Anna Karenina

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 538

The novel begins with the charming but shallow Moscow bureaucrat, Stiva Oblonsky, discovered by his wife Dolly in one of a string of infidelities. Tolstoy thus immediately establishes the dominant concerns of his work: marriage, family life, and adultery. When Stiva’s beautiful sister, Anna Karenina, visits the Oblonsky household to mend its broken tranquillity, she meets the dashing bachelor-officer, Count Vronsky, who is expected to propose marriage to Dolly Oblonsky’s younger sister Kitty. Instead, Vronsky falls under Anna’s spell, first at her arrival at the train station and then at an elegant ball where Madame Karénina, wife of a distinguished bureaucrat and loving mother of an eight-year-old son, is temporarily transcended by the other Anna: a glamorous, sexually magnetic woman with a frustrated hunger for passion. When Anna flees her barely awakened feelings by returning to her settled life in Saint Petersburg, Vronsky pursues her on the same train and confesses his love to her.

Anna struggles to deny her reciprocal ardor and forces herself to play the dutiful wife to her frigid and dull husband. Nevertheless, when Vronsky loses a brilliantly narrated steeplechase race, the watching Anna--and her observing husband--both know that she loves him. After some stormy scenes, she decides to live openly with Vronsky, and they leave Russia for an Italian “honeymoon” and then attempt to settle down on one country estate after another. Vronsky must, however, abandon his cavalry career and Anna her high position in society. While Tolstoy celebrates her grace, integrity, and courage in defying the dictates of a hypocritical community that sanctions affairs but forbids broken marriages, he also condemns her to deteriorations of mood and mind as her increased dependency on Vronsky makes her irrationally jealous and possessive. Eventually, the destructiveness of her passion and ostracism by respectable society drive Anna to suicide.


Bloom, Harold, ed. Leo Tolstoy. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. This book contains essays by R. P. Blackmur and Barbara Hardy. The former explores the way Tolstoy exposes his characters to ambiguity, studies their society and its manners, and discusses the nature of Anna’s tragedy. The latter emphasizes Tolstoy’s vivid realism, his superb handling of the flow of time, and the intricate and deft way he populates his novels with characters. Chronology and bibliography included.

Jones, Malcolm, ed. New Essays on Tolstoy. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1978. In “Problems of Communication,” Jones explores Tolstoy’s amazing sense of physical presence and gesture and how previous critics have treated it.

Knowles, A. V., ed. Tolstoy: The Critical Heritage. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978. This book contains contemporary Russian reviews of the novel from 1875 to 1877. Includes a bibliography and an appendix with Russian literary and historical references.

Rowe, William W. Leo Tolstoy. Boston: Twayne, 1986. Chapter 5 treats the novel as Tolstoy’s finest and traces how he developed the idea for it. Detailed discussion of structure. Separate sections on different themes and literary techniques in the novel, such as Anna’s “guilt,” Levin and Kitty, and foreshadowing. Chronology, notes, and bibliography included.

Wilson, A. N. Tolstoy. London: H. Hamilton, 1988. A full-scale biography. Chapter 12 delves into the gestation and development of the novel, its structural cohesiveness, and its scenes of intimacy. Notes and bibliography included.

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Critical Evaluation