Plot Points and Themes in Anna Karenina
The very first sentence of Count Leo Tolstoy's burgeoning novel of ideas establishes the framework of family as a way to read, question and understand the complex interrelationships between the characters and the actions they take. The author says, to begin, "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
Suddenly, we become flies on the walls in the homes of a host of unhappy families, all of which are mired in some crisis of misunderstanding or misconnection. It's such a tangled web, it's nearly impossible to keep the families and characters in order and figure out how they are related. We meet the Oblonskys struggling with the aftermath of infidelity; the Shcherbatskys attempting to marry off the eligible Kitty with varied success; Levin's interesting family dynamic with his brothers; Vronsky's apparent disdain for family life and his mother; Anna Karenina's hollow and unfulfilling marriage to the distant Karenin.
It is through this dynamic lens of familial commitment that we begin to take a close look at each of the characters we meet. How Stiva approaches his wife Dolly after she has discovered his affair tells us a great deal not only about these two, but also about the culture in which they live and what is considered accepted practice. In Prince and Princess Shcherbatsky's desire to facilitate a successful match between Vronsky and their youngest daughter, we begin to understand more about how parents view their children in this society. In their case, the Prince thinks Levin is an upstanding man and finds Vronsky lacking in gravitas while the Princess is taken by Vronsky's charms and thinks Levin is full of pride.
The way that these families interrelate with each other—the marriages and sibling relationships between them—also creates a tight-knit community within the larger community of Moscow and St. Petersburg. It gives us as readers a stage with distinct boundaries upon which to judge the play that unfolds. Keep an eye on it: In the end, this focus on family helps to bring about some of the most powerful and meaningful lessons in the universe that becomes Anna Karenina.
If there is a happy family among them, we have yet to meet them by the close of Part One.
Part Two Plot Point: Adultery and Sexuality
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"Sexual desire is the most absorbing of all desires. This desire is never satisfied, and the more it is indulged, the more it grows." — Count Leo Tolstoy, from A Calendar of Wisdom
Anna Karenina is steeped in infidelity from its first page—the Oblonsky family struggle to overcome Stiva's selfish act of marital betrayal provides a powerful framework for everything that follows. Yet it is Stiva's sister Anna's grand passion for the dashing Count Vronsky that gives readers the deepest and most realized exploration of adultery and sexuality the novel has to offer. As we progress through Part Two, the lovers' magnetic personalities grow exponentially as their love affair goes from an all-consuming idea to a fully realized reflection of sexual desire, expression and treachery.
Though this is a Victorian novel, written during a period of extreme sexual repression throughout the polite European and American societies, Tolstoy's novel has a surprising level of frankness and plenty of "fiery" language: "her look, the touch of her hand, burned through him," (p. 141) "she rested her eyes on him, filled with love," (p. 140) "he covered her face and shoulders with kisses. She held his hand and did not move,...that which for Anna had been an impossible, horrible, but all the more enchanting dream of happiness—that desire had been satisfied." (p. 149) With these few passages, Vronsky and Anna become two of the most sexually potent and romantically realized characters in all of 19th-century literature. And in making them so, their creator Tolstoy opens the door on a hugely interesting debate that rages throughout the rest of the novel and on into today: Is what Anna does wrong? Should she be pitied, scorned or congratulated? What is her life worth once she indulges her deepest and most base urges?
Tolstoy also sets up the Anna/Vronsky union in contrast to other, more frivolous adultery—Stiva's affair, Betsy's liaisons, other generalized commentary. Even Vronsky's mother has been known to take lovers. In the circles they run in, it's acceptable to have affairs as long as they don't become too entangled (like a marriage). Vronsky, in having captured the heart of a powerful man's wife, becomes something of a local hero: "the majority of the young men envied him precisely for what was most difficult in his love." (p. 173) Anna, long thought to be beyond scorn by society—the pretty, successful wife—becomes a pariah almost from the start: "the majority of young women...waited for the turnabout of public opinion to be confirmed before they fell upon her with the full weight of their scorn. They were already preparing the lumps of mud they would fling at her when the time came." (p. 174) Mere moments after the consummation of Anna and Vronsky's affair, the age-old double standard begins coloring the way we think of it.
