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Anna Karenina | Study Guide

Leo Tolstoy

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Anna Karenina | Themes



The destructive effects of jealousy are evident throughout the novel. Once Anna throws in her lot with Vronsky, she feels helpless and vulnerable. Because he has become her only lifeline, she is desperate to hold onto him. Thus, she becomes more and more wracked with jealousy and doubt, which has the opposite effect of what she desires—it pushes him away. During her pregnancy, Vronsky begins to cool because of Anna's neediness, but his passion is reignited when he thinks he will lose her. When the couple move to Moscow, Anna is again consumed by jealousy, and toward the end of the novel, she thinks Vronsky wants to marry Princess Sorokin. Her jealousy creates another separation between herself and Vronsky. It seems likely that if Anna had lived and continued in this way, Vronsky would have ended up leaving her.

Jealousy also begins to eat away at Levin and Kitty's relationship, but because the couple face their jealousy squarely and talk it out, they can get over it more quickly and move on. And as they grow as a couple and validate each other's love and loyalty, they become less jealous. Levin does throw Veslovsky out of the house because he is flirting with Kitty, but he overcomes his jealousy of Vronsky, and Kitty gets past her jealousy of Anna.


Tolstoy demonstrates that the family unit is the foundation of society, a refuge from the world, and a place to find happiness and satisfaction. This idea permeates Anna Karenina, even as the author subverts it with a realistic portrayal of family life. Like many artists, Tolstoy experienced a profound transformation in his life, in which he changed his ideas about what was important and meaningful. This change occurred while he was writing Anna Karenina, partially explaining the conflicting views at work in the novel. The novel begins with the famous lines about how unhappy families are unique in their unhappiness, while happy families share a common blueprint and are, for that reason, alike. Thus, Tolstoy announces his position as a traditionalist who believes that the success of the family depends on traditional formulas. Levin and Kitty represent the ideal of marriage and family life, even though both spouses suffer jealousy, struggle to adjust to another's worldview, and must learn to compromise.

Levin, the hero, knows he will not be happy until he marries Kitty. As a family man, he works first and foremost for the benefit of his family and second for the community within his sphere of influence—his extended family, his friends, and the people (particularly the peasants) who work for him. Both Tolstoy and Levin assign to Kitty the supreme role of wife and mother. Although he sympathizes with the plight of women and shows a remarkable ability to empathize with their concerns, Tolstoy did not believe they should relinquish their traditional roles as the keystone of a successful, happy family. The novel ends with Kitty and Levin surrounded by their estate, their family members, their new baby, and the beauty of nature. Kitty comes to find her husband on the terrace, looking out at the night sky; his face is "calm and joyful," and she smiles at him. Thus, the novel, which begins in a purgatory of betrayal, jealousy, and recrimination, ends in an Eden of mother, father, and child.


Although it was common for men to find satisfaction outside of marriage—and in high society many women followed suit—it is clear Tolstoy judged adultery harshly. No doubt Anna is a sympathetic character, but she ends her life prematurely, seemingly punished by fate or perhaps by her own guilt. Anna begins as a loyal wife but no longer can endure her cold husband once Vronsky presents an alternative. She is loyal to Vronsky but disloyal to her son Seryozha when she chooses Vronsky.

While Anna is morally in the wrong from the perspective of the mores of her time and the Russian Orthodox Church, Stiva is simply despicable. Stiva tires of his loyal and long-suffering wife because she is no longer physically beautiful. Thus, he leads a promiscuous life outside the bounds of marriage, and recklessly spends money to support his paramours and lavish lifestyle. His spending hurts his family and comes close to destroying it. He has made a sham of their marriage, which does not nurture him or Dolly. The children are nurtured only through Dolly's efforts.


Anna Karenina explores the limits of passionate love. While the novel tries to show that passion alone cannot sustain a marriage, many readers are drawn to the character of Anna and feel sympathetic to her because of the depth of her passion. The Greeks identified four types of love. First, there is Eros: intense, passionate desire for the object of affection—usually a person. Eros is usually equated with sexual love, but in its highest form, it is love of transcendent beauty. Next is Philia, love between friends and affection for people who share similar values, beliefs, and preferences. Philia also covers love of one's job or vocation. Third is Agape, a selfless love that puts a person or a cause ahead of needs or desires of the self; Agape encompasses love of humanity and a desire to do good. Finally, Storge is the love of family and community, which inspires dutiful behavior.

Anna and Vronsky's love is mostly Eros. They have a strong sexual connection, which begins when they dance together at the ball and which is evidenced by the number of times the narrator shows them displaying physical affection. Moreover, both Vronsky and Anna are described as good-looking people, and although Vronsky begins to lose his hair, Anna maintains her perfect beauty. The lack of other types of love in their relationship can be seen in Vronsky's and Anna's indifference to their child, Anna's willingness to give up Seryozha to pursue her passion, and Vronsky's indifference to Anna's desire to be with her son. The two build a cocoon around their forbidden love, and because it never matures, they are destroyed by it.

