Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Tolstoy sets his tale of adultery and self-discovery against the backdrop of the huge historical changes sweeping through Russia during the late nineteenth century, making the historical aspects of the novel just as important as the personal and psychological aspects. In the Russia of Anna Karenina, a battle rages between the old patriarchal values sustaining the landowning aristocracy and the new, liberal—often called “libre penseur,” or freethinking, in the novel—values of the Westernizers. The old-timer conservatives believe in traditions like serfdom and authoritarian government, while the Westernizing liberals believe in technology, rationalism, and democracy. We see this clash in Levin’s difficulty with his peasants, who, refusing to accept the Western agricultural innovations he tries to introduce, believe that the old Russian ways of farming are the best. We also see the confusion of these changing times in the question of the zemstvo, or village council, in which Levin tries to participate as a proponent of democracy but which he finally abandons on the grounds that they are useless.
The guests at Stiva’s dinner party raise the question of women’s rights—clearly a hot topic of the day, and one that shows the influence of Western social progress on Russia. That Dolly and Anna suffer in their marriages, however, does not bode well for the future of feminism in the world of the novel. Courtship procedures are equally uncertain in the world of Anna Karenina. The Russian tradition of arranged marriages is going out of fashion, but Princess Shcherbatskaya is horrified at the prospect of allowing Kitty to choose her own mate. The narrator goes so far as to say plainly that no one knows how young people are to get married in Russia in the 1870s. Taken together, all this confusion created by fading traditions creates an atmosphere of both instability and new potential, as if humans have to decide again how to live. It is only in such a changing atmosphere that Levin’s philosophical questionings are possible.
Anna Karenina is in many ways a recognizable throwback to the genre of “family novels” popular in Russia several decades earlier, which were out of fashion by the 1870s. The Russian family novel portrayed the benefits and comforts of family togetherness and domestic bliss, often in a very idealized way. In the radically changing social climate of 1860s Russia, many social progressives attacked the institution of the family, calling it a backward and outmoded limitation on individual freedom. They claimed that the family often exploited children as cheap labor. Anna Kareninajoins in this family debate. The first sentence of the novel, concerning the happiness and unhappiness of families, underscores the centrality of this idea.
While the novel takes a pro-family position in general, it is nonetheless candid about the difficulties of family life. The notion that a family limits the freedom of the individual is evident in Stiva’s dazed realization in the first pages of the novel that he cannot do whatever he pleases. This limitation of freedom is also evident in Levin’s surprise at the fact that he cannot go off to visit his dying brother on a whim but must confer with his wife first and respond to her insistence that she accompany him. Yet despite these restrictions on personal liberty, and despite the quarrels that plague every family represented in Anna Karenina, the novel portrays family life as a source of comfort, happiness, and philosophical transcendence. Anna destroys a family and dies in misery, whereas Levin creates a family and concludes the novel happily. Anna’s life ultimately loses meaning, whereas Levin’s attains it, as the last paragraph of the novel announces. Ultimately, Tolstoy leaves us with the conclusion that faith, happiness, and family life go hand in hand.
Readers of Anna Karenina are sometimes puzzled and frustrated by the extensive sections of the novel devoted to Levin’s agricultural interests. We are treated to long passages describing the process of mowing, we hear much about peasant attitudes toward wooden and iron plows, and we are subjected to Levin’s sociological theorizing about why European agricultural reforms do not work in Russia. Yet this focus on agriculture and farming fulfills an important function in the novel and has a long literary tradition behind it. The idyll, a genre of literature dating from ancient times, portrays farmers and shepherds as more fulfilled and happy than their urban counterparts, showing closeness to the soil as a mark of the good life. Farmers understand growth and potential, and are aware of the delicate balance between personal labor and trust in the forces of nature. In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy updates the idyll by making his spokesman in the novel, Levin, a devoted farmer as well as an impassioned philosopher—and the only character in the novel who achieves a clear vision of faith and happiness.
For Levin, farming is a way of moving beyond oneself, pursuing something larger than one’s own private desires—a pursuit that he sees as the cornerstone of all faith and happiness. His days spent mowing the fields bring him into closer contact with the Russian peasants—symbols of the native Russian spirit—than anyone else achieves. Other characters who harp on the virtues of peasants, such as Sergei, rarely interact with them. Levin’s connections with farmers thus show him rooted in his nation and culture more so than Europeanized aristocrats like Anna. He is in closer touch with the truths of existence. It is no accident that Levin finally finds faith by listening to his peasant Fyodor, a farmer. Nor is it accidental that Levin’s statement of the meaning of life in the novel’s last paragraph recalls agriculture. Levin concludes that the value of life is in the goodness he puts into it—just as, we might say, the value of a farm lies in the good seeds and labor that the farmer puts into it. Ultimately, Levin reaches an idea of faith based on growth and cultivation.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Though Tolstoy has a reputation for being a simple and straightforward writer, he was in fact a great stylistic innovator. He pioneered the use of a device that is now commonplace in novels but was radically new in the nineteenth century—the interior monologue. The interior monologue is the author’s portrayal of a character’s thoughts and feelings directly, not merely in paraphrase or summary but as if directly issuing from the character’s mind. Earlier writers such as Shakespeare had used the monologue in drama, writing scenes in which characters speak to the audience directly in asides or soliloquies. In narrative fiction, however, writers had rarely exploited the interior monologue for extended passages the way Tolstoy does in Anna Karenina. The interior monologue gives the reader great empathy with the character. When we accompany someone’s thoughts, perceptions, and emotions step by step through an experience, we inevitably come to understand his or her motivations more intimately.
