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Anna Karenina | Study Guide

Leo Tolstoy

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Anna Karenina | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


What is Tolstoy's view of the aristocracy as evidenced in Anna Karenina?

Tolstoy's view of the aristocracy in Anna Karenina is almost unremittingly critical. He portrays the upper reaches of the aristocracy, "high society," as particularly despicable. In the numerous scenes set in drawing rooms and public places, the reader sees hypocritical aristocrats carrying on lavish entertainments as they gossip about one another and engage in extramarital affairs. As long as they keep their affairs discreet, they are allowable. Thus, Princess Betsy Tverskoy plays the role of a panderer, facilitating Vronsky and Anna's blossoming affair, but she rejects Anna when the affair goes public. The aristocrats who are in government service are portrayed as paper-pushers who do a lot of useless work. Although Karenin is an exception as an honest bureaucrat, his work turns out to be not that important, because he is easily replaced once he falls out of favor. In Part 7, Chapter 17, Stiva pursues one of the numerous fake jobs available to the right people who get income for doing nothing.

How are Anna and Levin similar and different in Anna Karenina?

Both Anna and Levin are nonconformists, and both choose to step outside the norm in some way to fulfill their need for happiness. Levin takes on work that is atypical for his class, and he refuses to adhere to certain social norms that he finds absurd or destructive. For example, he does not care if his opinions and views make other people uncomfortable, and he follows the beat of his own drum, even if it makes him appear odd. Anna decides to follow her need for passionate love, but the social mores she violates are much more rigid, and she ends up being ostracized and scorned by society for leaving her husband and living with a lover. Both Anna and Levin feel the need for useful occupation, but Anna is less able to fulfill this need because of the restrictions placed on her as a woman. However, she begins to take up various interests after she is cut off from society—such as reading on a wide variety of subjects and writing a children's book. Levin is much more generous and openhearted, and much of what he does is for the good of other people, while Anna is selfish and narcissistic, and most of what she does is to benefit herself. Levin is meant to be the moral compass of the novel, while Anna represents alluring temptation rooted in egoism, which leads to perdition.

In Part 5, Chapter 13 of Anna Karenina, why do Anna and Vronsky become bored in Italy?

Anna and Vronsky become bored in Italy because they are separated from their families, friends, and culture, and have no useful occupation. Before coming to Italy, Vronsky was an officer and a soldier, and this work organized his life, as did Anna's work of motherhood and wifehood. Now neither of them have much to do. With regard to the new baby, Anna has relinquished all of her responsibilities to the wet nurse and nanny, so Vronsky is her only interest. The same is true for him, and in desperation he takes up painting, an avocation that he has a little talent for. But painting cannot hold Vronsky's interest for long because he has no real passion for it. Moreover, Vronsky wants to settle his property with his brother, and Anna wants to see her son. Finally, both of them want to set up a "real" life; currently, they are on a kind of extended honeymoon. For these reasons, the couple decide to return to Moscow in Part 5, Chapter 13.

How does the epigraph, "Vengeance is mine; I will repay," relate to the themes of Anna Karenina?

The epigraph has been variously read by both readers and critics. The quotation as written actually comes from the Old Testament, in which God says He will avenge himself in due time on the idolatrous Israelites (those who worshiped false gods and not the God of Abraham). But when the quote is repeated in the New Testament, the speaker adds "says the Lord," with the meaning that it is not for human beings to judge—rather it is for God to judge and to exact vengeance or justice. The fact that Tolstoy uses the quote from the Old Testament seems to indicate that those who sin will suffer punishment, although it could also mean that vengeance belongs to God and not man. The epigraph is related to Anna, of course, who kills herself at the end of the novel. Did God wreak vengeance on her? Or did society unjustly punish themselves by ostracizing her, which led to her despair? It is for the reader to judge.

In Anna Karenina, what position does Tolstoy take regarding differential treatment of adultery based on gender?

The novel's position is that adultery is immoral and wrong, whether committed by a man or a woman. This is clear because the most morally bankrupt character in the novel is Stiva, an adulterer who goes without punishment only because he has a forgiving wife and never gets serious with his lovers. Dolly, who puts up with his adultery and even has opportunities to pay him back in kind, stays loyal to her marriage. Anna Karenina, although an alluring and sympathetic character, is clearly portrayed as being wrong to engage in adultery, although Pestov comments in Part 4, Chapter 12 that one of the gross injustices toward women is the differential treatment they get vis-à-vis adulterous behavior—in that they are ostracized, while men are not. Levin, the hero of the novel, believes that spouses should remain faithful, and his is an example of a happy marriage. For all these reasons, it is clear that Tolstoy meant to say that adultery is wrong, whether committed by a man or a woman.

How is Anna Karenina similar to Countess Vronsky in her approach to motherhood in Anna Karenina?

While Anna is initially presented as the opposite of Countess Vronsky in her mothering, they turn out to have a lot in common. Anna is very attached to Seryozha, and she is apprehensive about leaving him for the first time, whereas the countess seems to have been an indifferent mother who neglected her son by pursuing lovers and putting her son in boarding school from an early age (Part 1, Chapter 16). However, Anna makes a clear choice of Vronsky over Seryozha when she rejects her husband's offer of a divorce. Moreover, she is an indifferent mother to Annie and admits she does not even love her in Part 5, Chapter 31; she has turned Annie's care over to a constellation of caretakers, and the English governess is even a questionable choice, as Dolly notes in Part 6, Chapter 19, when she comes to visit. Finally, Anna does not think about the effect her suicide will have on her son. Thus, both Anna and Countess Vronsky shirk their responsibilities as mothers.

