Anna Karenina

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Novels

Title Anna Karenina
Classic UK Penguin edition cover
Author Leo Tolstoy
Original title Анна Каренина
Translator Constance Garnett initial
Country Russia
Language Russian
Genre(s) Romance
Publisher Ruskii Vestnik
Released 1877
Media type Print ( Serial)

Anna Karenina (Анна Каренина) is a novel by the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, published in serial installments from 1873 to 1877 in the periodical Ruskii Vestnik ( Russian: Русский Вестник, "Russian Messenger"). Tolstoy clashed with its editor Mikhail Katkov over issues that arose in the final installment. Therefore, the novel's first complete appearance was in book form.

Widely regarded as a pinnacle in realist fiction, Tolstoy considered this book his first true novel. The character of Anna was likely inspired, in part, by Maria Hartung (1832–1919), the elder daughter of the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. Soon after meeting her at dinner, Tolstoy started reading Pushkin's prose and once had a fleeting daydream of "a bare exquisite aristocratic elbow", which proved to be the first intimation of Anna's character.

Although most Russian critics panned the novel on its publication as a "trifling romance of high life", Fyodor Dostoevsky declared it to be "flawless as a work of art". His opinion is seconded by Vladimir Nabokov, who especially admired "the flawless magic of Tolstoy's style" and the motif of the moving train, which is subtly introduced in the first chapters (the children playing with a toy train) and inexorably developed in subsequent chapters (Anna's nightmare), thus heralding the novel's majestic finale.

Anna Karenina is #1 in the Top Ten List of 125 authors' Top Ten books.

Plot summary

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.

The novel is divided into eight parts. The novel begins with one of its most quoted lines, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Part 1 introduces the character Prince Stepan Arkadyevitch Oblonsky, known as "Stiva", a civil servant who has been unfaithful to his wife Darya Alexandrovna, known as "Dolly". Stiva's affair shows an amorous personality which he cannot seem to suppress. Stiva summons his married sister, Anna Karenina, from St. Petersburg to persuade Dolly not to leave him.

Upon arriving at Moscow, a railway worker accidentally falls in front of a train and is killed, which Anna declares to be an "evil omen". Meanwhile, Stiva's childhood friend Konstantin Dmitrievich Levin arrives in Moscow to offer his hand in marriage to Dolly's younger sister Ekaterina Alexandrovna Shcherbatsky, known as "Kitty". The passionate, restless but shy aristocratic landowner lives on an estate which he manages. Kitty turns him down, expecting a marriage offer from army officer Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky. Despite his fondness for Kitty, Vronsky has no intention of marrying her. He soon falls in love with Anna after he meets her at the Moscow train station and later dances the mazurka with her at a ball.

Anna, shaken by her response and animation to Vronsky, returns at once to St. Petersburg. Vronsky follows her on the same train. Levin returns to his estate farm, abandoning any hope of marriage, and Anna returns to her husband Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin, a senior government official, and their son Sergei ("Seriozha") in Petersburg.

In part 2, Karenin scolds Anna for talking too much with Vronsky, but after a while she returns Vronsky's affections, and becomes pregnant with his child. Anna shows anguish when Vronsky falls from a racehorse, making her feelings obvious in society and prompting her to confess to her husband. This attraction appears repeatedly in the book through the form of a "What if" question. When Kitty learns that Vronsky prefers Anna over her, she turns ill. Two doctors examine her, and together they decide she should travel abroad to recover. She goes to a resort at a German spring to recover from the shock. There she briefly becomes extremely pious, but decides that she can't retain that level of piety without deceiving herself.

Part 3 examines Levin's life on his rural farming estate, a setting closely tied to Levin's spiritual thoughts and struggles. Throughout this part, Levin wrestles with the idea of falseness, wondering how he should go about ridding himself of it, and criticizing what he feels is falseness in others. Dolly also meets Levin, and attempts to revive his feelings for Kitty. Dolly seems to have failed, but a chance sighting of Kitty makes Levin realize he still loves her. Back in Petersburg, Karenin exasperates Anna by refusing to separate with her, and threatens not to let her see their son Seriozha ever again if she leaves or misbehaves, exactly what Vronsky asks her to do.