Skip ahead to Part Three Plot Point: Reform Abounds
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These scandalous relations between Vronsky and Anna also shows Anna's husband Karenin in stark relief and in a role typically reserved for woman: as the dutiful, trusting husband. "Jealousy, in his opinion, was insulting to a wife, and a man ought to have trust in his wife. Why he ought to have trust...he never asked himself. But he felt no distrust." (p. 142) This bending of traditional gender roles, especially in Russian fiction, is unique to Tolstoy, and one of the things that makes Anna Karenina so fascinating even today. In Anna, we meet a woman who not only has desires, but who acts on them against all judgment. She is adulterous yet real, scandalous yet true to her own feelings, sexual yet foolish. It's hard to know at times whether to love her or hate her.
As we find ourselves deeper and deeper in the web of Anna and Vronsky's love, you will be asked to choose for yourself what to think. Like many readers have felt, it's the kind of choice that may keep you up at night wondering and puzzling!
Part Three Plot Point: Reform Abounds
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"All the history of mankind, since we have known it, is the movement of humanity to closer and closer unification." — Count Leo Tolstoy, from A Calendar of Wisdom
When we first meet Levin, he has come to the city to propose to a princess—a woman of high society and sophistication. When he is rejected in this pursuit, Levin returns to the work that sustains him and feeds his soul: farming. Unlike many landed "gentry" of this period in Russian history, Levin's philosophy of the engagement necessary to be a productive, fruitful farmer is somewhat revolutionary. Additionally, through Levin we learn a great deal of the Russian agrarian system and its state of crisis in the latter half of the 19th century.
In Levin's storyline, Tolstoy thoughtfully embeds a great deal of reform that would have not only been recognized by his readership, but also appreciated as something very powerful and meaningful. Contemporary readers often lament at the fissure between the tempestuous love affair on the one side, and the passages about farming on the other. The two story lines seem like two books to many readers. Yet, one of the things that made Tolstoy's text so powerful when it was first published (to wild success) and has helped it stand the test of time is the depth of its philosophy. Though the author certainly says a lot about marriage, family and fidelity as well, some of his most enlightened passages are related to Levin's struggle to live a wholesome, productive, fulfilled life in the course of his work as a farmer.
In a heated discussion with his brother Sergei in Part Three, Chapter III, Levin is incensed when Sergei says, "I don't understand what philosophy has got to do with it." Levin replies, "It's got this to do with it! I think that the motive force of all our actions is, after all, personal happiness." (p. 245) In many ways, it is exactly this concept that plays itself out through the rest of Levin's development—and that was, at the time Anna Karenina was published, so controversial. To Levin, all of his desires to help others and be of service circle back on a desire to walk a path of personal fulfillment. In this way, Levin understands the collaboration between himself and his workers, each of whom are also attempting to do right by themselves as well as their community.
In his commitment to renew the existing agrarian system in Russia (which Tolstoy also thought needed reform), Levin develops a model that includes three distinct features: (1) Work motivated by self-interest; (2) Labor that is given enough personal investment to feel engaged; (3) Advances in technology that meet the needs of the populous.
Levin speaks of these concepts, but he also lives them in a way that is consistent with his personal passions for his life and the success of his farm, community and country. He mows the fields alongside the peasants. He makes a commitment to support his family. He takes control of his farm, overturning the old methods and implementing new plans that he alone believes will be advantageous for all involved. He questions the world around him, and his engagement with it. In this way he is truly a reformer, and emerges as a man to be admired for his personal commitments and philosophical ideals. Through Levin, Tolstoy explores the voice of change and reformation—and leads the reader to do the same.
Part Four Plot Point: Marriage and Divorce Laws
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"To step aside from accepted traditions and customs requires a serious effort, but any understanding of new things always requires such a step." — Count Leo Tolstoy, from A Calendar of Wisdom
Many contemporary readers picking up Anna Karenina for the first time ask a very logical question after the consummation of Anna and Vronsky's affair: Why don't Anna and Karenin simply divorce? It would seem to solve many of the messiest issues for the three lovers in this triangle. Though that may seem to "solve" the problem, when thinking it through, the truth is that divorce in Tolstoy's Russia produced another set of complications potentially more devastating. All legal issues aside, Karenin and Anna feel the sacredness of their union in their own ways. This is part of the reason for Anna's extreme guilt and Karenin's extreme confusion.
