Study Questions & Essay Topics
1. 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?
2. 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?
3. 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?
Suggested Essay Topics
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?
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