Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The many references to trains in Anna Karenina all carry a negative meaning. Tolstoy sometimes has a character use the French word train, as when Anna complains about Vronsky’s workload by saying “Du train que cela va”—at the rate his work is going—she will never see him at all in a few years. In this phrase, the word denotes a fast rate of increase of something harmful, which is exactly how Tolstoy viewed the expansion of the railroads.
Literal references to trains are no less negative. Anna first makes her ill-fated acquaintance with Vronsky in a train station, and she sees the death of a railway worker after this meeting as a bad omen. The omen is fulfilled when Anna throws herself under the train near the end of the novel, literally making the railway her killer. The metaphor of transportation—and the “transports of love”—for a quick change of scenery is a clear one. Just as trains carry people away to new places, Anna herself is carried away by her train-station passion for Vronsky, which derails her family life, her social life, and ultimately her physical life as well.
On a literal level, Frou-Frou is the beautiful, pricey horse that Vronsky buys and then accidentally destroys at the officers’ race. On a figurative level, Frou-Frou is a clear symbol of Anna, or of Vronsky’s relationship with her—both of which are ultimately destroyed. Frou-Frou appears in the novel soon after Vronsky’s affair with Anna becomes serious and dangerous for their social reputations. Vronsky meets Anna just before the race, and his conversation with her makes him nervous and unsettled, impairing his performance. This link connects Anna with Frou-Frou still more deeply, showing how Vronsky’s liaison with Anna endangers him. The horse race is dangerous as well, as we find out when several officers and horses are injured during the run. Vronsky attempts to ride out both dangers—the horse race and the affair—with his characteristic coolness and poise, and he manages to do so successfully for a time. But his ability to stay on top of the situation is ultimately compromised by the fatal error he makes in sitting incorrectly on Frou-Frou’s saddle, ending with a literal downfall for both man and horse.
The symbol of the racehorse implies much about the power dynamic between Anna and Vronsky. The horse is vulnerable and completely under Vronsky’s control, just as in an adulterous affair in 1870s Russian society it is the woman who runs the greater risk of being harmed. For Vronsky and the other officer riders, the race is a form of entertainment in which they choose to participate. But there is a deeper force leading both Anna and Frou-Frou into the race, and the stakes are much higher for them than for Vronsky—the race is a matter of life and death for both woman and horse. Ultimately, the horse’s death is a needless result of someone else’s mistake, just as Anna’s death seems unfair, a tragic waste of a beautiful life.
Levin’s courtship of and marriage to Kitty is of paramount importance to Anna Karenina. The novel frames the marriage as a stubborn individualist’s acceptance of and commitment to another human being, with all the philosophical and religious meaning such a connection carries for him. Levin is something of an outcast throughout the early part of the novel. His views alienate him from noblemen and peasantry alike. He is frustrated by Russian culture but unable to feel comfortable with European ways. He is socially awkward and suffers from an inferiority complex, as we see in his self-doubts in proposing to Kitty. Devastated by Kitty’s rejection of his marriage proposal, Levin retreats to his country estate and renounces all dreams of family life. We wonder whether he will remain an eccentric isolationist for the rest of his days, without family or nearby friends, laboring over a theory of Russian agriculture that no one will read, as no one reads his brother Sergei’s magnum opus.
When the flame of Levin’s and Kitty’s love suddenly rekindles, leading with lightning speed to a marriage, it represents more than a mere betrothal. Rather, the marriage is an affirmation of Levin’s connection with others and his participation in something larger than himself—the cornerstone of the religious faith he attains after marriage. Levin starts thinking about faith when he is forced to go to confession in order to obtain a marriage license. Although he is cynical toward religious dogma, the questions the priest asks him set in motion a chain of thoughts that leads him through a crisis and then to spiritual regeneration. Similarly, Levin’s final affirmation of faith on the last page of the novel is a direct result of his near-loss of the family that marriage has made possible. It is no accident that faith and marriage enter Levin’s life almost simultaneously, for they are both affirmations that one’s self is not the center of one’s existence.
More main ideas from Anna Karenina