One important distinction that colors Anna's predicament from even the early stages of the novel is the differing weight of the genders in Russian society. Though it may seem at times that Anna, out of the sheer force of her personality, wields as much power as Karenin or Vronsky, it is actually not the case. The selfhood afforded Anna is second-class from the start. She is another man's property, and belongs to Karenin in a way that no woman belongs to her husband in this day and age.
In addition, the laws of marriage and divorce were much more complex in the 19th century. For example, Karenin learns that the permissible grounds for divorce were "physical defect in husband or wife; five years absence without news; adultery of husband or wife." (p. 368) As it turns out however, the most common way couples divorced was by claiming "adultery by mutual consent." Basically this means that Karenin, in the public eye and in the eyes of God, would claim to have had an affair as well and be labeled an adulterer right along with Anna. For all his desire to be split from his wife and leave the pains of his marriage behind him, this is not a step he is remotely willing to take. Were he to try and prove that Anna was the only adulterous one, he would need proof from eyewitnesses—and all he has are passionate letters. Essentially, there is no such thing as a "no fault" divorce—and even in cases as egregious as Anna's conduct is in her society, it is nearly impossible to divorce her.
Skip ahead to Part Five Plot Point: Love Rushes In
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At the time Anna Karenina was published, new models of marriage were emerging. Tolstoy knew social mores were starting to change and he may have even responded to them intentionally. However, the strict legal and moral barriers to handle the real-life situations of unhappy couples weren't able to keep up. One of the most scandalous and interesting things about Tolstoy's novel is that it proposes a nearly impossible situation for not only Anna, but both men involved with her. In some respects, her love affair would have been many a Russian man's worst nightmare. With his novel, Tolstoy probably kept some of these men up at night worrying over their own situations. It could be, in part, because of this that marriage laws finally relaxed, the ownership model of wife and children diminished, and members of most societies became free to follow their hearts.
Part Five Plot Point: Love Rushes In
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"Let your actions be filled with love. Purify your thoughts and then you will have only love. This love will find an object for itself, and it will not be satisfied with you alone, but will love everything that is alive." — Count Leo Tolstoy, from A Calendar of Wisdom
When people sit down to talk about Anna Karenina, two central themes usually emerge: love and death. Perhaps one reason this novel has been so popular since it was first published is precisely because its major themes are two of the most universal and emotional situations human beings face. In Part Five, once his reader has passed the halfway mark and truly knows the characters, Tolstoy turns to these themes as a new focus for exploration.
In terms of love, Tolstoy brings to fruition, powerfully and completely, the love Kitty and Levin have for one another. Despite Levin's usual self-doubt and a newlywed fight or two, Kitty "became more tender towards him, and they experienced a new, redoubled happiness in their love," (p. 482) and Levin felt himself "rejoicing all the while at the feeling of her presence." (p. 483) This passion only grows deeper as the story progresses and Kitty takes full ownership of her role as wife and caretaker. As Kitty matures and owns her new life, her capacity to share her love with others seems to increase by the day.
Anna and Vronsky also strengthen their relationship, though it doesn't seem built on the same foundation that Levin and Kitty enjoy. Nevertheless, there is a strong connection between them. Despite their circumstances, hardships and her health issues, Anna feels that "the more she knew of Vronsky, the more she loved him. She loved him for himself and for his love of her." (p. 464) Even when they behave like ships passing in the night, it is hard to doubt the emotion between Anna and her dashing lover.
Beyond romantic love, in this section of the novel Tolstoy develops many other relationships—and deepens existing relationships—that display the diversity and depth of love. There is Levin's abiding and sometimes tortured love for his dying brother Nikolai. In compliment to this is Kitty's ability to embrace Levin's family by being a mature and competent nurse. Even in times of great crisis, she is steadfast and puts her love on the line. Additionally, the love between Anna and her son crescendos to a tearful reunion, "While they had been apart, and with that surge of love she had been feeling all the time recently, she had imagined him as a four-year-old boy, the way she had loved him most." (p. 533) With this reunion, Anna comes to realize the full extent of the power of her love for her son. And with all these relationships, the idea of love moves beyond simple courtship into a more nuanced, deeper, richer reality.
