Unhappy In Its Own Way: An Anna Karenina Study Guide

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.

Published in 1877, Leo Tolstoy referred to Anna Karenina as the first novel he’d written, despite having published several novellas and novels before—including a little book called War and Peace. His sixth novel was produced after a prolonged period of creative frustration for Tolstoy as he worked fruitlessly on a novel based on the life of Russian Tsar Peter the Great, a project that went nowhere slowly and drove Tolstoy to despair.

He found inspiration in the local story of a woman who had thrown herself in front of a train after discovering that her lover had been unfaithful to her; this event became the kernel that eventually sprouted into what many believe to be the greatest Russian novel of all time—and one of the greatest novels, period.

For the modern reader, Anna Karenina (and any 19th-century Russian novel) can seem imposing and daunting. Its length, its cast of characters, the Russian names, the distance between our own experience and more than a century of societal evolution combined with the distance between a long-gone culture and modern sensibilities make it easy to assume that Anna Karenina will be difficult to understand. And yet the book remains immensely popular, and not solely as an academic curiosity: Every day regular readers pick up this classic and fall in love with it.

The explanation for its perpetual popularity is twofold.

The simplest and most obvious reason is Tolstoy’s immense talent: His novels haven’t become classics solely because of their complexity and the literary tradition he worked in—they’re fantastically well written, entertaining, and compelling, and Anna Karenina is no exception. In other words, Anna Karenina is an enjoyable reading experience.

The second reason for its staying power is an almost-contradictory combination of the evergreen nature of its themes and its transitional nature. Anna Karenina simultaneously tells a story based on social attitudes and behaviors that are just as powerful and entrenched today as they were in the 1870s and broke incredible new ground in terms of literary technique. The literary style—explosively fresh when published—means the novel feels modern today despite its age.

Plot

Anna Karenina follows two main plot tracks, both fairly superficial love stories; while there are many philosophical and social issues tackled by various sub-plots in the story (most notably a section near the end where characters set off for Serbia to support an attempt at independence from Turkey) these two relationships are the core of the book. In one, Anna Karenina embarks on an affair with a passionate young cavalry officer. In the second, Anna’s sister-in-law Kitty initially rejects, then later embraces the advances of an awkward young man named Levin.

The story opens in the home of Stepan "Stiva" Oblonsky, whose wife Dolly has discovered his infidelity. Stiva has been carrying on an affair with a former governess to their children and has been pretty open about it, scandalizing society and humiliating Dolly, who threatens to leave him.

Stiva is paralyzed by this turn of events; his sister, Princess Anna Karenina, arrives to try and calm the situation down. Anna is beautiful, intelligent, and married to the prominent government minister Count Alexei Karenin, and she is able to mediate between Dolly and Stiva and get Dolly to agree to stay in the marriage.

Dolly has a younger sister, Princess Ekaterina "Kitty" Shcherbatskaya, who is being courted by two men: Konstantin Dmitrievich Levin, a socially-awkward landowner, and Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky, a handsome, passionate military officer. As you might expect, Kitty is enamored of the dashing officer and chooses Vronsky over Levin, which devastates the earnest man. However, things take an immediate gossipy turn when Vronsky encounters Anna Karenina and falls deeply for her on first sight, which in turn devastates Kitty.

Kitty is so hurt by this turn of events she actually becomes sick. For her part, Anna finds Vronsky attractive and compelling, but she dismisses her feelings as a temporary infatuation and returns home to Moscow.

Vronsky, however, pursues Anna there and tells her that he loves her. When her husband becomes suspicious, Anna fiercely denies any involvement with Vronsky, but when he’s involved in a terrible accident during a horse race, Anna can’t hide her feelings for Vronsky and confesses that she loves him. Her husband, Karenin, is mainly concerned with his public image. He refuses her a divorce, and she moves to their country estate and begins a torrid affair with Vronsky that soon finds her pregnant with his child. Anna is tortured by her decisions, wracked with guilt over betraying her marriage and abandoning her son with Karenin and gripped by powerful jealousy in relation to Vronsky.

