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.