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Anna Karenina | Study Guide

Leo Tolstoy

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Anna Karenina | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina was first published in installments in a Russian periodical, Russky Vestnik (Russian Messenger), from 1875 to 1877. After clashing with the periodical's editor over political views espoused in the final installment, Tolstoy released his full story in book form a year later.

Few people are unfamiliar with the famous opening line of Tolstoy's tragic masterpiece: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Anna Karenina tells the story of Anna's scandalous love affair with Count Vronsky—a love affair that results in Anna's exile from society and ultimate suicide. Tolstoy balances Anna's story with a parallel plot line about Konstantin Levin, a wealthy landowner who is partially based on Tolstoy himself. The novel explores themes of marriage, fidelity, jealousy, faith, and urban versus rural living.

Since its 1878 publication Anna Karenina has been regarded as one of the finest examples of realist fiction. Author William Faulkner declared it the "best ever written," and it has been adapted dozens of times for film, television, radio, ballet, opera, and stage.

1. Tolstoy was inspired to start writing Anna Karenina by the opening sentence in an Alexander Pushkin story.

In March 1873 Tolstoy was suddenly inspired by an opening line in a book of stories by the Russian author Alexander Pushkin: "The guests were getting ready to leave for the country house." Tolstoy told his wife, "That's the way for us to write! Anyone else would start by describing the guests, the rooms, but he jumped straight into the action." That night he began writing Anna Karenina.

2. Anna Karenina's plot was inspired by the story of a real woman.

Anna Stepanovna Pirogova was the mistress of one of Tolstoy's friends. When she learned her lover had been neglecting her for his children's German governess, she ran away and wandered about the countryside for days. She finally threw herself in front of a freight train. Tolstoy himself observed her autopsy the following day. He was troubled deeply by this woman's story and was inspired to write Anna Karenina as a result.

3. The character Anna Karenina was also inspired by Maria Hartung, the daughter of Alexander Pushkin.

Tolstoy met Maria Hartung at a ball and was immediately struck by her beauty. They spoke all evening, and Maria told him of her father and her opinions on literature and art. Tolstoy admired her "subtlety of taste" and "boldness of opinion." He reportedly based many of Anna Karenina's external features on Maria.

4. The character Levin in Anna Karenina is thought to be based on Tolstoy himself.

One critic has called Levin "more or less an autobiographical sketch" of Tolstoy. Tolstoy's wife even said to him, "Levin is you, without the talent." Tolstoy shared with Levin many of the same political beliefs and philosophical struggles, including a disdain for organized religion.

5. Tolstoy's own courtship inspired some of the details in Levin and Kitty's romance.

Tolstoy proposed to his wife, Sophia Behrs, in the same way that Levin proposes to Kitty in the novel. One night Tolstoy and Behrs were sitting across a table from each other at a social gathering. Tolstoy wrote on the tablecloth the letters "W. y. a. m. t. i. c. n. b. d. y. m. t. o. n. ?" ("When you answered me then, 'it can not be,' did you mean then or never?"). Behrs reportedly understood his exact meaning and answered him in the same manner. Tolstoy and Behrs married in 1862, when he was 34 and she was 18.

6. Anna Karenina was declared the greatest book of all time in a poll of contemporary authors.

Researcher J. Peder Zane asked 125 of the best known British and American writers to give him a list of their top 10 favorite fiction books of all time. He analyzed their top 10 lists and used them, in 2007, to produce the "Top Top 10 list," a list of the best books of all time. It was topped by Anna Karenina.

7. Tolstoy clashed with the periodical's editor over political issues brought up in the novel's final installment.

Anna Karenina was originally published as a serial in Russky Vestnik. In the last few pages of the novel Tolstoy condemns the Turkish-Serbian-Russian war. The periodical's editor saw this as unpatriotic and refused to publish it. Tolstoy declined to change it and published only a summary of the last part of the novel in the periodical.

8. Though he wrote it after War and Peace, Tolstoy considered Anna Karenina his first true novel.

Tolstoy didn't consider War and Peace to be a novel at all, calling it "more than a novel"—it combined a traditional story with historical facts and philosophical arguments. In an 1868 magazine article, he explained, "It is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle. War and Peace is what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed." Before War and Peace, Tolstoy wrote three autobiographical novels, Childhood (1852), Boyhood (1854), and Youth (1856).

9. Fellow Russian writers Fyodor Dostoevsky and Vladimir Nabokov admired Tolstoy's novel.

Dostoevsky called Anna Karenina "flawless as a work of art," and Nabokov admired the "flawless magic of Tolstoy's style." Dostoevsky's works of literature explore human psychology in 19th-century Russia, and his best-known works include Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. Nabokov's Lolita is often regarded as one of the best—and most controversial—20th-century novels.

10. Tolstoy reinvented himself after writing Anna Karenina and embraced a set of beliefs known as "Christian anarchism."

Anna Karenina ends with Levin resolving to live a good Christian life, a conclusion Tolstoy himself also came to. After writing Anna Karenina, he decided to renounce his former lifestyle and promote a vision of austere Christian living that was independent from organized religion. Eventually he declared he would give up all his worldly possessions and wander the world as a monk. He didn't get very far—he caught pneumonia shortly after leaving home and died. Tolstoy was 82.

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