In what ways is Anna Karenina's suicide driven by despair or spite in Anna Karenina?

It is hard to say where despair ends and spite begins; therefore, it is probably fair to say Anna is driven by both in taking her life. Anna becomes more and more convinced that Vronsky does not care about her as much as she cares about him. Moreover, she feels more and more powerless in her situation because she is wholly dependent on Vronsky, while he still has a life outside of their relationship. Thus, she has a need to triumph over him to restore the balance of power. She continues to provoke Vronsky, and "death presented itself to her clearly and vividly as the only way to restore the love for her in his heart, to punish him and to be victorious in the struggle that the evil spirit lodged in her heart was waging with him" (Part 7, Chapter 26). She tells him he will be sorry, and when, after their final argument, he does not attempt to make up with her, she falls further into despair, thinking about how she abandoned Seryozha for Vronsky (Part 7, Chapter 30) and was happy to do so, as long as she was satisfied by "that love." Thus, she falls into despair looking at both herself and the world in the worst light.

At the end of Anna Karenina, in what ways is Countess Vronsky's assessment of Anna fair or unfair: that she destroyed the lives of two good men?

From one perspective, Countess Vronsky is right: Anna was married to a kind, generous, and successful man, and she chose to unlawfully replace him with a lover, even though she could, within the parameters of the social mores of her class, have had both Vronsky and Karenin—especially because Karenin himself was willing to put up with her infidelity. As a result of falling in love with Vronsky, she destroyed her husband, first by asking him to forgive her and giving him hope of saving the marriage, and then, after he realized she still wanted to leave him, by rejecting his offer of a divorce in which she would be able to remarry and keep her son. Thus, he took care of her through her childbed sickness, and she threw his generous offer back in his face. The emotional shock and fierce rejection Karenin felt from his wife were directly to blame for his professional decline: his superiors simply couldn't understand his tolerance. Anna also precipitated Vronsky's attempt on his life by exposing him to humiliation before her husband, and completely breaking his spirit by killing herself to spite him. On the other hand, three adults were involved in the situation, and Karenin and Vronsky could have made different choices, so they were not forcibly controlled by Anna. First, Vronsky was the one who pursued Anna (for close to a year), so in one sense, he got what was coming to him by trespassing on a marriage without forethought or consideration. Moreover, Vronsky could have left Anna at any time or presented her with an ultimatum earlier on that she either get a divorce or go back to her husband. Similarly, Karenin could have divorced Anna at any time. If he had acted sooner and more decisively, he would not have destroyed his reputation. Thus, the two men were complicit in their destruction because they always had the choice to break away from Anna.

In Anna Karenina, why does Dolly remain a loyal friend to Anna, even though Anna has hurt her sister Kitty?

Dolly does not see Anna clearly, and she is grateful to her for validating her decision to save her own marriage and forgive Stiva for what turned out to be serial infidelity. She looks at Anna in the way that some of the readers of the novel see her—as a proud, beautiful, and passionate woman who breaks society's norms to be with the man she loves. Dolly is also a loyal person, so she wants to stand up for Anna and remain friends with her. She does not feel badly that Anna broke up Kitty's relationship with Vronsky because, as she says in Part 1, Chapter 28, she didn't feel like it was a good match anyway, if Vronsky could fall for Anna so easily. She is also not aware of Anna's flirtation with Levin and does not fully understand the implication of Anna reminding Kitty (in Part 7, Chapter 28) about her visit with her husband in which she attempted to make him fall in love with her.

In Anna Karenina, how does Stiva's amorality put a strain on the friendship between him and Levin?

In the early part of the novel, Levin is not judgmental of Stiva, especially because he thinks about his own indiscretions with women. But once he is married, he begins to view things differently, and perhaps a married man's indiscretions now seem much worse to him. Thus, he gets annoyed with Stiva for bringing Vasenka Veslovsky to his home and thinks, when he sees Stiva kissing his wife, "Who did he kiss yesterday with those lips?" (Part 6, Chapter 6). When Stiva and Veslovsky go hunting with Levin, Stiva irritates him by saying he is no better than the capitalists who are buying up land for the railroad because he makes money off the backs of the peasants and is also a capitalist. Stiva says this to defend himself, because Levin criticizes him for socializing with these people, whom Levin dislikes for making money without actually working. Then Stiva tells Levin he has to assert himself with his wife, advising him to be "independent," to which Levin replies in Part 6, Chapter 11, "Meaning what? To go courting farm girls?" Of course, Stiva claims that what his wife does not know won't harm her. Thus, Levin finds himself more at odds with Stiva's worldview and much more critical of his behavior. This puts a strain on their friendship, especially because Stiva is also foisting more and more of his family responsibilities onto Levin. By the end of the novel, his family always stays with the Levins. In the last pages of the novel, Stiva sends a message to his wife in the country through Koznyshev. She is staying at Levin's house, but Stiva is busy running off to give a dinner for his friends. Clearly, he and Levin have grown very far apart.

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