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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
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
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Anna Karenina!