There are two main plotlines in Anna Karenina—one involving Anna and Vronsky, the other involving Levin and Kitty. These two threads run parallel for most of the novel but occasionally intersect. Where are these intersections? What purpose do they serve in the overall scheme of the novel?
Tolstoy explained in a famous letter—in response to a reviewer who accused the author of not structuring the plot of Anna Karenina carefully enough—that the Anna and Levin story lines are the two “vaults” of the novel but that the intersection or “cornerstone” joining them is not immediately visible. We must search out this intersection. The moments of the plot at which the two stories come together are few: Vronsky’s initial courtship of Kitty is one, and Levin’s meeting with Anna is another. The latter scene is loaded with importance for us, but the former occurs before we know how the plot will develop, so it is the more easily forgotten instance of crossover. But this former scene is nonetheless of great importance. When we consider what a marriage between Vronsky and Kitty might have been like, we are forced to assess the differences between Anna and Kitty as romantic partners for Vronsky—as well as the differences between Vronsky and Levin as mates for Kitty. While Kitty is instinctively comfortable with and sympathetic to Levin, she feels a strong romantic and sensual pull toward Vronsky. As Tolstoy repeatedly hints that good marriages are founded not on romance but on trusting companionship, we are invited to see Vronsky’s rejection of Kitty as a blessing in disguise, saving her from the deceptive lures of romantic passion. Likewise, Vronsky’s life with Kitty likely would have been more traditional and stable, and probably happier—though perhaps less rich and varied—than his life with Anna. In a life with the somewhat pedestrian Kitty, Vronsky surely would not have settled in Italy, started painting, or embarked on his grand hospital building project. It is Anna who nourishes such ambitions in him. Such “what if” questions, prompted by Tolstoy’s early but momentary joining of Vronsky and Kitty, encourage us to compare, analyze, and reflect in the way that a profound novel of ideas demands.
Though we might expect Anna and Vronsky’s flight to Italy to be an important turning point in Anna Karenina, in fact very little takes place in the Italian section of the novel. Why does Tolstoy bypass such a potential for drama by making the Italian sojourn so uneventful?
Tolstoy’s decision to send Anna and Vronsky to Italy on their would-be honeymoon is an intentional attempt to set us up for disappointment—a disappointment that is crucial for our understanding of how ill-fated their relationship is. Italy, associated with romance and passion in Tolstoy’s time as much as now, figured as a dreamy paradise for lovers in popular love stories of the time. On one hand, Tolstoy purposely plays on that stereotype by sending his loving couple there, showing Anna happy in her Italian palazzo. On the other hand, he plays against the stereotype by presenting Anna and Vronsky’s Italian experience as curiously empty and uneventful. Indeed, their stay in Italy is less the grand culmination of their affair than an extended pause that makes us—and perhaps the lovers, too—wonder what will come next. They have little to do in Italy besides stroll, dabble at painting, and buy works of art. There are no fancy dress balls, officers’ races, or any of the other venues for social interaction that filled their lives before. The lack is noticeable.
What is missing in Italy, then, is Anna’s and Vronsky’s integration into society as a couple. Curiously, the very thing they have yearned to escape—Russian society—is what earlier gave structure and meaning to their existences. Italy cannot provide this structure, as Anna and Vronsky do not join Italian society and do not even seem to meet any Italians—not one Italian is fleshed out as a character in this section. The couple lives in a social vacuum, and the emptiness of their experience foreshadows the disappointments of their later life as outsiders to society.
The sudden turn toward the broad nationalism and politics of the “Slavic question” at the end of the novel comes as a stark contrast with the more family-based, personal focus of the earlier parts of the novel. Why might Tolstoy end his novel about happiness and the meaning of life with this thematic twist?
Though Tolstoy was sympathetic to the plight of Slavic peoples under Turkish rule, he was skeptical of all nationalistic and patriotic bandwagons. He saw such group movements as based on a fantasy of solidarity rather than on actual, loving relationships between humans. He opposed war in general, later inspiring Gandhi with his pacifism, and wished to convey this sentiment in Anna Karenina. Though Tolstoy does not explicitly state his views on the Slavic issue in the novel, we nonetheless get hints that he is not a full supporter. Levin, who is often Tolstoy’s alter ego in the novel, opposes the Slavic cause. He complains that the cause purports to act on behalf of the Russian people when in fact most common Russians know nothing about it—the cause is largely a fantasy cooked up by newspapers to boost circulation.
Tolstoy also uses the Slavic question to offer a psychological diagnosis of why men become militant. When Vronsky and Koznyshev both get pulled into the cause of war in defense of the southern Slavs, Tolstoy throws a bit of cold water on their enthusiasm by showing how, in both men’s lives, political activism may cover up a traumatic personal loss. Koznyshev endures the devastating realization that his recently published book, a six-year labor of love, is worthless and unread; Vronsky, meanwhile, loses Anna, the love of his life. These losses prompt both men to sign up with the Slavic cause, partly as a means of distracting themselves. In this view of political activism and warfare as substitutes for fulfillment in private life, Tolstoy shows us the illusory side of government and statecraft. What Vronsky and Koznyshev both mistakenly aim for in their political activism is what Levin succeeds in finding in his everyday life—a sense of belonging to something larger than oneself. Koznyshev invents a fantasy of the Slavic people in order to assert his ties to the cause, but it is as mentally fabricated as his earlier research was—not real and experienced as Levin’s ties with Kitty, Mitya, and his peasants are. The Slavic cause at the end of the novel reminds us that everyone needs connections with others, but some of us invent false connections rather than seek out real ones.
1. The epigraph that opens Anna Karenina is a quotation from the Bible, suggesting that religion will be important in the novel. Yet, although characters often toss off biblical epigrams in casual conversation, Tolstoy makes few direct references to religion or the church. Why might the author begin with a biblical quotation but then fail to affirm traditional religion elsewhere in the novel?
2. Tolstoy often gives us access to Vronsky’s inner thoughts, but near the end of the novel he does not, leaving us wondering what Vronsky feels as he endures Anna’s jealousy and anger. We do not know whether the outwardly cool Vronsky is seething with resentment, generous with sympathy, or patiently gritting his teeth. Why does Tolstoy hide Vronsky’s thoughts from us at such a key moment in the novel?
3. Law, religion, and society all harshly condemn Anna’s adultery. But her brother, Stiva, is also an adulterer, cheating on Dolly not once but twice. Stiva’s case is punished much less severely. Why and how does Tolstoy contrast these cases of adultery that have such different consequences?
4. Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina at a time when Russia was struggling with questions about how to relate to western Europe—whether it should imitate the West or follow a unique path. How do the two major western European episodes in the novel (Kitty at the German spa, Anna and Vronsky in Italy) contribute to Tolstoy’s exploration of the relationship between Russia and the West?
5. Critics are divided in their assessments of the novel’s overall views of women. Tolstoy shows sympathy for women who suffer in arranged, passionless marriages and who are shunned by society for the same crimes that men commit with impunity. However, many readers have felt that Tolstoy bears a grudge against women and that Anna’s suicide is an expression of misogyny. On the whole, do you consider the novel feminist, misogynist, or neutral in its stance?