Anna Karenina | Study Guide

Leo Tolstoy

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Anna Karenina | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


How does the Anna Karenina principle, popularized by Jared Diamond, apply to the main couples of Anna Karenina?

Jared Diamond developed the Anna Karenina principle to describe how an endeavor will succeed only when every one of certain conditions are met, but that same endeavor can fail if only one of those conditions is not met. The principle—which can apply to families, businesses, and even farming—is based on the first sentence of the novel: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Thus, a family will be happy when all the criteria for family happiness are met: compatibility of spouses, open communication, total trust and fidelity, financial stability, parenting priorities, a peaceful community, similar values, and so on; a family will be unhappy when any one (or more than one) of the criteria is missing. Anna and Karenin are unhappy in their marriage because they lack some of the happiness criteria; it becomes clear early in the novel that they are not highly compatible and that much is left unsaid between them. Even though they meet other criteria for happiness (for example, financial stability), the missing ones prevent them from being happy. Anna and Vronsky's relationship ultimately crumbles because of the absence of other factors: while one could argue they have similar values and are generally compatible, their love lacks trust, open communication, and shared parenting priorities. Dolly and Stiva, in turn, fail to achieve happiness because their relationship lacks, among other factors, fidelity and similar values; in addition, their financial situation becomes shakier as the novel progresses. Levin and Kitty's relationship is the only one among the main four of the novel that Tolstoy imbues with all the factors requisite for happiness. Even by the end of the novel, they have not perfected them, but the couple is clearly willing to work, to sacrifice, and to compromise toward their perfection. When each feels the other has been seduced by a rival (Levin by Anna, and Kitty by Veslovsky), they allow their trust in each other to calm any suspicions.

What is Tolstoy's view of the relationship between family life and society, as evidenced in Anna Karenina?

In Tolstoy's view, the family is the building block of society. Levin often argues with his brother that he is not concerned with politics. His actions reflect a view that if people did the right thing—that is, take care of their families, treat their workers fairly, and treat the land with respect—then society would have fewer problems. This is a highly idealistic view, but the lessons of history as well as the disciplines of sociology and psychology would likely agree with Levin and Tolstoy to some degree. A stable, healthy society does depend on stable, healthy families who can raise children to be good citizens: citizens who live by a moral code and do not always put their own interests ahead of what is good for other people. They realize the importance of living harmoniously in social groups. People learn first and foremost from their parents and the elders in their families. Moreover, the family is a person's best support against the storms of life. Thus, family and society are inextricably linked, and if one is unhealthy it affects the other, because they are in a symbiotic relationship—meaning that the family needs society and society needs the family. Anna and Stiva were orphans raised by an aunt, and Karenin also has no family. Levin does not have parents, but at least he has his brothers, and he has adopted the Shcherbatsky family. Of course, the Shcherbatsky family is a close, loving family, and all three daughters are able to make successful marriages. Vronsky also lacked a solid family structure, because his father died when he was young and his mother was mostly absent. Thus, the reader can see how characters in strong family structures fare better in the world of Anna Karenina.

What is the major target of Tolstoy's situational irony in Anna Karenina?

Tolstoy's major target of irony is societal hypocrisy in Anna Karenina. The novel explores the hypocrisy of the aristocratic class in depth, and is a scathing indictment of a culture in which adultery is tolerated in the privileged class among both men and women, as long as they keep their liaisons secret and do not develop an abiding passion for their paramours. Princess Betsy Fyodorovna Tverskoy is a primary example of this type of hypocrisy, because she keeps a lover but then ostracizes Anna after she goes public with her own affair. Another form of hypocrisy is the religious variety, and Countess Lydia Ivanovna is an example of someone who pretends to be a Christian but is really full of hatred and vindictiveness, as evidenced in the role she plays in goading Karenin into making Anna suffer. She counsels him to keep Seryozha from Anna and tells him not to give Anna a divorce. Finally, there is the hypocrisy of individuals who lie to themselves. Anna often says she is honest and calls other people liars, but in fact, she does a lot of lying to herself, and it is only at the end of the novel (when she is about to commit suicide in Part 7, Chapter 30) that she acknowledges her own hypocritical behavior. For example, she admits that she exchanged the love of her son for the love of Vronsky, saying, "I ... used to be moved by my own tenderness ... but I did live without him and exchanged him for another love, and didn't complain of the exchange as long as I was satisfied."