By part 4 however, Karenin finds the situation intolerable and begins seeking divorce. Anna's brother Stiva argues against it and persuades Karenin to speak with Dolly first. Again, Dolly seems to be unsuccessful, but Karenin changes his plans after hearing that Anna is dying in childbirth. At her bedside, Karenin forgives Vronsky, who in remorse attempts suicide. However, Anna recovers, having given birth to a daughter she names Anna ("Annie"). Stiva finds himself pleading on her behalf for Karenin to divorce. Vronsky at first plans to flee to Tashkent, but changes his mind after seeing Anna, and they leave for Europe without obtaining a divorce after all. Much more straightforward is Stiva's matchmaking with Levin: a meeting he arranges between Levin and Kitty results in their reconciliation and betrothal.

In part 5, Levin and Kitty marry. A few months later, Levin learns that his brother Nikolai is dying. The couple go to him, and Kitty nurses him until he dies, while also discovering she is pregnant. In Europe, Vronsky and Anna struggle to find friends who will accept them and pursue activities that will amuse them, but they eventually return to Russia. Karenin is comforted – and influenced – by the strong-willed Countess Lidia Ivanovna, an enthusiast of religious and mystic ideas fashionable with the upper classes, who counsels him to keep Seriozha away from Anna. However, Anna manages to visit Seriozha unannounced on his birthday, but is discovered by the furious Karenin, who had told their son that his mother was dead. Shortly afterward, she and Vronsky leave for the country.

In part 6, Dolly visits Anna. At Vronsky's request, she asks Anna to resume seeking a divorce from Karenin. Yet again, Dolly seems unsuccessful; but when Vronsky leaves for several days of provincial elections, a combination of boredom and suspicion convinces Anna she must marry Vronsky. So she writes to Karenin, and leaves with Vronsky for Moscow.

In part 7, the Levins are in Moscow for Kitty's benefit as she gives birth to a son. Stiva, while seeking Karenin's commendation for a new job, again asks him to grant Anna a divorce; but Karenin's decisions are now governed by a "clairvoyant" – recommended by Lidia Ivanovna – who apparently counsels him to decline. Anna and Vronsky become increasingly bitter towards each other. They plan to return to the country, but in a jealous rage Anna leaves early, and in a parallel to part 1, commits suicide by throwing herself in the path of a train. (Tolstoy reportedly was inspired to write Anna Karenina by reading a newspaper report of such a death.)

Part 8 continues the story after Anna's death. Stiva gets the job he wanted, and Karenin takes custody of Annie. Some Russian volunteers, including Vronsky, who does not plan to come back, leave to help in the Serbian revolt that has just broken out against the Turks (see also History of Serbia, 1876). And in the joys and fears of fatherhood, Levin at last develops faith in the Christian God.

Characters in "Anna Karenina"

  • Prince Stepan Arkadyevitch Oblonsky ("Stiva") – a civil servant
  • Darya Alexandrovna Oblonskaya ("Dolly") – Stepan's wife
  • Anna Arkadyevna Karenina – The eponymous "heroine", sister to Stepan and lover of Vronsky
  • Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin – Anna's husband
  • Konstantin Dmitrievitch Levin – Kitty's suitor and the novel's other protagonist
  • Nikolai Levin – Konstantin's brother
  • Ekaterina Alexandrovna Scherbatskaya ("Kitty") – Darya's younger sister
  • Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky – Lover of Anna
  • Countess Lidia Ivanovna – Interested in all things mystical


Tolstoy's style in Anna Karenina is considered by many critics to be transitional, forming a bridge between the realist and modernist novel. The novel is narrated from a third-person-omniscient perspective, shifting between the perspectives of several major characters, though most frequently focusing on its dual protagonists (Anna and Levin). As such, each of the novel's eight sections contains internal variations in tone: it assumes a relaxed voice when following Stepan Oblonsky's thoughts and actions and a much more tense voice when describing Levin's social encounters. Much of the novel's seventh section depicts Anna's thoughts fluidly, following each one of her ruminations and associations with its immediate successor. This section, and, to a lesser degree, the rest of the novel, is one of the earliest examples of stream-of-consciousness literature. The stream-of-consciousness form would be utilized by such later authors as James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner.

