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Literature Study GuidesAnna KareninaPart 4 Chapters 16 20 Summary

Anna Karenina | Study Guide

Leo Tolstoy

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Anna Karenina | Part 4, Chapters 16–20 | Summary



In Chapter 16, Kitty tells Levin she always loved him, although she had been infatuated, and asks if he can really forgive her. He also needs forgiveness, however, for his lack of belief and previous sexual liaisons. During the engagement period, Levin gives Kitty his diaries to read; she weeps over his sexual exploits while he was a bachelor but forgives him.

Meanwhile, Karenin gets a telegram in Chapter 17 informing him that his professional rival Stremov has been promoted to the position that Karenin desired. Anna has also sent a message asking him to come at once because she is dying. Karenin admits to himself that he wishes for her death, because it will resolve his dilemma. When he gets home, he learns his wife has given birth to a child. Vronsky is at the house weeping. Anna, partially delirious, tells Karenin "there is another woman in me, I'm afraid of her – she fell in love with that man, and I wanted to hate you." She then begs for forgiveness. Karenin struggles with his feelings and enters "a blissful state of soul, which suddenly gave him a new, previously unknown happiness." Anna calls Vronsky in and makes Karenin uncover Vronsky's face and grant him forgiveness also. Later, he tells Vronsky, "You may trample me in the mud, make me the laughing-stock of society, I will not abandon her, I will never say a word of reproach to you ... I must be with her and I will be."

In Chapter 18, Vronsky feels a mixture of complex emotions after he leaves Karenin. Vronsky now sees himself as despicable, while the formerly pathetic figure of the cuckolded husband appears elevated in his magnanimity. He is also distressed because his passion for Anna has been reignited. When Vronsky gets home, his obsessive thoughts overwhelm him and he shoots himself.

By Chapter 19, two months pass and Anna is recovering, although relations with her husband are strained. Karenin also feels like people are expecting something of him and at the same time feel "concealed joy" for his troubles. Princess Tverskoy comes to urge Anna to say goodbye to Vronsky—who has recovered from his gunshot wound and is leaving town—but Anna says no. Later, Karenin addresses Anna intimately, reiterating that Vronsky need not come, and she gets annoyed. Anna feels repulsed by her husband, and "[s]he now wished for only one thing – to be rid of his hateful presence." He thinks that both his wife and society are "demanding something of him," although he does not know what. He also "knew ... that everything was against him and that he would not be allowed to do what now seemed to him so natural and good, but would be forced to do what was bad but seemed to them the proper thing."


Kitty's confession that she was infatuated means that she was sexually attracted to Vronsky and dazzled by his aristocratic standing, and Levin wisely allows her this temporary deviation. Similarly, Kitty accepts the base part of Levin, revealed in his diaries, who pursued uncommitted sex. Both revelations demonstrate a unique artistic ability to show characters who have many facets, often contradictory. For example, Karenin tells Kitty he hates Anna, and then he runs back to Petersburg as soon as she sends for him. At first, he feels a sense of obligation and fears that people will reproach him if he does not. But when she softens toward him and begs his forgiveness, he opens his heart to her suffering and easily reclaims his love for her. He has a moment of transcendence in which he experiences pure compassion and true forgiveness. He recommits to his wife and vows to stay with her. Suddenly, he no longer cares about what society will think, and he tells Vronsky he can do what he likes, but he will not abandon Anna. Similarly, when Anna thinks she is dying, she acknowledges that there are two women inside of her—one that ran to Vronsky and one that acknowledges her connection to Karenin.

Vronsky is devastated by Anna's illness. She is suffering from childbed fever, also called puerperal fever, which was an infection in some part of the reproductive system women often experienced after giving birth. Women often died from puerperal fever, and Vronsky's love for Anna has been revived now that he is in danger of losing her. He also feels extreme humiliation, especially because he feels himself so guilty and unworthy before Anna's husband, whom he previously thought of as being superfluous. Karenin's compassion elevates him, and suddenly Vronsky sees the wrongness of his trespass on a marriage.

Anna was perfectly willing to beg forgiveness on her deathbed, but once she is feeling better, all her old feelings surface. Now she is even more repulsed by her husband, seeing his refusal to punish her as another sign of his weakness. Moreover, he still has hope that they can be a couple again, but she cannot go back to what for her is a loveless marriage with little warmth and no passion. Karenin cannot give her the kind of love she needs, and although he has significantly changed, she does not want to give him a second chance.

Karenin understands that his wife is irritated by his presence and still wants to do what will make her happy. He notices that his society friends, especially the women, look at him with a "barely concealed joy," or schadenfreude—pleasure in the suffering of others. Karenin has a high position in the government and is well respected, and people like nothing better than to watch a great man fall. He feels that people want him to do something that may satisfy the petty accounting system demanded by the social structure, but that will not be the right thing to do as a Christian and a human being.

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