In Anna Karenina, why does Anna not feel guilty for leaving her husband?

Anna has no guilt at all for leaving Karenin because she has never loved him and has simply been surviving in her marriage. Although Karenin loves her, she does not feel his love because he is a "cold fish" who has difficulty expressing his emotions. Moreover, the narrator implies that she is not sexually satisfied by her husband. Thus, when Vronsky comes along, a window opens on passionate love, and it is hard for her not to crawl through, because she shares with Stiva a highly sexual nature. To not feel guilty, Anna tells herself that her husband is an "automaton" and a "machine." She does not want to admit that he is suffering because of her affair. During the time when she seems to be dying from childbed fever, she does express remorse, and this is when she asks Karenin to forgive her in Part 4, Chapter 17. But this remorse is short lived, and when she finally leaves him, the narrator says she is very happy in Italy (Part 5, Chapter 8). Later, she continues to hate and despise her husband and puts him in the same category as Lydia, even though she knows that he has come under Lydia's influence. Still, she blames him completely for the fiasco of their failed marriage and takes no responsibility for it; she has little ability to empathize with another person and can see things only from her own point of view.

In Anna Karenina, why doesn't Anna Karenina ever tell Vronsky how she feels about Seryozha?

Anna hides the depth of her feelings for Seryozha from Vronsky because she does not want to get angry at him when he shows an inability to truly empathize with her loss. Upon returning to Petersburg after their trip to Italy, Anna is unhappy, worrying about whether she will be able to see her son. But she does not tell Vronsky because for him it "would be a most unimportant thing ... [and] she would hate him for his cold tone at the mention of it" (Part 5, Chapter 29). The couple is in their "honeymoon" period, and she does not want to spoil it. Further, she fears that if Seryozha becomes too much of an issue, Vronsky may lose interest in her. Seryozha is a reminder that she is a mature woman—most likely older than Vronsky—and that Seryozha is the son of his rival. Furthermore, if she tells Vronsky the depth of her feelings for her son, he might tell her to return to her husband. Anna appears to make the decision not to take Seryozha when she leaves Karenin, because her husband tells her he is willing to arrange the divorce so she will get custody of the child. It seems as if it is possible for her to have a relationship with Vronsky while still being the mother of Seryozha, but it does not seem to be the relationship she prefers. Anna seems to think that there is no room for Seryozha in a life with Vronsky, but it is hard for the reader to gauge whether that is actually the case, or simply Anna's projection or excuse for abandoning her son.

In Anna Karenina, how are Levin's expectations of marriage and actual marriage different, and how does he respond to this rude awakening?

Before marriage, Levin imagines that he and his wife will always be in harmony, and is surprised to learn that she is a being different from himself, with her own ideas, opinions, strengths, and shortcomings. He is surprised to learn, for example, that Kitty has few intellectual interests and that she considers the arrangement of their home to be a task of primary importance (Part 5, Chapter 15). He is surprised that spending time with his wife takes time away from his work. He also has the additional intrusions of her family. Levin shows a mature and sensible response to the rude awakening of marriage, which is that he must learn to compromise. He is not sorry that he married, and he won't even say to himself that these surprises of married life are a disappointment. Rather, he immediately begins working on his relationship with Kitty. Their approach to marriage is to keep no secrets from each other and to be honest with their feelings. Further, both are inclined to compromise rather than insist on having things their own way most of the time. Their attitude of putting their partner first is an effective strategy for building intimacy in their first months together. Thus, Kitty gladly moves to the country and would even have her baby there if her mother had not been so insistent that she had to come to Moscow for her confinement. Meanwhile, Levin agrees to allow Kitty to accompany him when he leaves to care for his dying brother (Part 5, Chapter 17), and her help proves to be indispensable.