Also of significance is Tolstoy's interweaving of real and fictional events throughout his narrative. Characters in Anna Karenina debate significant sociopolitical issues affecting Russia in the latter half of the nineteenth century, such as the proper role of the serfs in society, education reform, and women's rights. Tolstoy's depiction of the characters in these debates, and of their arguments, allows him to anonymously communicate his own political beliefs to his audience. Characters often attend social functions that Tolstoy attended, and he includes in these passages his own observations of the ideologies, behaviors, and ideas running through contemporary Russia through the thoughts of Konstantin Levin. The broad array of situations and ideas depicted in Anna Karenina allows Tolstoy to present a treatise on his era's Russia, and, by virtue of its very breadth and depth, all of human society. This stylistic technique, as well as the novel's use of perspective, greatly contributes to the thematic structure of Anna Karenina.

Major themes

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.

The novel, set among the highest circles of Russian society, is generally thought by the casual reader to be nothing more than the story of a tragic romance. However, Tolstoy was both a moralist and severe critic of the excesses of his aristocratic peers, and Anna Karenina is often interpreted overall as a parable on the difficulty of being honest to oneself when the rest of society accepts falseness.

Anna is the jewel of St. Petersburg society until she leaves her husband for the handsome and charming military officer, Count Vronsky. By falling in love, they go beyond society's external conditions of trivial adulterous dalliances. But when Vronsky's love cools, Anna cannot bring herself to return to the husband she detests, even though he will not permit her to see their son until she does. Unable to return to a life she hates, she kills herself.

A common way to interpret Anna's tragedy, then, is that she could neither be completely honest nor completely false, showing a Hamlet-like inner conflict that eventually drives her to suicide.

The novel also contains the parallel and contrasting love story of Konstantin Levin. Levin is a wealthy landowner from the provinces who could move in aristocratic circles, but who prefers to work on his estate in the country. Levin tries unsuccessfully to fit into high society when wooing the young Kitty Shcherbatsky in Moscow; he wins her only when he allows himself to be himself.

The joyous, honest and solid relationship of Levin and Kitty is continually contrasted in the novel with that of Anna and Vronsky, which is tainted by its uncertain status (marriage) resulting in constant upheaval, backbiting, and suspicion. So by the time Anna throws herself under a train at the end of the story, Tolstoy supposedly did not want readers to sympathize with her supposed mistreatment, but rather to recognize that it was her inability to truly commit to her own happiness or self-truth which led to her ignominious end.

Other Themes:

Anna Karenina is filled with themes and imagery that illustrate Tolstoy's disdain of his aristocratic peers, and of a litany of human weaknesses.

Tolstoy skewers religious hypocrisy and insincerity in several characters, especially Karenin, Anna's husband, and the moralizing Countess Lydia Ivanovna. He also draws contrasts between the peace and wholesomeness of the country and the decadence of urban society. But one of the most prominent themes Tolstoy expounds upon in the novel is the relationship between love and honesty, both the different varieties of them as well as the different degrees to which they coexist, and the happiness that does or doesn't result.

In many ways, Anna Karenina was the most personal novel Tolstoy wrote up to that point. The character Levin is recognized as a stand-in for Tolstoy himself, whose first name in Russian is "Lev." He incorporated other details of his life into the character, such as Levin's insistence that Kitty read his journals before they marry, something Tolstoy made his own wife do. Thus scholars usually assume that Levin's thoughts reflect Tolstoy's own.

Embedded in the last section of the novel is an account of the skeptical Levin's conversion, amounting to a profound defense of orthodox Christianity, which is necessarily anti-intellectual because it explicitly rejects the ability of any rational analysis to adequately answer life's most important questions. Throughout the story, Levin has been searching for answers to these questions, and the marriage and birth of his infant son has accelerated this quest. A chance exchange with a peasant supplies an answer, centered on the human goodness and truth which he himself already possesses, and which is obvious to any observer yet impossible to define, measure, or even defend to his intellectual friends. It is this insight, Tolstoy writes, roughly paraphrased as "living for one's soul rather than living for one's self" that overturns his former disbelief and allows him to proceed to live in full faith of the Christian religion.

Anna Karenina and Tolstoy's Confession

Alla Tarasova as Anna Karenina.
Alla Tarasova as Anna Karenina.

