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Literature Study GuidesAnna KareninaPart 1 Chapters 16 20 Summary

Anna Karenina | Study Guide

Leo Tolstoy

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Anna Karenina | Part 1, Chapters 16–20 | Summary



The narrator provides some background on Vronsky in Chapter 16. His mother has been "a brilliant society woman" who, in her younger days, had many sexual affairs. Vronsky's father died when the boy was very young, and he was sent to the best military boarding school and launched into a brilliant career. He now lives the frivolous lifestyle of rich Petersburg officers. He has no intention of marrying, because he considers husbands "ridiculous."

In Chapter 17, Stiva runs into Vronsky at the train station, where his mother is also arriving on the Petersburg line with Stiva's sister, Anna Karenina. He has asked Anna to Moscow to help patch up the quarrel with Dolly. Vronsky neither respects nor loves his mother, although outwardly he is both "obedient and deferential." When Vronsky enters the railway carriage in Chapter 18, he is struck by the woman sitting with his mother. Anna Karenina and Countess Vronsky have been talking about their respective sons; Anna is anxious about having left her eight-year-old son Seryozha for the first time.

As the women disembark, the men learn a drunken watchman has been killed when he fell under the train. Anna is shaken and comments that the death is a "bad omen," but then turns her attention to her brother. When they get home in Chapter 19, she greets all the children by name and remembers everything important about them, which Dolly appreciates. Because Anna does not offer Dolly "falsely compassionate phrases," she is able to be open with her. "Do you understand, Anna, who took my youth and beauty from me?" she asks. Anna tells Dolly that men who cheat put a barrier between their families and mistresses. She reassures her that Stiva still loves her and counsels forgiveness.

Kitty, who knows Anna only slightly, meets her in Chapter 20. She is immediately captivated by Anna's beauty and charm and looks forward to Anna's attendance at the upcoming ball. Kitty blushes when Anna mentions that Kitty may soon expect a proposal from Vronsky—something Stiva has told her.


The information provided in these chapters gives some insight into Vronsky, who was brought up by a frivolous and amoral mother and lived mostly at boarding school from an early age. He does not remember his father or have a lot of experience with family life. His mother is contrasted with Anna Karenina, an overprotective mother who feels guilty about leaving her son behind to come to Moscow. Vronsky is contrasted with Levin. He substituted his lack of a mother with a surrogate family (the Shcherbatskys), while Vronsky is cynical on the subject of wives and children. "He not only did not like family life, but pictured the family, and especially a husband ... as something alien, hostile and, above all, ridiculous," the narrator says. Not surprisingly, he dislikes his mother. Strangely, though, he is attracted to Anna for her motherly qualities, her beauty, as well as by "something especially gentle and tender in the expression of her sweet-looking face."

The death of the drunken watchman is indeed a bad omen, foreshadowing the tragic end of the story. Trains are an important, recurring symbol in the novel. Trains represent progress, both bringing people together and destroying traditional ways of life. Before improvements in transportation, people lived within walking distance of one another in close-knit communities. After the Industrial Revolution, those social bonds created in traditional agrarian societies were torn apart. Here, the train has killed a man.

Tolstoy's view of progress is another contradiction in the author's vision in Anna Karenina. The author pens a scathing indictment of the aristocratic class and shows a society on the brink but does not go as far as recognizing the need for a radical change. Gayle Greene points out that Tolstoy instead has his hero retire to the country. The country estate is a paradise, while the cities, with their attendant technology and industrialization, are virtual purgatories for a man like Levin.

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