Anna Karenina
By Lev Tolstoy
A Classic
• Considered one of the world’s greatest novels
• At least nine film and TV film versions, plus
theatrical dramatizations
• Opening sentence famous, frequently quoted:
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is
unhappy in its own way.”
• Commonly seen simply as a novel about an extramarital affair that ends in suicide (cf Flaubert,
Madame Bovary)
• In fact a complex interweaving of themes and
The product of its age
• Novel written and published from 1873 to
1877 in “thick journal” Russky vestnik (The
Russian Messenger).
• Journal refused the last part, so that the
instalment version ended with Anna’s suicide.
Refused mainly because of Tolstoy’s sarcastic
depiction of the Russian volunteers going to
fight in Serbia.
• Definitive book version appeared in 1879.
Background: Alexander II’s reforms
• Period of rapid change in Russian society
• Complication of the situation of the Russian nobility
• The liberation of the serfs: the emergence of the
future “kulaks”
• The rise of a new business class – partly Jewish
• The creation of zemstvos: local democracy
• Railway as symbol of the new industrialized Russia
in the making
Levin as Tolstoy
• Position of Tolstoy the conservative thinker
expressed by Levin
• Clearly autobiographical figure: shares details
of Tolstoy’s own life
• The invisible narrator-author shines through in
Levin – cf Nikolenka in Childhood
• Direction of sarcasm (e.g. description of
Obolensky at the restaurant) is clearly felt by
the reader to be that of Tolstoy.
Social changes reflected in plot
• Opening sentence states the theme: happy and
unhappy families
• Polemic with the radical/nihilistic thinking
about free love
• The changing nature of marriage: Princess
Shcherbatskaia does not know how to arrange
her daughter’s marriage
• Shifting social attitudes towards divorce and
the family
More social changes reflected in plot
The clash of values: imported, Western values
French, English influence marked as negative
Hostility towards foreign languages
The question of faith: how can an educated
nobleman believe the way the simple peasant
• The polemic with rationalism, Western social
Marriage among the upper class in the 1870s
• In transition from the arranged marriage, towards one based on
• Anna is in an arranged marriage (considered an abomination
by the radicals)
• The older couple Shcherbatskys almost certainly in wellarranged marriage
• Why did Stiva Oblonsky marry Dolly? – For her money.
• Officially the woman’s wealth remains her property in
Divorce in Tsarist Russia
• Divorce is difficult and usually the result of
fake evidence about who is “guilty.”
• “Guilty” party loses parental rights
• Tolstoy shows the hypocrisy surrounding
extra-marital affairs and depicts the
complicated procedures for divorce.
• Does he disapprove or approve of society’s
A paradigm of couples
• Tolstoy creates a spectrum of couples in the text, who
illustrate the varieties of relationships possible, and
the outcomes.
• The plot weaves back and forth from one couple to
• Certain “affinities” are detected between individuals
outside the couples: e.g.,Vronsky and Kitty, Levin
and Anna
• The real heart of the novel is the Anna – Levin –
Dolly triangle
Spatial and temporal organization
• Takes place from February 1872 to July 1876
• At one point the time of Vronsky-Anna is over a year
ahead of Levin-Kitty
• Action shuttles spatially from place to place
• Moscow – perceived as the good, patriarchal heart
with true Russian values
• St Petersburg: the centre of a cold bureaucracy with
imported, foreign values
• The Russian countryside
• Western Europe: German spa Solden and Italian town
Vronsky and Anna
(Vasily Lanovoy from film by Aleksandr Zarkhi 1967
and Greta Garbo 1935 dir. Clarence Brown)
The adulterers
• Prime dramatic focus of the novel: seen
intimately, right down to their emotions and
dreams, but ultimately viewed from the
perspective of Levin/Tolstoy
• Anna is married to Aleksei Karenin, some 20
years older than her (NB Vronsky’s name is
also Aleksei.)
Stiva and Dolly Obolensky
• Stiva Oblonsky is Anna’s brother.
Both were brought up by an aunt.
Stiva is a bon vivant, and the
novel begins with the news of his
• Dolly is Kitty Shcherbatsky’s
older sister.
• Along with Levin, Dolly serves as
one of the moral foci of the novel.
She is the devoted mother of her
(left: Aleksandr Abdullov as
Levin and Kitty
• Levin’s first proposal is rejected because of
• The ritual of the second proposal and the
wedding taken from Tolstoy’s own life
• Kitty is a junior version of her sister Dolly: a
coper and someone devoted to family values
Minor couples
• Nikolai Levin (Konstantin’s brother) and his
common-law wife Marya Nikolaevna or
• Sergei Ivanovich Koznyshev (Levin’s halfbrother and Varenka – to whom he nearly
• Aleksei Karenin and Countess Lydia Ivanovna,
who becomes his confidante after the break-up
of his marriage
Lev Tolstoy in 1873
The real drama in Anna
Karenina: a strong virile
man with a powerful
sex drive, who is in
conflict with his own
puritanical outlook on
sex. The book can be a
seen as an attempt to
come to terms with this

Anna Karenina - University of Ottawa