Anna Karenina is one of literature's great heroines. She is a woman who falls in love with a man not her husband, who then must struggle with the ethical and social consequences of living in a relationship outside of marriage. She's flawed, complex, and ultimately destroys herself, but we follow her and sympathize with her because she's also gentle, initially well intentioned, and very human.
Anna also draws in the reader and other characters because of her beauty. Tolstoy doesn't dwell on Anna's good looks, but he does include thoughts from male characters, such as Vronsky and Levin, about her curling black hair, "full figure" (breasts), and sharp intelligence. All the men in the novel, and some of the women (at first there's lots of hero-worship going on from Kitty and Dolly), seem poised to fall in love with Anna. How can we readers help but do the same?
This point about her good looks is actually important to the development of Anna as a character. In Tolstoy's earlier drafts of Anna Karenina, she was a plump, unattractive, and unappealing lady (source: Richard Pevear, "Introduction," Anna Karenina.). Tolstoy initially wanted to make sure that his readers sided with Karenin over Anna, morally speaking. After all, Tolstoy was writing against free-thinkers and liberals at the end of the 19th century in Russia, who advocated for an end to old-fashioned institutions like marriage. Tolstoy wanted to defend the traditional family, and he used adulterous Anna Karenina's slow decline into depression and suicide to do it.
But, as he continued to write this novel, Tolstoy started to get drawn in by a more sensitive portrayal of Anna's character. He also might have started to see a web of other, similarly flawed characters around her. To oversimplify, we have decadent but good-hearted Oblonsky, the loving but discontent Dolly, shallow but compassionate Kitty, and cold but confused Karenin.
As such, Anna Karenina may be one of the single best examples of a character with whom the reader identifies even though the novel clearly disapproves of her. In other words, Anna is a "bad" character, one who does terrible things, like commit adultery and abandon her children. Yet "good" readers still like her, maybe even against the will of the author. This means she must be a pretty spectacular character.
One of the major themes of this novel is "Man and the Natural World." In Anna Karenina, we continually see that, for Tolstoy, children are good because they are closer to the natural world than adults are. Kids only "go bad" if they're spoiled or twisted by their parents. Otherwise, their natural instincts make them great judges of character. So the way children respond to Anna becomes a good way to see when she starts to go rotten on the inside.
In the first part of the novel, Anna visits the Oblonskys and tries mend their marriage after Stiva's adultery. Dolly's kids love Anna at first. They crawl all over her and want her attention. But then, after Anna meets and falls for Vronsky, it's almost as if the Oblonsky kids become bloodhounds scenting sin. They know at once that something has changed about her – that she's preoccupied with something else. They even stop loving her and don't care when she leaves Dolly's house. (Check out Part 1, Chapter 28 for more on this.) The coldness of Dolly's children is the first real sign we get that something about Anna's nature is being changed by her adulterous thoughts. Through the reaction of Dolly's children, we see that Anna is no longer the same pure person she once was.
Seryozha (a.k.a. Sergei Alexeievich Karenin) is Anna's son with Karenin. When we first meet Anna in Part 1, Chapter 18, Countess Vronsky tells us that Anna's broken up over leaving her son for the first time. (Anna had to leave her son temporarily so that she can visit the Oblonskys.) And then, after meeting the fascinating Count Vronsky, Anna comes home to Seryozha and is somehow disappointed. In other words, her son isn't as great as she remembered. (Check out Part 1, Chapter 32, for more on this.)
This disappointment is a terrible perversion for Tolstoy. Like the coldness of Dolly's children towards Anna after she's started feeling something for Vronsky, Anna's disappointment in her own son is a further sign that all is not right with Anna Arkadyevna Karenina. She's letting herself be seduced away from her proper place as Seryozha's mom and Karenin's wife.
In Part 5 (when Anna has been cheating on Karenin for a long time) we get one of the clearest signs of how bad things are for Anna: she gives birth to an adorable, bouncing baby girl (named Annie) and doesn't care about her new baby. It's almost as if the novel is telling us that Anna's relationship with Vronsky is so unnatural that it's killing off Anna's own instincts as a mother:
The plump, well-nourished baby, as always, seeing her mother, turned over her bare little arms, which looked as if they had string tied around them, and, smiling with a toothless little mouth, began rowing with her hands palm down like a fish with its fins [...] Everything about this little girl was sweet, but for some reason none of it touched her heart. To the first child, though of a man she did not love, had gone all the force of a love that had not been satisfied; the girl, born in the most difficult conditions, did not receive a hundredth part of the care that had gone to the first child [...] and she was forever separated from him, not only physically but also spiritually, and it was impossible to remedy. (5.31.5)
What's going on in this passage is that 1) Anna can't bring herself to love her daughter because "none of [Annie's adorableness] touched her heart," and 2) she still loves Seryozha, but she's sure she can't be with him anymore. Anna has changed so much ("physically but also spiritually") that she can never hope to restore the relationship she once had with Seryozha.
