(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The source of Tolstoy’s next great novel, Anna Karenina, lies in an idea that he conveyed to his wife in 1870. He wanted to write a story about a married woman who is disgraced by a sexual scandal. He would depict her “not as culpable, but as uniquely worthy of pity.” This story he knew from his own family: his only sister, Marya, had recently left her husband for an adulterous liaison with a Swedish viscount. Two years later, he saw firsthand the potential disastrous results of such a passion. One of his neighbors cast off his mistress, Anna Stepanovna Pirogova, who then threw herself under a train. Tolstoy viewed her remains afterward. Within the year, he began writing Anna Karenina. He was stimulated further by his reading of Alexander Pushkin’s Povesti Belkina (1831; Russian Romance, 1875), which he admired. He was struck by the phrase, “The guests were arriving at the country house,” and began to write his story around it.

Anna Karenina begins with the oft-quoted line, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In this novel, Tolstoy portrays both a happy and an unhappy family. The happy Constantine Levin and his wife, Kitty, resemble Pierre and Natasha Bezukhov in War and Peace because of their positive attitudes in the face of adversity and their compassion toward other people. Levin and Kitty’s rapport is such that Levin exclaims that he does “not know where she ended and he began.”

The marriage of Alexey and Anna Karenin, on the other hand, is a loveless match held in place by the dictates of society. When Anna meets a dashing officer of the guards, Alexey Vronsky, she readily abandons her husband and son for the sake of illicit passion. Far from being an ennobling force, Anna and Vronsky’s love leads to chaos, ruin, and, eventually, Anna’s death under the wheels of an oncoming train.

Throughout the novel, the characters of Anna and Levin are compared and contrasted. Distantly related through marriage (Anna’s brother is married to Kitty’s sister), they make life choices that are diametrically opposed to each other. Anna is a young, beautiful, intelligent, vital woman who...

(The entire section is 916 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Anna Karenina, the sister of Stepan Oblonsky, comes to Moscow in an attempt to patch up a quarrel between her brother and his wife, Dolly. There she meets the handsome young Count Vronsky, who is rumored to be in love with Dolly’s younger sister, Kitty. Konstantine Levin, of an old Muscovite family, is also in love with Kitty, and his visit to Moscow coincides with Anna’s. Kitty refuses Levin, but to her chagrin she receives no proposal from the count. Indeed, Vronsky has no intention of proposing to Kitty. His heart goes out to Anna the first time he lays eyes on her, and when Anna returns to her home in St. Petersburg, he follows her.

Soon they begin to be seen together at soirées and at the theater, apparently unaware of gossip that circulates about them. Karenin, Anna’s husband, becomes concerned. A coldly ambitious and dispassionate man, he believes that his social position is at stake. One night, he discusses these rumors with Anna and points out the danger of her flirtation, as he calls it. He forbids her to entertain Vronsky at home and cautions her to be more careful. He is not jealous of his wife, only worried over the social consequences of her behavior. He reminds her of her duty to her young son, Seryozha. Anna says she will obey him, and there the matter rests.

Anna, however, is unable to conceal her true feelings when Vronsky is injured in a racetrack accident. Karenin upbraids her for her indiscreet behavior in public. He considers a duel, separation, and divorce but rejects all these courses. When he finally decides to keep Anna under his roof, he reflects that he is acting in accordance with the laws of religion. Anna continues to meet Vronsky in secret.

Levin returns to his country estate after Kitty refuses him, and he busies himself there in problems of agriculture and peasant labor. One day, he goes into the fields and works with a scythe along with the serfs. He believes that he is beginning to understand the old primitive philosophy of their lives. He plans new developments, among them a cooperative enterprise system. When he hears that Kitty is not married after all and that she was ill but will soon be returning to Moscow, he resolves to seek her hand in marriage once more. Secretly, he knows she loves him. His pride, as well as hers, keeps them apart. Accordingly, Levin makes the journey to Moscow with new hope that soon Kitty will be his wife.

Against her husband’s orders, Anna sends for Vronsky and tells him that she is pregnant. Aware of...

(The entire section is 1031 words.)