A beautiful, aristocratic married woman from St. Petersburg whose pursuit of love and emotional honesty makes her an outcast from society. Anna’s adulterous affair catapults her into social exile, misery, and finally suicide. Anna is a beautiful person in every sense: intelligent and literate, she reads voraciously, writes children’s books, and shows an innate ability to appreciate art. Physically ravishing yet tastefully reserved, she captures the attentions of virtually everyone in high society. Anna believes in love—not only romantic love but family love and friendship as well, as we see from her devotion to her son, her fervent efforts to reconcile Stiva and Dolly Oblonsky in their marital troubles, and her warm reception of Dolly at her country home. Anna abhors nothing more than fakery, and she comes to regard her husband, Karenin, as the very incarnation of the fake, emotionless conventionality she despises.
Anna’s husband, a high-ranking government minister and one of the most important men in St. Petersburg. Karenin is formal and duty-bound. He is cowed by social convention and constantly presents a flawless façade of a cultivated and capable man. There is something empty about almost everything Karenin does in the novel, however: he reads poetry but has no poetic sentiments, he reads world history but seems remarkably narrow-minded. He cannot be accused of being a poor husband or father, but he shows little tenderness toward his wife, Anna, or his son, Seryozha. He fulfills these family roles as he does other duties on his list of social obligations. Karenin’s primary motivation in both his career and his personal life is self-preservation. When he unexpectedly forgives Anna on what he believes may be her deathbed, we see a hint of a deeper Karenin ready to emerge. Ultimately, however, the bland bureaucrat remains the only Karenin we know.
A wealthy and dashing military officer whose love for Anna prompts her to desert her husband and son. Vronsky is passionate and caring toward Anna but clearly disappointed when their affair forces him to give up his dreams of career advancement. Vronsky, whom Tolstoy originally modeled on the Romantic heroes of an earlier age of literature, has something of the idealistic loner in him. Yet there is a dark spot at the core of his personality, as if Tolstoy refuses to let us get too close to Vronsky’s true nature. Indeed, Tolstoy gives us far less access to Vronsky’s thoughts than to other major characters in the novel. We can never quite forget Vronsky’s early jilting of Kitty Shcherbatskaya, and we wonder whether he feels guilt about nearly ruining her life. Even so, Vronsky is more saintly than demonic at the end of the novel, and his treatment of Anna is impeccable, even if his feelings toward her cool a bit.
A socially awkward but generous-hearted landowner who, along with Anna, is the co-protagonist of the novel. Whereas Anna’s pursuit of love ends in tragedy, Levin’s long courtship of Kitty Shcherbatskaya ultimately ends in a happy marriage. Levin is intellectual and philosophical but applies his thinking to practical matters such as agriculture. He aims to be sincere and productive in whatever he does, and resigns from his post in local government because he sees it as useless and bureaucratic. Levin is a figurehead in the novel for Tolstoy himself, who modeled Levin and Kitty’s courtship on his own marriage. Levin’s declaration of faith at the end of the novel sums up Tolstoy’s own convictions, marking the start of the deeply religious phase of Tolstoy’s life that followed his completion of Anna Karenina.
A beautiful young woman who is courted by both Levin and Vronsky, and who ultimately marries Levin. Modeled on Tolstoy’s real-life wife, Kitty is sensitive and perhaps a bit overprotected, shocked by some of the crude realities of life, as we see in her horrified response to Levin’s private diaries. But despite her indifference to intellectual matters, Kitty displays great courage and compassion in the face of death when caring for Levin’s dying brother Nikolai.
Anna’s brother, a pleasure-loving aristocrat and minor government official whose affair with his children’s governess nearly destroys his marriage. Stiva and Anna share a common tendency to place personal fulfillment over social duties. Stiva is incorrigible, proceeding from his affair with the governess—which his wife, Dolly, honorably forgives—to a liaison with a ballerina. For Tolstoy, Stiva’s moral laxity symbolizes the corruptions of big-city St. Petersburg life and contrasts with the powerful moral conscience of Levin. However, despite his transgressions, the affable Stiva is a difficult character to scorn.
Stiva’s wife and Kitty’s older sister. Dolly is one of the few people who behave kindly toward Anna after her affair becomes public. Dolly’s sympathetic response to Anna’s situation and her guarded admiration for Anna’s attempt to live her life fully hint at the positive aspects of Anna’s experience. Well acquainted with the hardships of matrimony and motherhood, Dolly is, more than anyone else in the novel, in a position to appreciate what Anna has left behind by leaving with Vronsky. The novel opens with the painful revelation that Dolly’s husband has betrayed her, and her even more painful awareness that he is not very repentant.
Karenin and Anna’s young son. Seryozha is a good-natured boy, but his father treats him coldly after learning of Anna’s affair. Anna shows her devotion to Seryozha when she risks everything to sneak back into the Karenin household simply to bring birthday presents to her son.
Levin’s sickly, thin brother. The freethinking Nikolai is largely estranged from his brothers, but over the course of the novel he starts to spend more time with Levin. Nikolai is representative of liberal social thought among certain Russian intellectuals of the period; his reformed-prostitute girlfriend, Marya Nikolaevna, is living proof of his unconventional, radically democratic viewpoint.
Levin’s half-brother, a famed intellectual and writer whose thinking Levin has difficulty following. Koznyshev embodies cold intellectualism and is unable to embrace the fullness of life, as we see when he cannot bring himself to propose to Varenka.
Levin’s former nurse, now his trusted housekeeper.
Vronsky’s judgmental mother.
Alexander Vronsky’s wife.
The practical aristocrat father of Kitty, Dolly, and Natalie. Prince Shcherbatsky favors Levin over Vronsky as a potential husband for Kitty.
Kitty, Dolly, and Natalie’s mother. Princess Shcherbatskaya initially urges Kitty to favor Vronsky over Levin as a suitor.
A morally upright woman who is initially Anna’s friend and later her fiercest critic. Hypocritically, the religious Lydia Ivanovna cannot bring herself to forgive or even to speak to the “fallen woman” Anna. Lydia Ivanovna harbors a secret love for Karenin, and induces him to believe in and rely on psychics.
A wealthy friend of Anna’s and Vronsky’s cousin. Betsy has a reputation for wild living and moral looseness.
A former prostitute saved by Nikolai Levin, whose companion she becomes.
A seemingly devout invalid woman whom the Shcherbatskys meet at a German spa. Madame Stahl appears righteous and pious, but Prince Shcherbatsky and others doubt her motivations.
A pure and high-minded young woman who becomes Kitty’s friend at the German spa. Varenka, who is a protégée of Madame Stahl, nearly receives a marriage proposal from Koznyshev.
Vronsky’s wild friend from the army. Yashvin has a propensity for losing large sums of money at gambling.
A friend of Levin who lives in a far-off province.
Levin’s intellectual friend from his university days.
A young, pleasant, somewhat dandyish man whom Stiva brings to visit Levin. The attentions Veslovsky lavishes on Kitty make Levin jealous.
A French psychic who instructs Karenin to reject Anna’s plea for a divorce.