Anna has become so unnatural by the time she bears her daughter that Annie doesn't stand a chance finding a place in Anna's breaking heart.
To finish up this progression of Anna's change from person who loves kids – even other people's kids – to an "unnatural" woman who doesn't even want new babies to be born, take a look at Part 6, Chapter 23, when Anna tells Dolly that she doesn't want any more children. In fact, after Anna's difficult birth of Annie, she chooses to ensure that she'll be unable to have another kid (the book is obscure on exactly what the doctor might have done or said to her, but it's definitely Anna's choice not to get pregnant again [6.23.37]).
This is a huge deal for moral judgment of Anna Karenina in this novel – after all, Tolstoy's told us over and over again how rewarding kids are. For Tolstoy, the fact that Anna no longer wants children is like Anna is saying that she's not a human woman anymore. This is so terrible that it seems the novel itself can't stand it, and the narrative stops for a line and lapses into ellipsis (a bunch of dots that indicate that something is missing from a paragraph. See our section on "Ellipsis" in "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory.")
(By the way, we'd like to emphasize that this is very much Tolstoy's view, and not Shmoop's view. Having a family and children is central to the world that Tolstoy builds in Anna Karenina and what he deems "the right way" to live. So we need to examine Anna and her desires in this context, even if we don't necessarily agree with the model that Tolstoy establishes.)
Anna's relationship with the English girl Hannah functions as an epilogue to the progression that we've been establishing. Anna has cut off her relationship to her own potential and real children. Her affair with Vronsky has sucked the life out of the family she might have built. But Anna is so lonely and desperate for family that she takes care of another person's daughter. The English girl, Hannah, demonstrates how lost Anna is: she doesn't know how to connect with her own flesh-and-blood, so she tries with somebody else.
Hannah's character never appears before us in the novel, and Anna's interactions with her also take place off the page. Hannah is mentioned to illustrate, once more, how far Anna is from where she should be. Even Vronsky reproaches her:
"[Vronsky] wanted to say that it's unnatural for me to love someone else's child when I don't love my own daughter. What does he understand about the love for children, about my love for Seryozha, whom I have sacrificed for him? But this wish to cause me pain! No, he loves another woman, it can't be anything else." (7.23.19)
Anna feels that she has sacrificed Seryozha for Vronsky. In so doing, how can she imagine that Vronsky won't sacrifice her, Anna, for someone else? What faith can she have in Vronsky's love if she was able to give up the greatest love of her life, the love between her and her son, for Vronsky? And having given up that one great love for Seryozha, Anna has broken her family life beyond repair. It doesn't matter how much she struggles to fix it, Anna will never be able to have the happy family life that is idealized by the novel and by Tolstoy.
Anna Karenina seems to justify Anna's guilt over her actions, and Tolstoy seems to imply that Anna has certainly done wrong. But Tolstoy takes issue with the hypocrisy of the society people who condemn her on the one hand while committing similar immoral acts. It's one thing when Kitty doesn't want to meet Anna because she feels morally uncomfortable – after all, Kitty is a relatively pure-spirited character. But it's a totally different story when someone like Princess Betsy Tverskoy, leader of Petersburg's least moral social sect, who also cheats on her husband flagrantly, refuses to visit Anna because of Anna's living arrangement with Vronsky (see 6.23.20).
Tolstoy is scornful of people like Princess Betsy and her social set (of whom Vronsky is a member), who treat marriage like a formal arrangement that shouldn't keep you from behaving exactly as you want to (see 1.34.16). The only difference between these women and Anna is that Anna is openly living with a man who isn't her husband.
Anna pays for this transgression of social rules when Petersburg's entire female population refuses to visit her. (For a particularly brutal scene of this, check out the Kartasov diss in Part 5, Chapter 33.) But what the women are punishing her for is not the affair (which everyone has known about for ages), but the openness of her affair.