Many of the novel's themes can be found in Tolstoy's Confession, his first-person rumination about the nature of life and faith, written just two years after the publication of Anna Karenina.

He describes his real-life dissatisfaction with the hypocrisy of his class:

Every time I tried to display my innermost desires – a wish to be morally good – I met with contempt and scorn, and as soon as I gave in to base desires I was praised and encouraged.

Tolstoy also details the acceptability of adulterous "liaisons" in aristocratic Russian society:

A dear old aunt of mine, the purest of creatures, with whom I lived, was always saying that she wished for nothing as much as that I would have a relationship with a married woman. 'Rien ne forme un jeune homme comme une liaison avec une femme comme il faut.' ("Nothing forms a young man properly like an affair with a married woman.")

Another theme in Anna Karenina is that the aristocratic habit of speaking in French instead of Russian is another form of society's falseness. There is even one passage that could possibly be interpreted as a sign of Anna's eventual redemption in Tolstoy's eyes:

For in the end what are we, who are convinced that suicide is obligatory and yet cannot resolve to commit it, other than the weakest, the most inconsistent and, speaking frankly, the most stupid of people, making such a song and dance with our banalities?

The Confession contains many other autobiographical insights into the themes of Anna Karenina. A public domain version of it is here.

Spoilers end here.

Film, TV, radio, or theatrical adaptations

Adaptations include:

  • 1914: A Russian adaptation directed by Vladimir Gardin.
  • 1915: An American version starring Danish actress Betty Nansen.
  • 1927: An American version titled Love, starring Greta Garbo and directed by Edmund Goulding. This version featured significant changes from the novel and had two different endings, with a happy one for American audiences.
  • 1935: The most famous and critically acclaimed version, starring Greta Garbo and Fredric March and directed by Clarence Brown.
  • 1944: A radio adaptation on The Screen Guild Theatre starring Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck. Ingrid Bergman also did a Theatre Guild on the Air adaptation in 1948.
  • 1948: Starring Vivien Leigh and directed by Julien Duvivier.
  • 1953: A Russian version directed by Tatyana Lukashevich.
  • 1961: A BBC Television adaptation directed by Rudolph Cartier, starring Sean Connery and Claire Bloom.
  • 1967: A Russian version directed by Alexander Zarkhi.
  • 1971: Ballet by Rodion Konstantinovich Shchedrin.
  • 1977: A 10 part British TV miniseries directed by Basil Coleman.
  • 1985: TV Movie starring Jacqueline Bisset and Christopher Reeve, directed by Simon Langton.
  • 1992: An ill-fated Broadway musical adaptation.
  • 1997: The first US version to be filmed on location in Russia, directed by Bernard Rose and starring Sophie Marceau and Sean Bean.
  • 1997 A 4 part BBC radio production starring Toby Stephens
  • 2000: A 4 part British TV adaptation directed by David Blair.
  • 2005: A Russian mini-series by Sergei Solovyov .
  • 2005: A Russian ballet in 2 acts choreoraphed by Boris Eifman.
  • 2007: An American opera by David Carlson premiering April 2007 at Florida Grand Opera starring Kelly Kaduce as Anna.


  • Karenin's name is derived from the Ancient Greek word for "head", thus illustrating his pervasive rationality.
  • The novel became a best-seller in the United States in 2004 after a recommendation by TV personality Oprah Winfrey. ( ISBN 0-14-303500-2)
  • Anna Karenina also mentioned in R.L. Stine's Goosebumps series The Cuckoo Clock of Doom
  • In an Indonesian 2006 Horror film Hantu Jeruk Purut, there was a character named Anna Karenina
  • Milan Kundera makes multiple references to Anna Karenina in his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being
  • "Anna Karenina" was used as a title for a Philippine TV show aired around 1996 until 2002, but its story is quite far off from Leo Tolstoy's original novel.
  • Anna Karenina is mentioned by Klaus from the book "A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Slippery Slope''". He uses the main theme from Anna Karenina (Tragedy)as a password to open a locked door.
  • Anna Karenina is mentioned in the film adaptation of "The English Patient," as the plot also involves an adulterous wife.
  • In the short-story "Sleep" by Haruki Murakami, the main character, an insomniac housewife, spends much time reading through and considering "Anna Karenina".

Retrieved from ""