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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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Anna Karenina!