Anna's affair doesn't appear to be a moral outrage to Petersburg society. Rather society excludes her because of her choice not to live by social norms and keep her affair hidden. If she'd just lie a bit more about what she's doing, or if she'd just get a divorce and pretend that whole Karenin thing had never happened, well then, maybe that'd be fine, according to the majority of Petersburg. (For more on why men seem to get away with this behavior while women cannot, see Vronsky's "Character Analysis.")
We've all felt guilty about something or another – for example, one of us here at Shmoop isn't too proud of the fact that she accidentally let her goldfish, Puddles, die from excessive feeding. But there's a difference between sorrow or regret over a minor mistake and the real, soul-crushing, crazy-making guilt (no disrespect meant to goldfish everywhere). Anna's guilt is clearly overwhelming.
Tolstoy is careful to include some explanation for why Anna winds up basically ruining her life by stepping out with Vronsky: Karenin is cold, and Anna is kind of bored in her relationship. But these aren't excuses. Sure, we can sympathize with Anna's actions, but the novel wants to make sure that we know that she is still wrong. This is a psychological account of a woman slowly going to ruin, and Tolstoy wants us to know it. Since Anna is a smart, sensitive woman, she can see it happening. She knows she's doing wrong, and she does it anyway, and the price of that is the crushing guilt.
Anna feels how wrong she's being in three major sections of the text: when she thinks she's dying in childbirth, when she sneaks in to see Seryozha against Karenin's wishes, and when she kills herself.
When Anna thinks she's on the brink of death in Part 4, Chapter 17, she calls endlessly for Karenin to beg for his forgiveness. The thing that's interesting about this section is that the forgiveness Karenin offers her is more important to Karenin than it is to Anna. He has a religious epiphany about the value of mercy. (Check out our analysis of "What's Up with the Epigraph?" for more on the importance of forgiveness in Anna Karenina.) It's enough to say, here, that the crucial thing about Anna's repentance in this chapter is not what it does for her, but what it does for Karenin. It gives her husband the opportunity to overcome (briefly at least) his own shortcomings and to think about someone other than himself.
Next up, there's Anna's guilt over Seryozha. In Part 3, Chapter 15, Anna resolves that her bond with Seryozha should be independent of her relationship with either Vronsky or Karenin. She begins to wonder why she shouldn't she just take her son with her and leave? (We were kind of wondering this too.) So why does she ultimately leave Seryozha and decide to keep up with this sham marriage with Karenin, even though they're living in separate places? It is because Anna is unwilling to give up her social position for her son. And once she's made that decision – the two will never fully be together again.
After Annie's birth, when Anna has decided finally to leave Karenin (to whom she's still married) and run away to Italy with Vronsky, Anna realizes that "she [is] forever separated from [Seryozha]" (5.31.5). This separation is spiritual: once he's old enough to understand Anna, Seryozha makes a conscious effort to forget his sentimental feelings for his mother. (For more on this, check out our "Character Analysis" of Seryozha.) Her moral weakness has broken her natural ties with her own child, further evidence of the dire consequences Tolstoy assigns to adultery.
Finally there's Anna's suicide. A lot of things drive Anna to take this path. In the first place she's possessed with this morbid view that all life is awful, and all people are vile (even kids). She also thinks Vronsky now hates her, and she comes to the fatalistic conclusion that if she died, then everyone would be sorry. Cheating on Karenin has had such a terrible effect on Anna's mind that, having done something wrong, she can't believe that anyone else isn't doing the same thing. She gets jealous of Vronsky all the time because she knows he's capable of cheating, so she can't trust him. Everyone around her seems gross and evil because she feels herself to be gross and evil. There's no space for love – the force that saves Levin from suicide – in such a guilty mind.
Anna's actual suicide is a ambiguous. She wants Vronsky to suffer, she hates life and wants to die, but she also seems at last to have some kind of religious awakening. She looks about herself, as she stands on the tracks, and thinks, "Where am I? What am I doing? Why?" (7.31.21). Her answer to these questions is, "Lord, forgive me for everything!" (7.31.21). In the end, she's not thinking about making Vronsky miserable or escaping her existence. Instead, she's worrying about God's judgment. She knows she's done wrong, and she wants to beg forgiveness. She wants the same kind of forgiveness she once got from Karenin, but this time from a higher authority. And perhaps she receives it: Tolstoy seems to feel that it's not our place to judge Anna or to know how she is judged by God. (Check out "What's Up With the Epigraph?" for more on this.)
