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Last Updated November 8, 2023.

Anna Karenina, Tolstoy's 1878 realist masterpiece, is renowned as one of the greatest works of literature ever created. The novel studies human behavior and experiences and offers sharp social commentary. On the one hand, it delves deep into the intricacies of human emotions, exploring love, jealousy, passion, and despair while also examining the quest for purpose and the pursuit of happiness.

On the other hand, it reflects 19th-century Russian society, showcasing the effects of industrialization, the constant clash between tradition and modernity, and the societal changes of that period.

Tolstoy's storytelling skillfully combines these dual aspects into a cohesive narrative, using his characters to depict his exploration of human nature with a critical look at societal norms and the impact of conforming or defying them.

This idea is exemplified through the characters of Anna and Kitty. Anna's defiance of societal norms, driven by her passionate love for Count Vronsky, ultimately results in her tragic downfall. In contrast, Kitty's initial conformity brings her unhappiness, but her later choices to prioritize love and personal fulfillment lead to a more meaningful and contented life.

Anna Karenina differs significantly from his other works, like War and Peace, known for its elaborate narrative style with extensive historical and philosophical discussions. In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy is both a philosopher and an artist, employing various storytelling techniques. He uses an omniscient third-person point of view and a non-linear narrative structure, shifting between different characters and plots.

He incorporates foreshadowing and interior monologues to help readers understand what the characters are thinking and feeling. Anna's interior monologues, for example, reveal her inner struggles, like the conflicts between her love for Vronsky and her social duties, her increasing despair, her descent into jealousy and paranoia, and even her last thoughts before her tragic end.

"There," she said to herself, looking into the shadow of the carriage, ...there, in the very middle, and I will punish him and escape from everyone and from myself."...And at the same instant she was terror-stricken at what she was doing. "Where am I? What am I doing? What for?" She tried to get up, to drop backwards; but something huge and merciless struck her on the head and rolled her on her back. "Lord, forgive me all!" she said, feeling it impossible to struggle.

In Anna's last inner thoughts, it is important to recognize the symbolism of the train, which represents destiny and impending tragedy. This symbolism is particularly evident in Anna's tragic fate, highlighting the consequences of challenging societal norms.

Another significant symbol is the weather, which mirrors the characters' emotions. Stormy and harsh weather typically aligns with moments of chaos and crisis, while pleasant weather accompanies more peaceful times. For example, when Anna is worried about whether Seryozha will distance himself from her and "join his father in punishing [her]," the cold weather intensifies the emotional pain she is experiencing.

After the thundershowers of the last few days, cold, bright weather had set in. The air was cold in the bright sun that filtered through the freshly washed leaves.

She shivered, both from the cold and from the inward horror which had clutched her with fresh force in the open air.

The bright sun symbolizes young Seryozha but can also be seen as a mask. The cold air reflects the characters' true emotions, like Anna's uncertainty about her son's feelings toward her and his ability to forgive and accept her.

One remarkable feature of the novel is Tolstoy's use of parallel plots. While Anna Karenina is the primary focus, Konstantin Levin emerges as the second protagonist . Among all the characters...

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in the story, Levin is the only one who accepts life as it comes and ultimately discovers his purpose within it. His character mirrors Tolstoy's own challenges with faith, morality, the socio-political climate, and love.

In the novel, Levin isn't a direct copy of Tolstoy, but he symbolizes Tolstoy's ideas. In her project "From Pacifist to Patriot: The Manipulation of Tolstoy's Legacy in Russian Culture and Society," researcher Rachel Bauman explores Tolstoy's social beliefs and his work, especially Anna Karenina. She points out that Tolstoy shifted his focus from entertainment to "addressing the social problems of his time" and conveying his moral perspective.

As Tolstoy biographer A.N. Wilson notes, as Tolstoy reworked the novel, "he was apostatizing from his view that the purpose of a novel was to make people laugh and cry over it," instead focusing on addressing the social problems of his time and laying out his moral vision. He does this by essentially inserting himself into the novel in the form of Konstantin Levin.

Tolstoy uses the characters of Anna and Levin to highlight distinctions between social classes, urban and rural life, and the contrast between nature and culture. He presents rural and natural experiences as significantly better than urban and artificial ones, reflecting his own shift from nobility to a rejection of his aristocratic background.

It is worth noting that Tolstoy disliked writing Anna Karenina. He expressed his "disgust" for the book, calling it "unbearably repulsive," in letters to his wife and friends. Despite his self-criticism and the long four years he spent working on Anna Karenina, Tolstoy managed to create a thought-provoking novel about the extraordinary and imperfect life journeys of two ordinary heroes within society's limits.

Anna Karenina still captivates readers with its in-depth exploration of human relationships, multidimensional characters, and societal themes, solidifying its place as a timeless classic.