One of two main protagonists in the novel (the other being Konstantin Levin), Anna is the beautiful, passionate, and educated wife of Alexei Karenin, a cold and passionless government official. Her character is rich in complexity: she is guilty of desecrating her marriage and home, for instance, but she remains noble and admirable nonetheless. Anna is intelligent and literate, a reader of English novels and a writer of children’s books. She is elegant, always understated in her dress. Her many years with Karenin show her capable of playing the role of cultivated, beautiful, society wife and hostess with great poise and grace. She is very nearly the ideal aristocratic Russian wife of the 1870s.
Among Anna's most prominent qualities are her passionate spirit and determination to live life on her own terms. She is a feminist heroine of sorts. Though disgraced, she dares to face St. Petersburg high society and refuses the exile to which she has been condemned, attending the opera when she knows very well she will meet with nothing but scorn and derision. Anna is a martyr to the old-fashioned Russian patriarchal system and its double standard for male and female adultery. Her brother, Stiva, is far looser in his morals but is never even chastised for his womanizing, whereas Anna is sentenced to social exile and suicide. Moreover, Anna is deeply devoted to her family and children, as we see when she sneaks back into her former home to visit her son on his birthday. Anna’s refusal to lose Seryozha is the only reason she refuses Karenin’s offer of divorce, even though this divorce would give her freedom.
The governing principle of Anna’s life is that love is stronger than anything, even duty. She remains powerfully committed to this principle. She rejects Karenin’s request that she stay with him simply to maintain outward appearances of an intact marriage and family. In the later stages of her relationship with Vronsky, Anna worries most that he no longer loves her but remains with her out of duty only. Her exile from civilized society in the later part of the novel is a symbolic rejection of all the social conventions we normally accept dutifully. She insists on following her heart alone. As a result, Anna contrasts with with the ideal of living for God and goodness that Levin embraces in the last chapter, and she appears self-centered by comparison. Even so, Anna’s insistence on living according to the dictates of her heart makes her a pioneer, a woman searching for autonomy and passion in a male-dominated society.
Though Anna Karenina gives the novel its name, Levin acts as the novel's co-protagonist, as central to the story as Anna herself. Many critics read Levin as a veiled self-portrait of the author: his name includes Tolstoy’s first name (Lev in Russian), and many of the details of his courtship of Kitty—including the missing shirt at the wedding—were taken straight from Tolstoy’s life. Most notably, Levin’s confession of faith at the end of the novel parallels Tolstoy’s turning to religion after writing Anna Karenina.
Independent-minded and socially awkward, Levin is a truly individual character who fits into none of the obvious classifications of Russian society. He is neither a freethinking rebel like his brother Nikolai, nor a bookish intellectual like his half-brother Sergei. He is not a socialite like Betsy, nor a bureaucrat like Karenin, nor a rogue like Veslovsky. Levin straddles the issue of Russia’s fate as a western nation: he distrusts liberals who wish to westernize Russia, rejecting their analytical and abstract approach, but on the other hand he recognizes the utility of western technology and agricultural science. In short, Levin is his own person. He follows his own vision of things, even when it is confused and foggy, rather than adopting any group’s prefabricated views. Moreover, Levin prefers isolation over fitting in with a social set with which he is not wholly comfortable. In this he resembles Anna, whose story is a counterpart to his own in its search for self-definition and individual happiness.
Despite his status as a loner, Levin is not self-centered, and he shows no signs of viewing himself as exceptional or superior. If Tolstoy makes Levin a hero in the novel, his heroism is not in his unique achievements but in his ability to savor common human experiences. His most unforgettable experiences in the novel—his bliss at being in love, his fear for his wife in childbirth—are not rare or aristocratic but shared by millions. Anyone can feel these emotions; Levin is special simply in feeling them so deeply and openly. This commonality gives him a humanitarian breadth that no other character in the novel displays. His comfort with his peasants and his loathing of social pretension characterize him as an ordinary man, one of the Russian people despite his aristocratic lineage. When Levin mows for an entire day alongside his peasants, we get no sense that he is deliberately slumming with the commoners—he sincerely enjoys the labor. Tolstoy’s representation of Levin’s final discovery of faith, which he learns from a peasant, is equally ordinary. In this regard, Levin incarnates the simple virtues of life and Tolstoy’s vision of a model human being.
A government official with little personality of his own, Karenin maintains the façade of a cultivated and rational man. He keeps up with contemporary poetry, reads books on Roman history for leisure, and makes appearances at all the right parties. He is civil to everyone and makes no waves. But he remains a bland bureaucrat whose personality has disappeared under years of devotion to his duties. Though he reads poetry, he rarely has a poetic thought; he reads history but never reflects on it meaningfully. He does not enjoy himself or spark conversations at parties but merely makes himself seen and then leaves. Karenin’s entire existence consists of professional obligations, with little room for personal whim or passion. When first made aware of Anna’s liaison with Vronsky, Karenin briefly entertains thoughts of challenging Vronsky to a duel but quickly abandons the idea when he imagines a pistol pointed his direction. This cowardice indicates his general resistance to a life of fervent emotion and grand passions.