This novel is called Anna Karenina, so did anyone else find it a little weird that it starts, not with the title character, but with some other guy (Oblonsky) and his infidelities? In fact, Anna doesn't come into the book at all until around 60 pages in, when Vronsky sees her on the train. And we don't get her internal point-of-view until around a hundred pages in. What's even more is that the book doesn't end with Anna's suicide. Instead, we get a whole eighth part that takes place after Anna has thrown herself under a train. So – if Anna's so great, why doesn't the book start and end with her? Does it matter?
As is often the case in literature, this point only matters if you decide it does. We think there's something to the fact that there's so much symmetry between Anna's late introduction and early exit from the book. (Feel free to argue with us on this point though.) Anna, is both an individual person and a representative of a kind of person Tolstoy sees as a problem in late 19th century Russian high society. In fact, this is true for the majority of characters in the novel; the characters often act as physical representations of larger problems. In the case of Anna, she is both Anna the woman, wife, and mother and Anna the Adulteress, who destroys the ideal family life.
Women's adultery presents a serious problem in this novel, because the moral heart of Anna Karenina (and of Levin's later epiphany) lies in religiously sanctioned love. According to Tolstoy, this kind of love reaches its highest good in the successful, functioning family. Men can play a huge role in supporting (or destroying) this family. But because women bear children, they function as the lynchpin of the family. So from Tolstoy's perspective, if a woman abandons her family responsibilities, it's pretty much the single worst thing she can do. In other words, since women are able to have the babies, they're supposed to be even more attached to their married lives then men are. (For more on this theme, check out our analysis of Anna and Kitty and Anna and Dolly as foils.)
What does Tolstoy's problem with women leaving their husbands and family life have to do with Anna's late appearance in the novel? One way to approach this question is to look at who is in the novel before and after. First we meet the Oblonskys before Anna comes into the picture. And after Anna's tragic demise, the novel ends with Levin.
Oblonsky is unfaithful to his wife, and Dolly seems to be unfulfilled in her role as female head of the family. They both provide excellent foils for Anna, because Oblonsky's guilty of the same sin that Anna will fall prey to, but he's also a man. This difference in gender raises the question: why can a guy get away with adultery if Anna can't? Or is the fact that he always comes back to Dolly, that Oblonsky maintains the appearance of propriety, more important than his cheating?
As for Dolly, she, like Anna, is a woman – she even has adulterous thoughts of her own later in the novel. Perhaps what makes Dolly such a great foil for Anna (and we get into this in more depth in the "Character Roles" section) is that Dolly is a committed mom. She has this giant brood of children whom she never deserts, even when she's feeling discontented. This behavior is a far cry from Anna's tormented relationship with her own son, Seryozha, and her total lack of feeling for Annie.
The guy who finishes the novel is Constantine Levin. Anna Karenina ends with Levin's epiphany about God and his own place in creation. Again, we get into this in more detail in our section on Anna and Levin as foils, under "Character Roles," but the two do seem to be leading mirrored lives in some ways. When Levin's heart is broken by Kitty's refusal of marriage, Anna is finding new love in Vronsky. When Anna appears to be dying after giving birth, Levin and Kitty are embarking on a new life together, having just gotten engaged. And after Anna has despaired of life and killed herself, Levin has an epiphany that gives his life a new purpose.
By opening and closing the novel with Oblonsky, Dolly, and Levin, Anna Karenina is asking us to look more closely at the relationships of the title character, Anna Karenina, to each of these three people. While Anna spends most of the book with either Vronsky or Karenin, we can't help comparing these three. Anna, however, interacts much less with Oblonsky, Dolly, and especially Levin.
So Tolstoy needs to work a little harder to make these other, less obviously related people come together in our minds. Perhaps one way that the narrative does this is to make us think about several questions. Why can Oblonsky cheat but Anna can't? Why does Levin have a lasting religious revelation, while Anna doesn't? How come Dolly's such a great mom, but Anna isn't? After all, the fact that the lives of Oblonsky, Dolly, and Levin continue – and indeed are focal points for Tolstoy – after Anna's has ended prompts us to think about the relationship between these characters and why they might be centrally important in a novel called Anna Karenina. Pretty clever, eh?