Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina (Анна Каренина) is a novel by Leo Tolstoy that was first published in 1877. The novel initially appeared serially in the periodical Ruskii Vestnik ("Russian Messenger"), but Tolstoy clashed with its editor Mikhail Katkov over issues that arose in the final installment. Consequently, the novel's first complete appearance was in book form.

Widely regarded as a pinnacle in realist fiction, Tolstoy considered this book his first true novel. Dostoevsky, Tolstoy's contemporary, in reviewing the book, declared it to be "flawless as a work of art".



The novel is in eight parts. Part 1 introduces Prince Stepan Arkadyevitch Oblonsky ("Stiva"), a civil servant who has been unfaithful to his wife Darya Alexandrovna ("Dolly"). Anna Karenina, Stiva's sister, persuades Dolly not to leave him. Meanwhile, Stiva's childhood friend Konstantin Dmitrievich Levin, a serious young aristocratic landowner who actually lives on and manages his estate, arrives in Moscow to offer marriage to Dolly's sister Katerina Alexandrovna Shcherbatsky ("Kitty"). Kitty turns him down, as she is expecting an offer from army officer Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky. Vronsky has no intention of marrying, however, and falls in love with Anna after meeting her at the Saint Petersburg railway station. There a man commits suicide by jumping in front of a train. Levin returns to his farm, abandoning any hope of marriage, and Anna returns to her husband Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin, a senior government official, and their son Seriozha in Petersburg.

In part 2, Karenin scolds Anna for talking too much with Vronsky, but she returns Vronsky's affections nonetheless, and becomes pregnant with his child. Anna's anguish when Vronsky falls from a racehorse makes her feelings obvious, prompting her to confess to her husband. When Kitty learns that Vronsky prefers Anna over her, she travels to a resort at a German spring to recover from the shock.

Part 3 examines Levin's life on his rural farming estate, a setting closely tied to Levin's spiritual thoughts and struggles. Dolly also meets Levin, and attempts to revive his feelings for Kitty. Dolly seems to be unsuccessful, but a chance sighting of Kitty makes Levin realize he still loves her. Back in Petersburg, Karenin exasperates Anna by refusing to separate with her, and threatens not to let her see their son Seriozha ever again if she leaves or misbehaves.

By part 4, however, Karenin is also finding the situation intolerable and begins seeking divorce. Anna's brother Stiva argues against it, and persuades Karenin to speak with Dolly first. Again, Dolly seems to be unsuccessful, but Karenin changes his plans after hearing that Anna is dying in childbirth. At her bedside, Karenin forgives Vronsky, who, in remorse, attempts suicide. However, Anna recovers, having given birth to a daughter she names Annie. Stiva finds himself pleading on her behalf for Karenin to divorce. Vronsky at first plans to flee to Tashkent, but changes his mind after seeing Anna, and they leave for Europe without obtaining a divorce after all. Much more straightforward is Stiva's matchmaking with Levin: a meeting he arranges between Levin and Kitty results in their reconciliation and betrothal.

In part 5, Levin and Kitty marry. A few months later, Levin learns that his brother Nikolai is dying. The couple go to him, and Kitty nurses him until he dies, while also discovering she is pregnant. In Europe, Vronsky and Anna struggle to find friends who will accept them and pursue activities that will amuse them, but they eventually return to Russia. Karenin is comforted – and influenced – by the strong-willed Countess Lidia Ivanovna, an enthusiast of religious and mystic ideas fashionable with the upper classes, who counsels him to keep Seriozha away from Anna. However, Anna manages to visit Seriozha unannounced on his birthday, but is discovered by the furious Karenin, who had told their son that his mother was dead. Shortly afterward, she and Vronsky leave for the country.

In part 6, Dolly visits Anna, and at Vronsky's request, she asks Anna to resume seeking a divorce from Karenin. Yet again, Dolly seems unsuccessful; but when Vronsky leaves for several days of provincial elections, a combination of boredom and suspicion convinces Anna she must marry Vronsky. So she writes to Karenin, and leaves with Vronsky for Moscow.

In part 7, the Levins are in Moscow for Kitty's benefit as she gives birth to a son. Stiva, while seeking Karenin's commendation for a new job, again asks him to grant Anna a divorce; but Karenin's decisions are now governed by a "clairvoyant" – recommended by Lidia Ivanovna – who apparently counsels him to decline. Anna and Vronsky become increasingly bitter towards each other. They plan to return to the country, but in a jealous rage Anna leaves early, and in a parallel to part 1, commits suicide by throwing herself in the path of a train. (Tolstoy reportedly was inspired to write Anna Karenina by reading a newspaper report of such a death.)