Anna has a difficult childbirth while her husband visits her in the country; upon seeing Vronsky there he has a moment of grace and agrees to divorce her if she wishes, but leaves the final decision with her after forgiving her for her infidelity. Anna is outraged by this, resenting his ability to suddenly take the high road, and she and Vronsky travel with the baby, going to Italy. Anna is restless and lonely, however, so they eventually return to Russia, where Anna finds herself increasingly isolated. The scandal of her affair leaves her unwanted in the social circles she once traveled in, while Vronsky enjoys a double standard and is free to do as he likes.

Anna begins to suspect and fear that Vronsky has fallen out of love with her and has become unfaithful, and she grows increasingly angry and unhappy. As her mental and emotional state deteriorates, she goes to the local train station and impulsively throws herself in front of an oncoming train, killing herself. Her husband, Karenin, takes in her and Vronsky’s child.

Meanwhile, Kitty and Levin meet again. Levin has been at his estate, trying unsuccessfully to convince his tenants to modernize their farming techniques, while Kitty has been recovering at a spa. The passage of time and their own bitter experiences have changed them, and they quickly fall in love and marry. Levin chafes under the restrictions of married life and feels little affection for his son when he’s born. He has a crisis of faith that leads him back to the church, becoming suddenly fervent in his belief. A near-tragedy that threatens his child’s life also sparks in him the first sense of true love for the boy.

Major Characters

Princess Anna Arkadyevna Karenina: Main focus of the novel, wife of Alexei Karenin, brother of Stepan. Anna’s fall from grace in society is one of the main themes of the novel; as the story opens she is a force of order and normalcy come to her brother’s house to set things right. By the end of the novel, she has seen her entire life unravel—her position in society lost, her marriage destroyed, her family taken from her, and—she is convinced at the end—her lover lost to her. At the same time, her marriage is held up as typical of the time and place in the sense that her husband—much like other husbands in the story—is stunned to discover that his wife has a life or desires of her own outside of the family.

Count Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin: A government minister and Anna’s husband. He is much older than she is, and at first appears to be a stiff, moralizing man more concerned with how her affair will make him look in society than anything else. Over the course of the novel, however, we find that Karenin is one of the truly moral characters. He is legitimately spiritual, and he is shown to be legitimately worried over Anna and the descent of her life. He tries to do the right thing at every turn, including taking in his wife’s child with another man after her death.

Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky: A dashing military man of great passions, Vronsky truly loves Anna, but has no capacity to understand the differences between their social positions and chafes at her increasing desperation and attempts to keep him close to her out of jealousy and loneliness as her social isolation grows. He is crushed by her suicide and his instinct is to head off to volunteer to fight in Serbia as a form of self-sacrifice in an attempt to atone for his failings.

Prince Stepan "Stiva" Arkadyevich Oblonsky: Anna’s brother is handsome and bored with his marriage. He has regular love affairs and spends beyond his means in order to be part of high society. He is surprised to discover that his wife, Kitty, is upset when one of his most recent affairs is discovered. He is in every way representative of the Russian aristocratic class in the late 19th-century according to Tolstoy—ignorant of real matters, unfamiliar with work or struggle, self-centered and morally blank.

Princess Darya "Dolly" Alexandrovna Oblonskaya: Dolly is Stepan’s wife, and is presented as the opposite of Anna in her decisions: She is devastated by Stepan’s affairs, but she still loves him, and she values her family too much to do anything about it, and so remains in the marriage. The irony of Anna guiding her sister-in-law to the decision to stay with her husband is intentional, as is the contrast between the social consequences that Stepan faces for his infidelity to Dolly (there are none, because he is a man) and those faced by Anna.