Karenin’s limp dispassion colors his home life and serves as the backdrop to Anna’s rebellious search for love at any price. He viewed his betrothal to Anna, for instance, as an act of duty like everything else in his life: it was time to marry, so he chose an appropriate girl, who happened to be Anna. He never gives any indications of appreciating Anna’s uniqueness or valuing the ways in which she differs from other women. His appreciation of her is only for her role as wife and mother. Similarly, Karenin’s fatherly interaction with Seryozha is cold and official, focused on educational progress and never on Seryozha’s perceptions or emotions. Karenin wishes to raise a responsible child, as he surely was himself. It is Karenin’s obedience to duty, his pigeonholing of all persons and experiences as either appropriate or inappropriate, that Anna rejects. When Anna leaves, she does not simply dump Karenin the man but also the conventionalism that Karenin believes in and represents. Karenin’s slide into occultism and stagnation at the end of the novel suggests indirectly how much he needed Anna, and how much she was the life behind his façade.
The novel depicts Vronsky as a handsome, wealthy, and charming man who is as willing as Anna is to abandon social standing and professional status in pursuit of love. His commitment to his hospital-building project also shows a Romantic passion for carrying out an individual vision of good. But the novel also shows Vronsky's many realistic faults and imperfections. His thinning hair, his error in judgment in the horse race, his thwarted ambitions of military glory all remind us that Vronsky is not a Romantic hero but a man like any other. He does not symbolize escape from social pressures, for he suffers from these pressures himself. He may be an exceptional man, but he is only a man. This limitation in Vronsky provides Anna’s greatest disappointment in the novel: she yearns for a total escape into a love affair of unbounded passion, only to discover that Vronsky's passion has its limits. Tolstoy gives Vronsky the same first name as Karenin, suggesting that Anna’s longing for another Alexei leads her to a disappointing repetition of her first relationship.
Vronsky’s devotion to Anna appears to wane in the later chapters of the novel, but much of this appearance stems from Anna's paranoid fears that he has fallen out of love with her. On the contrary, no indisputable evidence indicates that Vronsky loves Anna any less at the end. Certainly he cares for her more than ever: he outfits his country home luxuriously and elegantly, largely (it seems) in an attempt to make Anna happy. His commissioning of Anna’s portrait and his prominent display of it in their home suggests that he is still enraptured by her. Vronsky occasionally feels the pang of thwarted ambition, especially after meeting his school chum who is now highly successful, but at no point does he hold Anna responsible for his failures. He accommodates her whims and endures her paranoid fits with patience. These actions may be mere solicitude— or “duty,” as Anna calls it—on Vronsky’s part, rather than true love. But since the novel rarely shows us Vronsky’s thoughts as he shows us Anna’s, we simply cannot know for sure.
Stiva sets the novel in motion, not only in terms of plot—as the domestic upheaval caused by his affair with the family's governess brings Anna to Moscow, and thus to Vronsky—but also in terms of theme. Stiva embodies the notion that life is meant to be lived and enjoyed, not repressed by duties. He lives for the moment, thinking about responsibility only later, as his constant financial problems remind us. His dazed reaction to being chastised for adultery is not so much regret at his wrongdoing but rather regret at being caught. Indeed, even after Dolly forgives Stiva, he does not stop carrying on with other women. He does not feel any duty toward his wife and family that constrains his freedom.
Despite Stiva's actions, the novel does not portray him as exceptionally villainous. On the contrary, he represents an ordinary man in 19th century Russia. He is kind and jovial and genuinely loves his wife and family, yet he feels entitled to have sex with whomever he pleases. This apparent paradox in his character highlights the patriarchal nature of Russian society at the time. Stiva is essentially free to enjoy himself, while his wife is expected to endure his affairs in good-natured silence. Stiva nonetheless hides his affairs because he recognizes that he has a duty to be faithful to his wife, however lightly he—and society—may regard that duty.
Stiva's affair with his family's governess sets the stage for Anna’s much more dramatic struggle between private passion and social obligation. Like Anna, Stiva seeks out love and satisfaction in any way that is personally meaningful for him. But the similarity ends there. Stiva is far shallower than his sister, and lacks her emotional self-reflection and passionate intensity. His love affairs are trifles to him, whereas Anna’s becomes a matter of life and death to her. Stiva is not a dynamic character in the novel—he does not change. He is never punished for his sins and never improves his behavior. In short, Stiva’s constancy brings into relief the extraordinary changes—moral, spiritual, and psychological—that Anna undergoes.