Study Guide

Anna Karenina Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

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Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory


Trains are the most important symbols in the story of Anna Karenina, due to their prominence in the Anna/Vronsky story line. More specifically, trains are a destructive element throughout the novel. Vronsky and Anna first meet at a train station, where a drunken guard is crushed to death. Anna calls the death an omen of evil. Her first encounter with Vronsky is thus overlaid with the specter of death. In some sense, Anna fulfills her own premonition by choosing suicide via train. Vronsky too uses a train as the engine of his death, as it carries him to a war where he is determined to die. The train motif thus brackets the novel in a negative light.

It's possible to go further with the train symbolism – that trains not only destroy Anna and Vronsky, but Russia's old way of life, in favor of an industrial capitalist system. You can also think about the idea of trains as transportation, and draw a parallel to Anna being transported by love away from her duties and responsibilities as Madame Karenina.

Bearded Peasant Carrying a Sack

It may not seem significant the first time around, but if you re-read the very first train scene when Anna meets Vronsky, you'll note that a peasant (a.k.a. a muzhik) appears on the train station platform carrying a sack (1.17.35). And then, you'll remember that, several times throughout the book, Anna has terrifying dreams of a peasant with a matted beard and a sack over his shoulder working over some iron and speaking in incomprehensible French. Even Vronsky has the dream once. So what's going on with this image?

It's possible that Anna (and we, the readers) glimpses this peasant in the first train scene and associates him with the drunken guard's death via train. Anna might, in turn, link this image to Vronsky (because of his gift of money to the guard's family to impress Anna). Anna's recurring, terrifying dreams of the peasant grow out of the fact that he represents both Vronsky and death, both of which, increasingly, she believes she deserves.

This symbolic dream does, in fact, come true. When Anna arrives at the train station where she will take her life in Part 7, she sees a peasant working over some iron just before the train actually runs her over. This peasant is associated with "the impossibility of any struggle" (7.31.21). We could interpret this to mean that from the instant when Anna first met Vronsky, on the train, her suicide has been her fate. The peasant becomes another way of signaling to the reader that Anna's story has come full circle, and that, from the moment that her heart started to wander towards Vronsky in that early scene, she has been doomed.


This is an ellipsis: "…" It comes into novels to show a hesitation or a pause in dialogue, or to indicate when something is being deliberately left out of the narration. So, for example, let’s look at this sentence: “Yeah! You look … great … in spandex pants.” All those little dots suggest that this person is telling a big ol’ lie: she’s obviously hesitating a lot.

There are two moments in Anna Karenina when we get several lines' worth of dots. These dots show us, as in the example above, that the narrator is hesitating to say something, or he's leaving something out. The first comes at the end of Part 2, Chapter 10, when Anna and Vronsky consummate their affair. There's no description of the sex, but the dots stand in where it would have gone, if Tolstoy were a different kind of author.

The second time comes in Part 5, Chapter 23, at the end of a sentence that starts, "The doctor told me after my illness …" That's the moment when Anna's telling Dolly that she won't be having any more kids. And again, whatever the doctor actually told Anna is left unclear, but the ellipses make it obvious that something missing. In both cases, all those dots draw attention to things that are so terrible, and morally damning, that the narrator can't bear to say whatever it is. But by not saying something and leaving in the dots the narrator is making it obvious exactly how serious he thinks what he's not saying is.

Frou Frou

In Part 2, Chapter 25, there's a major turning point in the novel: Vronsky goes riding on a steeplechase in competition with a bunch of other men in his regiment. His horse Frou-Frou (who Vronsky calls "sweetheart" and "lovely") is a high-spirited young mare, eager to get out there into the mix and show those other horses what's what. But as Vronsky's riding, he makes a mistake that trips up Frou-Frou. She falls and breaks her back while he manages to escape uninjured. Now, in terms of the plot, what's important about this scene is that Anna and Karenin are both attending the race, and Anna's visible concern at Vronsky's fall tips off Karenin, at last, that she really is having an affair.

What's important about the scene symbolically is that it foreshadows what's going to happen to Anna herself. Vronsky is absolutely taken with the horse, but his love of her doesn't prevent him from doing something that ruins her forever – he misjudges where he's put his weight as Frou-Frou is gearing up to jump, and she breaks her back. This is similar to his relationship with Anna. Vronsky loves Anna, but he convinces her to have an affair with him, which destroys her. Vronsky's great tragic flaw is that he's capable of deep love, but he's just not that careful, and his lack of care has terrible consequences for the women (or female horses) with whom he gets involved.

Art and Literature

The English Novel

Anna has three notable interactions with art. The first occurs when she's on the train after her visit with Dolly, and she's trying to concentrate on an English novel. The novel gives her ideas: "Anna Arkadyevna read and understood, but it was unpleasant for her to read, that is, to follow the reflection of other people's lives. She wanted too much to live herself" (1.29.3). Ruh roh!

We assume that Anna isn't "living" because she is with Karenin. But isn't that what she winds up doing when she gets involved in an affair with Vronsky? Part of the dissatisfaction that Anna feels with Karenin and Seryozha after meeting Vronsky is the result of her expectation that her life should be different than it is, something she learns from reading novels.

This definitely raises the question, why is reading the novel Anna Karenina a good idea? If we can speak for Tolstoy, we think that what protects the moral value of this novel is Levin. He's the moral compass of the story and the character on which the moral stability and legitimacy of Anna Karenina rests.

Mikhailov's Portrait of Anna

A second example of art, and specifically of art as different or better than life, occurs in Part 7, Chapter 9, when Levin sees the portrait of Anna painted by the artist Mikhailov alongside Anna herself. The painting is bewitching and has an immediate impression on Levin. Anna, as a real woman, can never be as beautiful as this idealized vision of her in the painting. However, as a living woman, she still has a charm that the painting does not have.

There is a sense, here, that art can appear better than real life. But we also get the idea that life is what we experience directly, and so it has its own beauty. Maybe Anna's mistake is in being bewitched by the fantasies art calls up, without appropriately respecting (as Levin does in this chapter) that reality is what we must all live with.

Mikhailov's Painting of Christ and Pilate

When in Mikhailov's studio, Anna and Vronsky simultaneously turn away from the artist's masterful rendering of Christ receiving judgment before Pilate, in favor of a small, innocent painting of two young boys angling. We think that this symbolizes their deliberate rejection of the difficulties of their position in favor of a happier, innocent view.

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