Konstantin "Kostya" Dmitrievich Lëvin: The most serious character in the novel, Levin is a country landowner who finds the supposedly sophisticated ways of the city’s elite to be inexplicable and hollow. He is thoughtful and spends much of the novel struggling to understand his place in the world, his faith in God (or lack thereof), and his feelings towards his wife and family. Whereas the more superficial men in the story marry and start families easily because it is the expected path for them and they do as society expects unthinkingly—leading to infidelity and restlessness—Levin is contrasted as a man who works through his feelings and emerges satisfied with his decision to marry and start a family.

Princess Ekaterina "Kitty" Alexandrovna Shcherbatskaya: Dolly’s younger sister and eventually wife to Levin. Kitty initially wishes to be with Vronsky due to his handsome, dashing persona and rejects the somber, thoughtful Levin. After Vronsky humiliates her by pursuing the married Anna over her, she descends into a melodramatic illness. Kitty evolves over the course of the novel, however, deciding to devote her life to helping others and then appreciating Levin’s attractive qualities when they next meet. She is a woman who chooses to be a wife and mother instead of having it thrust upon her by society, and is arguably the happiest character at the end of the novel.

Literary Style

Tolstoy broke new ground in Anna Karenina with the use of two innovative techniques: A Realist approach and Stream of Consciousness.

Realism

Anna Karenina wasn’t the first Realist novel, but it is regarded as a nearly-perfect example of the literary movement. A Realist novel attempts to depict everyday things without artifice, as opposed to the more flowery and idealist traditions that most novels pursue. Realist novels tell grounded stories and avoid any sort of embellishment. The events in Anna Karenina are set out simply; people behave in realistic, believable ways, and events are always explicable and their causes and consequences can be traced from one to the next.

As a result, Anna Karenina remains relatable to modern audiences because there are no artistic flourishes that mark it in a certain moment of the literary tradition, and the novel is also a time capsule of what life was like for a certain class of people in 19th century Russia because Tolstoy took pains to make his descriptions accurate and factual instead of pretty and poetic. It also means that while characters in Anna Karenina represent segments of society or prevailing attitudes, they aren’t symbols—they are offered as people, with layered and sometimes contradictory beliefs.

Stream of Consciousness

Stream of Consciousness is most often associated with the groundbreaking postmodern works of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf and other 20th century writers, but Tolstoy pioneered the technique in Anna Karenina. For Tolstoy, it was used in service of his Realist goals—his peek into the thoughts of his characters reinforces the realism by showing that the physical aspects of his fictional world are consistent—different characters see the same things the same way—while perceptions about people shift and change from character to character because each person has only a sliver of the truth. For example, characters think differently of Anna when they learn of her affair, but the portrait artist Mikhailov, unaware of the affair, never changes his superficial opinion of the Karenins.

Tolstoy’s use of stream of consciousness also allows him to depict the crushing weight of opinion and gossip against Anna. Every time a character judges her negatively because of her affair with Vronsky, Tolstoy adds a bit of weight to the social judgment that eventually drives Anna to suicide.

Themes

Marriage as Society

The first line of the novel is famous for both its elegance and the way it lays out the major theme of the novel succinctly and beautifully: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Marriage is the central theme of the novel. Tolstoy uses the institution to demonstrate different relationships with society and the invisible set of rules and infrastructure we create and abide by, which can destroy us. There are four marriages examined closely in the novel:

  1. Stepan and Dolly: This couple can be seen as a successful marriage as compromise: Neither party is truly happy in the marriage, but they make arrangements with themselves to carry on (Dolly focuses on her children, Stepan pursues his fast lifestyle), sacrificing their true desires.
  2. Anna and Karenin: They refuse compromise, choosing to pursue their own path, and are miserable as a result. Tolstoy, who in real life was very happily married at the time, portrays the Karenins as the result of viewing marriage as a step on the society ladder rather than a spiritual bond between people. Anna and Karenin do not sacrifice their true selves, but are unable to attain them because of their marriage.
  3. Anna and Vronsky: Although not actually married, they have an ersatz marriage after Anna leaves her husband and becomes pregnant, traveling and living together. Their union is no happier for having been born from impulsive passion and emotion, however—they pursue their desires but are prevented from enjoying them because of the restrictions of the relationship.
  4. Kitty and Levin: The happiest and most secure couple in the novel, Kitty and Levin’s relationship begins poorly when Kitty rejects him but ends as the strongest marriage in the book. The key is that their happiness is not due to any sort of social matching or commitment to religious principle, but rather to the thoughtful approach they both take, learning from their disappointments and mistakes and choosing to be with each other. Levin is arguably the most complete person in the story because he finds his satisfaction on his own, without relying on Kitty.

Social Status as Prison

Throughout the novel, Tolstoy demonstrates that people’s reactions to crises and changes are dictated not so much by their individual personalities or willpower, but by their background and social status. Karenin is initially stunned by his wife’s infidelity and has no idea what to do because the concept of his wife pursuing her own passions is foreign to a man of his position. Vronsky cannot conceive of a life where he does not consistently put himself and his desires first, even if he truly cares for someone else, because that is how he has been raised. Kitty desires to be a selfless person who does for others, but she cannot make the transformation because that is not who she is—because that is not how she has been defined her whole life.

Morality

Tolstoy’s characters all struggle with their morality and spirituality. Tolstoy had very strict interpretations of the duty of Christians in terms of violence and adultery, and each of the characters struggles to come to terms with their own spiritual sense. Levin is the key character here, as he is the only one who gives up his self-image and actually engages in an honest conversation with his own spiritual feelings in order to understand who he is and what his purpose in life is. Karenin is a very moral character, but this is presented as a natural instinct for Anna’s husband—not something he has come to through thought and contemplation, but rather simply the way he is. As a result, he does not truly grow during the course of the story, but finds satisfaction in being true to himself. All the other major characters ultimately live selfish lives and are thus less happy and less fulfilled than Levin.

Historical Context

Anna Karenina was written at a time in Russian history—and world history—when culture and society were restless and on the verge of rapid change. Within fifty years the world would plunge into a World War that would redraw maps and destroy ancient monarchies, including the Russian imperial family. Old societal structures were under attack from forces without and within, and traditions were constantly questioned.

And yet, Russian aristocratic society (and, again, high society around the world) was more rigid and bound by tradition than ever. There was a real feeling that the aristocracy was out of touch and insular, more concerned with its own internal politics and gossip than the country’s growing problems. There was a clear divide between the moral and political views of the countryside and the cities, with the upper classes viewed increasingly as immoral and dissolute.

Key Quotes

Aside from the famous opening line quoted above (and quoted everywhere, all the time—it’s that good), Anna Karenina is stuffed with fascinating thoughts:

  • “And death, as the sole means of reviving love for herself in his heart, of punishing him, and of gaining the victory in that contest which an evil spirit in her heart was waging against him, presented itself clearly and vividly to her.”
  • “Life itself has given me the answer, in my knowledge of what is good and bad. And that knowledge I did not acquire in any way; it was given to me as to everybody, given because I could not take it from anywhere.”
  • “I see a peacock, like this featherhead, who's only amusing himself.”
  • “The highest Petersburg society is essentially one: in it everyone knows everyone else, everyone even visits everyone else.”
  • “He could not be mistaken. There were no other eyes like those in the world. There was only one creature in the world who could concentrate for him all the brightness and meaning of life. It was she.”
  • “The Karenins, husband and wife, continued living in the same house, met every day, but were complete strangers to one another.”
  • “Love those that hate you.”
  • “All the variety, all the charm, all the beauty of life is made up of light and shadow.”
  • “Whatever our destiny is or may be, we have made it ourselves, and we do not complain of it.”
  • “Respect was invented to cover the empty place where love should be.”