In contrast, Kitty and Levin display all four types of love in their marriage. There is sexual attraction, but Levin also exhibits Eros in his love for the land. Moreover, his love for Kitty exists within the community of her family, and he wants to be part of that community when he marries her. Levin has love for his work, as does Kitty—although her work as a wife and mother is more circumscribed. Kitty and Levin are also friends, and they share their thoughts as well as their feelings—something Anna and Vronsky do not do. Both exhibit Storge as well as Philia. Thus, Levin and Kitty's love is nurtured within a larger community and has more facets, which makes it a more enduring love. At the end of the novel, Levin is moving toward Agape, as he thinks about how he must put the "good" ahead of his own selfish desires. Thus, the novel shows that passionate love without the other types of love is a destructive force.

Social Roles

Anna Karenina raises the problem of vocation, the work that gives meaning to a life and spiritual sustenance. The concept of vocation didn't mean much to the Russian peasants, who were tied to the land and had no choice about being an agricultural worker. The peasants derived their meaning from religion and their family and community ties. That changed a little after the serfs were emancipated in 1861, but their choice of occupation was still very limited; they could stay on the land as tenant farmers or hire themselves out to do some other form of manual labor. Few had the opportunity to buy land and work for themselves.

Vocation, however, is a problem for the aristocratic class. Many of the landowners lived a dissipated life, spoiled over the generations with too much money and privilege. They left the running of their estates to land managers who were often corrupt. Most aristocrats had no vocation and spent their time and resources on pleasure. After the emancipation, they had the opportunity to take part in reshaping the agrarian economy, but many were against reform. Serious farmers like Levin had to cope with free peasants who were resistant to modernization. Levin feels frustration with the peasants who resist using new machinery because they interfere with his vocation—to make the land bear fruit and to be its caretaker for future generations. In Levin's opinion, Stiva makes a mockery of his responsibilities to the land. He thoughtlessly disposes of his wife's property to make fast money to pay his debts, the result of extravagant living. Stiva's affairs, his gambling, his loose spending, and his general state of disarray are all a result of his lack of vocation. Unlike Karenin, a high-level bureaucrat who doesn't game the system and takes his responsibilities seriously, Stiva sees his job as a means to an end and arranges his work life as conveniently as possible. For Tolstoy, that represents a moral failure.

Vronsky is an example of an aristocrat who struggles to find his vocation. Because he expects to make a brilliant career in the military, he generously forfeits his share of the family's inheritance to his married brother, saying he doubts he'll ever marry. But Vronsky's situation begins to change after he takes up with Anna, and he turns down a lucrative promotion to be with her. Once he quits the military, he must figure out what else he can do. While he recovers his share of inheritance, he still needs meaningful work. This is why he begins building a hospital on his estate and becoming involved in politics. He is never able to find his footing, however, mostly because he is held back by Anna's demands.

Particularly problematic is the female vocation. Discussions about women's rights in the novel raise the suggestion that women might enter the workforce or have aspirations beyond wifehood and motherhood, but Tolstoy does not develop this idea much. Situations in the novel regularly demonstrate that women are at their best and highest purpose when they act as mothers. Anna develops herself intellectually because she is cut off from society and has nothing to do, but her neglect of Annie shows her in a bad light. Anna's love for her son is her most sympathetic character point, but her abandonment of him brings her downfall. Dolly repeatedly finds comfort in caring for her children. And Kitty anxiously awaits her first pregnancy so she will have something substantial to do after she becomes a farmer's wife. The novel makes no effort to reconcile these conflicts, leaving the reader to wrestle with them.

Anna Karenina is also full of discussions on citizenship and social responsibility. Levin's brother Koznyshev is a liberal, as are his friends, such as Pestov, and they believe Russia has to change. They want to see the peasants educated, to give more rights to women, and to increase democratic governance. Levin, on the other hand, has little faith in politics, which is why he withdraws from the local governing council (the zemstvo). The novel demonstrate the abuses of political power in numerous examples, such as the way Stiva gets an additional cushy job and the method by which the liberal aristocrats elect the governor of the province.

Levin does not believe educating the peasants is his duty. Rather, he sees his social responsibility as extending only as far as the people he directly interacts with. Levin is a mouthpiece for Tolstoy's views. Tolstoy fought in two wars, but then came home and retired to the country. Levin believes he can do good only by involving himself in something that directly affects him. However, by the end of the novel, he seems to lean toward a wider conception of social responsibility, as did his creator. Tolstoy continued to steer clear of politics, but his ideas about what he could do to help the world expanded as he matured in his spiritual thought.

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