Part 8 continues the story after Anna's death. Stiva gets the job he wanted, and Karenin takes custody of Annie. Some Russian volunteers, including Vronsky, who does not plan to come back, leave to help in the Serbian revolt that has just broken out against the Turks (see also History of Serbia, 1877). And in the joys and fears of fatherhood, Levin at last develops faith in the Christian God.

Thematic overview

The novel, set among the highest circles of Russian society, is generally thought by the casual reader to be nothing more than the story of a tragic romance. However, Tolstoy was both a moralist and severe critic of the excesses of his aristocratic peers, and Anna Karenina is often interpreted overall as a parable on the difficulty of being honest to oneself when the rest of society accepts falseness.

Anna is the jewel of St. Petersburg society until she leaves her husband for the handsome and charming military officer, Count Vronsky. By falling in love, they go beyond society's acceptance of trivial adulterous dalliances. But when Vronsky's love cools, Anna cannot bring herself to return to the husband she detests, even though he will not permit her to see their son until she does. Unable to accept Vronsky's rebuff, and unable to return to a life she hates, she kills herself.

A common way to interpret Anna's tragedy, then, was that she could neither be completely honest nor completely false, showing a Hamlet-like inner conflict that eventually drives her to suicide.

But the novel contains the parallel and contrasting love story of Konstantin Levin. Levin was a wealthy landowner from the provinces who could move in aristocratic circles, but who preferred to work on his estate in the country. Levin tries unsuccessfully to fit into high society when wooing the young Kitty Scherbatsky in Petersburg; he wins her only when he allows himself to be himself.

The joyous, honest and solid relationship of Levin and Kitty is continually contrasted in the novel with that of Anna and Vronsky, which is marked by constant upheaval, backbiting, and suspicion. So by the time Anna throws herself under a train at the end of the story, Tolstoy likely did not want readers to sympathize with her supposed mistreatment, but rather to recognize that her inability to truly commit to her own happiness or self-truth led to her ignominious end.

Other themes

Anna Karenina is filled with themes and imagery that illustrates Tolstoy's disdain of his aristocratic peers, and of a litany of human weaknesses.

Tolstoy skewers religious hypocrisy and insincerity in several characters, especially Karenin, Anna's husband, and the moralizing Countess Lydia Ivanovna. He also draws contrasts between the peace and wholesomeness of the country and the decadence of urban society. But one of the most prominent themes Tolstoy expounds upon in the novel is the relationship between love and honesty, both the different varieties of them as well as the different degrees to which they coexist, and the happiness that does or doesn't result.

In many ways, Anna Karenina was the most personal novel Tolstoy wrote up to that point. The character Levin is recognized as a stand-in for Tolstoy himself, whose first name in Russian is "Lev." He incorporated other details of his life into the character, such as Levin's insistence that Kitty read his journals before they marry, something Tolstoy made his own wife do. Thus scholars usually assume that Levin's thoughts reflect Tolstoy's own.

Anna Karenina and Tolstoy's Confession

Many of the novel's themes can be found in Tolstoy's Confession, his first-person rumination about the nature of life and faith, written just two years after the publication of Anna Karenina.

He describes his real-life dissatisfaction with the hypocrisy of his class:

Every time I tried to display my innermost desires – a wish to be morally good – I met with contempt and scorn, and as soon as I gave in to base desires I was praised and encouraged.

Tolstoy also details the acceptability of adulterous "liaisons" in aristocratic Russian society:

A dear old aunt of mine, the purest of creatures, with whom I lived, was always saying that she wished for nothing as much as that I would have a relationship with a married woman. 'Rien ne forme un jeune homme comme une liaison avec une femme comme il faut.'

(Another theme in Anna Karenina is that the aristocratic habit of speaking in French instead of Russian is another form of society's falseness.)

There is even one passage that could possibly be interpreted as a sign of Anna's eventual redemption in Tolstoy's eyes:

For in the end what are we, who are convinced that suicide is obligatory and yet cannot resolve to commit it, other than the weakest, the most inconsistent and, speaking frankly, the most stupid of people, making such a song and dance with our banalities?

The Confession contains many other autobiographical insights into the themes of Anna Karenina. A public domain version of it is here (

Film adaptations

The novel has been filmed more than a dozen times. Adaptations include:


The novel became a best-seller in the United States 2004 after a recommendation by TV personality Oprah Winfrey.

External links

Anna Karenina in English

Anna Karenina in Russian

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