolstoy. How does this knowledge shape our understanding of the novel's overarching messages and philosophy?

2. ‘’Anna Karenina’’ begins with an epigraph: “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.” How do you interpret this in the context of the novel?

3. How does Tolstoy draw characters? How does he employ physical descriptions, dialogue, internal monologue, and other forms of narration to make his characters feel like real people?

4. Tostoy stated that his novel is structured not so much by character relations (i.e., meetings between characters) or plot points, but by an "internal cohesion." What do you think he means? (Lydiia Ginzberg)

5. There are three major couples in this novel: Anna and Vronsky, Stiva and Dolly, and Levin and Kitty. What do you think Tolstoy is trying to say in juxtaposing them next to one another?

6. What do trains symbolize in the novel?

7. Anna's adultery is met with societal gossip and the severance of several past relations. However, despite her brother Stiva’s several extramarital affairs, his punishment is not severe and almost nonexistent. Considering this stark gender contrast, what is Tolstoy trying to say about the behaviors of society? Is he promoting a misogynistic social structure or critiquing it, and presenting a feminist alternative through the character of Anna?

8. How does Tolstoy make his characters feel "real"? What are some of the major literary devices, narrative strategies, and uses of physical descriptions, dialogue, and internal monologue that given the reader a sense that s/he is reading not marks on a page, but confronting a complex personality?

9. After viewing one or more film adaptation of Anna Karenina, which elements of the novel do you believe to be well represented and which do you think are lost with the translation from page to screen? Are there parts of the film that have been altered to accommodate the language and/or cultural differences of the target audience? What reasons do you see for the inclusion of certain plot lines and themes of the novel and the neglect of others? (Lester Asheim’s article “From Book to Film: Simplification" might be helpful in considering this question.)

References edit


  • Bruccoli, Matthew Joseph, Richard Layman, C. E. Frazer. Clark, Patrick Meanor, Janice McNabb, Janice McNabb, J. Randolph. Cox, George Grella, and Philip B. Dematteis. "Russian Novelists in the Age of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky." Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 238. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1978. 315-38
  • Ėĭkhenbaum, Boris Mikhaĭlovich. Tolstoi in the Seventies. Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis, 1982.
  • Ginzburg, Lydia. "Casual Conditionality." On Psychological Prose. Trans. Judson Rosengrant. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1991. 221-66.
  • Knapp, Liza, and Amy Mandelker. Approaches to Teaching Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2003. Print.
  • Orwin, Donna Tussing. The Cambridge Companion to Tolstoy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2002. Print.
  • Terras, Victor. "The Realist Tradition." The Cambridge Companion to the Classic Russian Novel. Ed. Malcolm V. Jones and Robin Feuer Miller. New York: Cambridge UP, 1998. 190-209
  • Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina: A Novel in Eight Parts. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York, NY: Penguin, 2002

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