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.