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Anna Karenina | Study Guide

Leo Tolstoy

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Leo Tolstoy | Biography


Leo Tolstoy (Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy), born September 9, 1828, in the Tula province of Russia, was an aristocrat and landowner who wrote primarily about his own class. He was orphaned by the time he was nine and lost additional close relatives by age 13; he and his siblings were raised by their relations. Tolstoy never completed his university education but was successful in the military, earning promotions and a citation for bravery under fire. After he married Sofya Andreyevna Behrs in 1862, he moved to the family estate of Yasnaya Polyana and wrote his two most acclaimed novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina.

Tolstoy uses many elements from his own life in Anna Karenina and explores themes and ideas that inspired and haunted him. The character of Levin is largely based on himself. Like Levin, he was in his 30s when he married his wife, who was 18. Tolstoy also insisted she read his diary, which contained the sordid details of his wild years as a bachelor—including numerous liaisons with prostitutes, women of the lower classes, and married acquaintances, his bouts with venereal disease, and his love affair with a peasant that produced a child. Like Levin, Tolstoy had a long-standing relationship with his wife's family before he married. According to the Introduction in the translation of Anna Karenina by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, most of the characters—including the minor ones—are drawn from life.

Toward the end of the period when Tolstoy was writing Anna Karenina, he began to experience an intense spiritual crisis, which is captured in Levin's fear of death and existential angst. But Tolstoy's dark night of the soul was much profounder and lasted a lot longer. Eventually, he came to hate his life as an aristocrat and desired to give away his wealth. In his early period of spiritual transformation, he was reading the philosophers mentioned by Levin—Plato, Spinoza, Kant, Schelling, Hegel, and Schopenhauer—and would eventually explore the tenets of Eastern religion as well—specifically Hinduism and Buddhism. Not surprisingly, Anna Karenina has as a subtext an indictment of the aristocratic class, much stronger than that found in War and Peace. Tolstoy also touches on the entrenched problems of the class system and absolute monarchy, but falls far short of calling for radical reform.

Anna Karenina has enjoyed widespread acclaim among both authors and readers and is hailed by some as the greatest novel ever written. It has had an equally widespread social influence, spawning many film and stage adaptations, and even the Anna Karenina principle: a statistical theory developed by Jared Diamond in 1997, which he based on the first sentence of the novel.

Most of the works that followed Anna Karenina were didactic fiction and nonfiction philosophical texts, and in later life Tolstoy would repudiate War and Peace and Anna Karenina, according to his evolving definition of art. Tolstoy left his wife of 48 years after a long period of intense quarreling, mostly over his copyrights, which he wanted to give away, and died two weeks later on November 7, 1910, at age 82.

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