Anna Karenina Questions and Answers
by Leo Tolstoy

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What are the themes in Anna Karenina?

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Lev Tolstoy began writing Anna Karenina 1873 (first published in 1878), a time when Emperor Alexander II’s liberal reforms were perpetuating rapid changes within Russian society. This historical context translates into the book; for example, the woman question, the awakening of public opinion, the decline of the old aristocracy, and other developments appear as both thematic elements and as topics debated by characters. We will look at a couple of themes below, but this is by no means an exhaustive list.

Societal Change: In the book, we see the tension that arises as a result of the meeting of the old aristocracy and the rise of the new, liberal crowd. Old, patriarchal, conservative ideas clash with more freethinking, emergent ones, creating an unstable social landscape. For example, Anna’s affair itself raises conflict. Some characters easily accept her infidelity, while others view it as a great travesty. It also brings up elements of the woman question: what rights does she have in her separation from Karenin? What rights should she have?

Love: Love is both a freeing, positive force in the book as well as a destructive, imprisoning force. Anna’s love for Vronsky destroys her marriage and standing in many social circles. It separates her from her beloved son and ultimately becomes a factor in her suicide and inability to fully invest in and love Vronsky; however, it is one of the only things that truly satisfies her in the book (at least for a time). Love is a positive in Levin and Kitty’s case, giving Levin a meaning in life and fulfilling his desire for family life.

Other themes could include: fidelity/adultery, marriage/family life, rural life/”the Land,” forgiveness, faith, etc.

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Anna Karenina's basic karmic theme is that love nor happiness can ever occur if it involves sacrificing the feelings of others. In other words, only self-sacrifice (not sacrificing your family, current lover or husband, children, or others around you) is the causative factor of happiness.

Under this umbrella you find several other themes in Anna Karenina which are directly linked to that statement: Infidelity, abandonment, treason, jealousy, hypocrisy (societal), and the ardent furor of lust which is often confused with love.

Anna's curse was that she left those who loved her to follow a man she went crazy in love for. She found in him the ardent furor described before, as well as he did. He was a dandy and heart breaker who needed his next prey. She was the easiest of preys. In the end, both realize that what bound them together was temporary, yet, they had single handedly changed and ruined the lives of those whom had to endure their decisions. Hence, she ended her life.

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