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Literature Study GuidesAnna KareninaPart 4 Chapters 21 23 Summary

Anna Karenina | Study Guide

Leo Tolstoy

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Anna Karenina | Part 4, Chapters 21–23 | Summary



In Chapter 21 Betsy meets Stiva on her way out after visiting Anna, who tells him Karenin is killing Anna. She says "he must either take her away, act energetically, or give her a divorce." When Stiva comes in, Anna tells him she hates her husband "for his virtues." Stiva recommends that his sister get a divorce. He then goes into Karenin's office in Chapter 22 to discuss this possibility. Stiva uses every bit of wiliness and insincerity he can muster to propose that Karenin confess to a fictitious adultery so that Anna will be able to remarry. But Karenin's religious feelings make lying about himself repulsive, and having his wife "exposed and disgraced" is equally repugnant. Nonetheless, he tells Stiva, "I'll take the disgrace upon myself, I'll even give up my son, but ... isn't it better to let things be?" Stiva is proud of his victory, even thinking about how he will brag about it later to his wife and close friends.

Vronsky feels terrible regret about losing Anna's love, so in Chapter 23 he accepts an assignment in Tashkent, finagled by his friend Serpukhovskoy. When he learns Karenin has agreed to a divorce, he rushes over to see Anna. She tells him she cannot accept her husband's generosity, but is worried about losing Seryozha. In his old life, Vronsky would never turn down a plum assignment, but now he resigns his commission. A month later, Anna and Vronsky leave to go abroad with little Annie, and Karenin is left with Seryozha.


Betsy represents high society and what people think about the situation between Karenin and his wife. They want him to do something—challenge Vronsky to a duel, forcibly remove Anna from Petersburg and away from her lover, call her an adulterer, and divorce her. The fact that he is not acting according to social expectations puts him in a bad light. It would have been best, from society's point of view, if Anna and Vronsky had continued to carry on their affair in secret, but once it has been brought to light, it demands a resolution. Anna also needs a resolution—one that would allow her to be with Vronsky.

If Karenin takes on the burden of adultery, then Anna will be granted custody of Seryozha and be allowed to remarry, but Karenin will not be able to remarry. If Anna is named as the adulterer and witnesses are procured for the necessary divorce, Anna loses custody of her child and can never be legally united with Vronsky—thus remaining a mistress for the rest of her life, assuming that Vronsky does not grow tired of her. Stiva uses all of his cunning to convince Karenin to take on a burden that will hurt his career and reputation. He congratulates himself for pulling this off but, in fact, Karenin was already preparing to do whatever Anna might ask. Still, he believes it is wrong to divorce and that it will end up destroying Anna.

Anna decides she cannot accept Karenin's sacrifice—to pretend he has committed adultery. This is a turning point in the novel: perhaps she feels guilty because she has already put him through so much, or perhaps she is too proud to take his charity. Whatever the reason, she seals her fate as a pariah when she leaves with Annie to live as Vronsky's mistress. What was previously inconceivable for her—giving up Seryozha—has now become inevitable so that she can have her lover. Vronsky also does what was previously inconceivable to him—quitting the military. Meanwhile, Karenin is left alone—a sorry reward for all his trouble. Stiva's skill at reconciliation is certainly far inferior than his wife's.

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