Love has the strength to alter events. It has the strength to change lives. It has become, by this point in the novel, a driving force behind almost every important action anyone takes. As Tolstoy's characters get better at recognizing their commitment to love, its strong force will become the making or breaking of each and every one.
Part Six Plot Point: Where Hope Lives
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"The greatest joy is that you can endure anything. You may suffer slander or physical pain, yet in the end you are able to feel no animosity. Such joy cannot be destroyed, even by your own suffering." — Count Leo Tolstoy, from A Calendar of Wisdom
For the most part, Anna Karenina is not a particularly hopeful novel. Many of the major characters have seemingly insurmountable setbacks in their lives, and several core relationships seem challenging at best. Yet, to write Tolstoy off as a pessimist or naysayer is too easy—and also misleading based on circumstances that emerge three-quarters of the way through the novel that imply all may be well.
To start with, we are granted a new appreciation for Dolly and her relationship not only with her sisters and children, but also her sister-in-law Anna. In some respects, when we reach Part Six, Dolly has almost been forgotten. She now re-emerges as a catalyst for learning much more about Kitty and Levin, the true state of her own marriage in the wake of the destruction that Stiva's continued affairs leave and Anna's secret hopes and fears for Dolly's future. Dolly becomes a worthy vehicle to explore the connections these seemingly disparate characters actually continue to share.
In addition, both women and men are portrayed in their "natural habitats" much more than earlier in the book. With Dolly staying at the Levin's estate for the summer, normal family events, "girl talk" and a concentration on the minutiae of everyday relationships feel a lot more prevalent. In the same way, the men's hunting outing, along with Levin's trip to Moscow for Kitty's confinement, give rise to many details of Levin's everyday activities and thoughts.
As Part Six wraps up, Anna and Vronsky—who previous to this point have had a tumultuous relationship—are "now settled together like a married couple." (p. 669) Despite a cooling off of his passion, Vronsky says to Anna, "There's nothing I wish more than not to be separated from you." (p. 668) This tenderness on his part follows a general trend in all the romantic (and non-romantic) relationships in Anna Karenina at this point. If this section of the novel symbolizes anything, it's a returning to the fraternity, family connections and earnest development of relationships that was left off earlier to concentrate on more dramatic and weighty concerns.
By drilling down to the essential lives of these characters—who we have come to know so well—Tolstoy gives his readers a chance to appreciate their subtle nuances and their humanity. We recognize and confront not just the tumult and passion of their circumstances, but also the positive spirit that can come from simple acts of living, and living well. For everyone we've met thus far, especially for Levin and Kitty, this comparatively gentle interlude gives us a glimpse of the hope and promise of their futures.
Part Seven Plot Point: Death Rumbles By
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"There is something in the soul which cannot die, or which cannot be affected by death. Sometimes we can understand this, and sometimes we cannot." — Count Leo Tolstoy, from A Calendar of Wisdom
Death, like love, is a pervasive force in all of Tolstoy's major works—but it has a special power in Anna Karenina, where the death of our heroine takes place under tragic circumstances at a critical point in the novel. We have already come through the prolonged illness and death of Levin's beloved brother Nikolai. We have also been privy to the decline of Anna and Vronsky's relationship. But nothing fully prepares us for the sweeping, aching turn of events that closes this section of the novel. Over the course of Part Seven, we come to realize that Anna is too fragile, her fears too great, the stress on her from months of uncertainty too taxing. Even still, for many of us, the fact that she actually throws herself under the train seems impossible to fathom.