What role does jealousy play in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina?

Jealousy plays a destructive role in the novel Anna Karenina. The worst quarrels between even the happiest couple always stem from jealousy. When Stiva brings Vasenka Veslovsky to the house and he begins flirting with Kitty, Levin can't help imagining that Kitty is falling for his advances (Part 6, Chapter 7). Jealousy wracks Anna as well, and she destroys her relationship with Vronsky because of her insane and unreasonable jealousy, ending up killing herself to spite him because she thinks he no longer loves her. Jealousy reduces the characters to petty tyrants who become destructive to themselves as well as their partners. Jealousy makes people act wildly or out of character, and reduces them to the basest thoughts and actions. Ultimately, jealousy will destroy a relationship.

In what ways does Dolly Oblonsky turn out to be a better mother than Anna Karenina in Anna Karenina?

Anna's relationship with Seryozha is very close in part because she has channeled all of her unrequited affection into her son. This changes when she takes Vronsky for a lover, because she has a new object of affection. The narrator notes that Seryozha becomes confused (Part 2, Chapter 22), because he does not understand Vronsky's role in the family. When Anna decides to leave Karenin's house to be with Vronsky, she does not take Seryozha, effectively choosing her lover over her son. Her relationship with Annie seems to be related to how she relates to the two fathers as well, because she can't seem to love Annie, perhaps because she feels guilty for leaving the other child. Thus, her relationships to her children are conversely tied to her relationships with their fathers, and in the end, both children suffer because of this fact. On the other hand, Dolly's relationships with her children are not at all related to how she feels about their father, who is a deadbeat dad who seldom comes around and does not adequately support the family. For her, the children are beings completely separate from their father, and she loves them with the fullness of a mother's love. Dolly's motherhood is completely separate from her relationship to her husband, and that makes her a much better mother, because the way she feels about the children is not dependent on whether she loves or hates their father or how their father has treated her.

Why does Vronsky have so little empathy for Anna's pain over her separation from Seryozha in Anna Karenina?

Vronsky has little empathy about Anna's separation from Seryozha for a few reasons. First, he had a very distant relationship with his own mother, and given Countess Vronsky's sexual history, he probably spent most of his time with caretakers before he was shipped off to military school. Thus, he has little experience or understanding of a natural mother–son bond. Second, he has seen other women in society with their lovers, and no doubt none of them are overly concerned about spending time with their children. He may, to some degree, take it for granted that when Anna abandons her husband, she should also abandon his son for Vronsky's sake. Third, Anna does not tell Vronsky how she feels. It is hard to determine how much of a factor this is. Certainly, Anna is very outspoken with Vronsky about other issues, and he has a history of giving way with her, so it is hard to imagine that he could not have accepted Seryozha's presence in Anna's life if she had made it more of an issue.

How is Anna Karenina a cautionary tale about the limits of passion and romance?

Anna Karenina is a cautionary tale about the limits of passion and what makes for an enduring relationship. The passion of Eros is not enough to sustain a long-term relationship, because intense sex lasts only so long and goes only so far; physical beauty fades; and people still need to talk to each other at the end of the day. Sexual passion is a temporary love on which a mature love builds its foundation. The sexual passion remains in good relationships, but it becomes a component of a relationship that must include friendship and partnership and that needs to exist within a community. Anna and Vronsky are deprived of community, so they have only their own selves as resources. Further, when Vronsky tries to normalize the relationship and turn it into a marriage, Anna resists because she is afraid it will become like her first marriage—loveless, boring, and cold. But what Anna does not realize is that an eternal flame of passion is nothing but a fairy tale. This is why her relationship with Vronsky implodes.

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