Anna Karenina | Study Guide

Leo Tolstoy

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Anna Karenina | Symbols



Trains in the novel symbolize the negative effects of progress, undermining traditional values while seemingly bringing people together. The train takes people from place to place, so that they can see their friends and relatives more easily. On the other hand, the train takes people away from home and out of their families and communities—thus, they represent a breach of the traditional social order. The train has allowed Vronsky and Anna to meet—which might never have happened otherwise. The Russian literature scholar Gary Jahn also notes that the train symbolizes society. When Anna is returning home to Petersburg, she is safe and snug in her carriage, and when she goes outside between stops, she meets Vronsky. The danger of the illicit relationship is encountered outside the train, and Anna and Vronsky's affair will blossom outside the confines of legitimacy.


Vronsky's horse, Frou-Frou, symbolizes Anna and what will happen to her as a result of their relationship. Frou-Frou is a beautiful, high-strung horse that Vronsky hopes will win him the steeplechase. When he gets to the race, however, he is distracted and is not paying sufficient attention. He is actually winning the race but wants to come in with a big lead, so he pushes the horse further and allows Frou-Frou to get ahead of him so that he unseats himself and falls off the horse—killing the horse and losing the race. This foreshadows what will happen to Anna and Vronsky. Anna, too, is beautiful and high-strung, and Vronsky pays far too little attention to her. In his race to win her love, he does not foresee the consequences of their affair, particularly to her. He thinks she can just get away from Karenin, but it is not that easy. At the end he pushes for a divorce, which accelerates the deterioration of their relationship. In some ways, this scene suggests Vronsky is responsible for Anna's ultimate demise.


Farming symbolizes man in harmony with nature as well as his essential function—providing food. The novel identifies goodness, morality, happiness, and family with rural life. In the country, Levin lives without pretense and does real work—unlike Stiva, who lives in Moscow and pushes paper all day. Petersburg is even worse, because it is the seat of the government and high society. In Petersburg, Anna and Vronsky have their affair, and Stiva carries on many of his extramarital activities. Vronsky begins to be happy when he moves to his estate and becomes involved with land management, but when he returns to Moscow with Anna, the two of them become very unhappy.

Dwarfish, Disheveled Muzhik

A dwarfish, dirty, and disheveled muzhik, or peasant, is both a symbol and motif in the novel. Vronsky sees a muzhik with a sack over his shoulder near the railroad tracks at the beginning of the story, and Anna sees a dirty peasant near the tracks on the day she dies. She has a recurring dream of a peasant, initially rummaging around in a sack, saying he has to pound or knead iron. Vronsky also dreams of a dirty peasant on the day that Anna tells him about her first dream, which she dreamed some time ago. In Anna's dream, Karenin's valet tells her the dream means she will die in childbirth.

The recurring image of the peasant has been called a symbol of sin, death, or the relentless power of sex. But the peasant can also be interpreted as an archetype of Trickster. Trickster is a figure that can be playful and humorous and bring the elements of spontaneity and creativity into a situation. But the dark side of Trickster is that he brings chaos into the world and initiates a destructive cycle. The peasant is small and grubby—like Rumpelstiltskin and other evil, dwarflike figures that are encountered in dreams and fairy tales. He announces the chaos that is about to ensue as a result of Anna and Vronsky stepping into uncharted territory, and he appears at the end of Anna's story, when she takes her life.

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