The very language Tolstoy uses to describe Anna's death makes it seem like a dream-state she has floated into by accident. It all happens so quickly. In one paragraph, Anna "realizes what she must do" (p. 768) and then, in the very next she has done it. While she seems to have considered this outcome for her life in several key moments, she never seems to have entertained it seriously. She doesn't think about what death means for her—and because of that it feels almost frivolous, a momentary fancy. She even asks at the last moment, "What am I doing? Why?" (p. 768)
Interestingly, Tolstoy chooses to frame Anna's last moment as a fiction: "And the candle by the light of which she had been reading that book filled with anxieties, deceptions, grief and evil, flared up brighter than ever." (p. 768) Her book is filled with only the darkest, most troubling things about her life. The candle by which she reads it burns brighter than it ever has, and then goes out. In this way, Tolstoy is reminding us that Anna is herself a fiction. More than that, he is saying that every life, no matter whose, is a book that can be read in the way its reader chooses. So much of Anna's day-to-day life, the breakdown of her relationships and her resolve, and her choice in the face of losing everything are a direct result of the way she chooses to read her story. Even at her death, Tolstoy will not let us forget this critical fact.
Whether or not to consider Anna's death a tragic unfolding of unfair circumstances, the logical fruition of a squandered life or something else entirely depends on how we choose to "read" Anna. At the very moment Anna is dying, her creator is reminding us of our own reading candle. Because of her complexity as a character, we have the opportunity to reflect on the ending of her life based on what we believe the core of her truth to be. In his rendering of death, Tolstoy seems to swing the door open, to give us more room to find the empathy and heart of Anna's story. Just as Anna believes death is the only way to make Vronsky love her again, death seems the only hope for Tolstoy to redeem his troubled and beloved heroine. Perhaps he says, too, that death can be a sweet redemption—one that, at the end, we may also claim for ourselves.
Part Eight, The End: A New Beginning
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"If I were to try to say what it is that I meant by Anna Karenina, I would have to write the entire novel all over again." — Count Leo Tolstoy
The novel that began with the idea of family happiness comes to its greatly anticipated end with a personal goal of goodness. In the finale of the novel, Russians go to war, Levin's baby recognizes "his own people," and Levin discovers a new faith and philosophy of life—a faith he realizes he has been living all along without fully recognizing it. For Anna, the experience of love led to death; for Levin, the experience of death has led him to a new love of life. Levin is no stranger to the despair that overwhelms Anna and even contemplates suicide for himself, yet he goes on living—and making a life for himself that seems incredibly full.
Levin's meditations follow pages that detail the sorrowful aftermath of Anna's death. The same characters who opened the novel are once more gathered at a train station: Vronsky, reduced to misery and despair, still sobbing over Anna's death, seeks his own end in military glory, hoping to die on the field of battle. Anna's brother has already forgotten his distress at his sister's suicide; like so many of us, he is caught up in his own career advancement and the excitement of a new war. Levin's brother Sergei has discovered that the world takes little notice of a book into which he poured six years of hard work. To forget his disappointment, he throws himself into the war effort with the same vigor as many of his fellow countrymen. In the end, the war seems to serve many of the characters' needs.
But Levin, living with his family in the countryside, does not find it so easy to discover a greater cause to live for. Alone in the meadow, he grapples with the questions that disturb us all: What am I living for? What meaning does life have if it will all end in death? His discovery of faith in God fills him with joy and gives him a new hope to go on with. Returning home after his mountaintop experience, Levin finds it hard to maintain his inner peace when faced with the irritants of daily life—he snaps at his driver, he grows irritated with his brother, and reprimands his wife. He realizes that his actions will not be perfect, that "I'll fail in the same way to understand the reason why I pray, and yet I will pray," and commits to finding the good he can do in the here and now. (p. 817)
And what of Anna? Tolstoy gives us one last glimpse of his heroine the way Vronsky saw her after her death at the train station. With the terrible image of Anna's death head seared into his memory, Vronsky can no longer recall Anna as she was when he first knew her—beautiful, loving, hoping for happiness, and ripe with promise. But we can pay appropriate homage to Anna if we so choose.
When first editing the book for publication, Tolstoy's editor refused to publish Part Eight—Tolstoy incurred the cost of publishing the last section of the novel himself. Even though Anna's book was closed, Tolstoy's was not. He still had something to say about the inner peace that eluded his tragic heroine but inconspicuously surrounded his unassuming hero. By the end of this great novel about the family, the family idea expands to include tragedy and exaltation, just as Levin's sense of relatedness enlarges to encompass all humanity.
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