In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy gives us access to Levin’s interior monologue at certain key moments in his life: his experience of the bliss of love when Kitty accepts him as husband, his physical ecstasy at mowing with the peasants, and his fear when Kitty is suffering in childbirth. But Tolstoy uses the device of interior monologue far more extensively and movingly in his portrayal of Anna’s last moments, on her ride to the station where she dies at the end of Part Seven. Without access to her thoughts, we would have a much flimsier understanding of what drives Anna to suicide. Without it, her death would be just another casualty on the long list of women in Russian literature who kill themselves over love. Reading Anna’s monologue, however, we see the liveliness and even humor that make her such a vivid individual in the novel, as when she interrupts her gloomy meditations to comment on the ridiculous name of the hairstylist Twitkin. We also see the extent to which Anna has become a burden to herself—she dreams of getting rid of Vronsky “and of myself.” The interior monologue shows us her suicide not as a glamorous cliché but as a simple and heartbreaking attempt to rid herself of the very self she once attempted to liberate.
Anna Karenina is best known as a novel about adultery: Anna’s betrayal of her husband is the central event of its main plotline. There was a surge of interest in the topic of adultery in the mid-nineteenth century, as evidenced by works such as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) and Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857). Although the guilty party in these works is always a woman who meets a bad end as a result of her wrongdoing, the nineteenth-century adultery novel is actually less religiously moralizing than we might expect. Anna Karenina is a case in point. Although the novel is loaded with biblical quotations issuing from the mouths of characters and from its own epigraph, its moral atmosphere is not overwhelmingly Christian. Indeed, many of the novel’s devout Christian characters, such as Madame Stahl and Lydia Ivanovna, are repellent and hypocritical. Tolstoy rarely mentions the church in the novel, and even occasionally gently mocks it, as when Levin rolls his eyes at the confession he must undergo to get married. The religious stigma on adultery is certainly present but it is not all that strong.
The more important condemnation of adultery in Anna Karenina comes not from the church but from conventional society: adultery is more a social issue in the novel than a moral or religious one. Karenin’s chief objection to Anna’s involvement with Vronsky is not that adultery is a sin, or even that it causes him emotional anguish, but rather that society will react negatively. Karenin thinks of propriety and decency, looking good to the neighbors, over anything else. It is for this reason that he is so willing to overlook Anna’s affair as long as she does not seek a separation or divorce. He does not care so much about the fact that his wife loves another man; he cares only that she continue to appear to be a good wife. This restrictive power of social convention is what Anna comes to loathe and tries to escape—first in Italy, then in seclusion in the countryside. As such, adultery in Anna Karenina is a side effect of the stifling forces of society, making the novel a work of social criticism as much as a story of marital betrayal.
The idea of Christian forgiveness recurs regularly in Anna Karenina and is clearly one of Tolstoy’s main topics of exploration in the novel. If the central action of the plot is a sin, then forgiveness is the potential resolution. And if Anna is a sinner, then our attitude toward her and toward the novel depends on whether and how much we can forgive her. Tolstoy establishes forgiveness as a noble ideal when Dolly exclaims to Anna, who is helping the Oblonskys through their marital difficulties, “If you forgive, it’s completely, completely.” This ideal form of pardon amounts to a total erasure of the sin “as if it hadn’t happened,” as Anna puts it. Yet Tolstoy does not mindlessly accept forgiveness as a noble Christian virtue, but instead forces us to consider whether forgiveness is possible and effective. The very epigraph to the novel—“Vengeance is mine; I will repay”—values vengeance, the opposite of forgiveness. This opening thought haunts the entire novel, suggesting that perhaps forgiveness is not the ultimate virtue after all.
Moreover, the characters’ attitudes toward forgiveness are sometimes compromised. Dolly ends up forgiving Stiva, but we wonder whether her pardon amounts to her simply shutting her eyes to reality, as we know that Stiva continues his womanizing with unabated enthusiasm afterward. In Dolly’s case, forgiveness looks like gullibility or resignation. Forgiveness is even more dubious in other instances. When the seemingly dying Anna begs Karenin’s forgiveness and he grants it, both are sincere. But the forgiveness has little effect once Anna recovers: Anna continues to love Vronsky and loathe Karenin as much as ever, and though Karenin is more amenable to the idea of divorce, his treatment of Anna does not change much. Through these events, the novel suggests that forgiveness is an ongoing process that may grow or diminish in intensity. It is not a one-time event, after which all disturbances in a relationship disappear permanently as though they had never existed. Though Karenin forgives Anna, for instance, their emotions remain the same as before. Finally, at the end of the novel, Anna beg forgiveness of God just before killing herself.
The co-protagonists of the novel, Anna and Levin, each encounter death numerous times. Shortly after we first meet Levin, he talks to a philosopher about death, asking if he believes existence ends when the body dies. Anna has only just entered the story when a man throws himself under a train. Later, Levin witnesses the slow, painful death of his brother Nikolai, an event that makes death disturbingly real to Levin where before it had only been an abstraction. Then Anna nearly dies in childbirth, temporarily resolving her problems with Vronsky and Alexei Karenin. As she becomes increasingly desperate later in the novel, she begins thinking of death as the only solution to her troubles, until finally she throws herself under a train. Levin, too, considers suicide. Although happy otherwise, he despairs that he cannot know the meaning of his existence, and he comes so close to suicide that he fears having a rope or rifle nearby because he might kill himself. These examples suggest that, for Anna, death—specifically suicide—serves as a means of escape from her problems. For Levin, on the other hand, death represents the complete, inescapable end of his existence, which calls the meaning of his entire life into question.
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.