Anna Karenina

Summary

Part One, Chapters 18–34

Summary Part One, Chapters 18–34

Arriving in St. Petersburg, Anna meets her husband, Karenin, at the station. Vronsky watches them together and can see that Anna does not love Karenin. Anna introduces the two men, and Vronsky asks if he may call at the Karenin home. At home, Anna’s son, Seryozha, runs up to greet her, and Anna feels a sudden pang of disappointment in her son. She speaks to her morally upright friend Lydia Ivanovna and feels secure that nothing scandalous has happened in her relations with Vronsky. Anna dismisses her anxieties.

While in St. Petersburg, Vronsky socializes with his colleague Petritsky, to whom he has lent his apartment, and Petritsky’s lady friend, Baroness Shilton. They lightheartedly chat before Vronsky leaves to make appearances at various places where he hopes to encounter Anna.

Analysis

In his depiction of Anna’s appearance at the train station during her first meeting with Vronsky, Tolstoy emphasizes Anna’s spiritual rather than physical attributes. This method of characterizing her is important, for it reinforces the intellectual and philosophical aspect of this novel of ideas. While Anna and Vronsky are clearly attracted to each other, their mutual interest is more abstract than bodily, more about attractiveness of personality and manner than about sexual fantasy. Though Anna’s figure is ravishing, Vronsky is drawn primarily to her “gentle and tender” eyes. Her eyes are not a sultry brown or coquettish blue but rather a subtle gray, the same color as the eyes of Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom—hardly a symbol of unbridled passion. (Although Tolstoy may also have had in mind Shakespeare’s writing, in which gray eyes represent the paragon of female beauty.) At the ball, Anna appears not in the archetypal red of a femme fatale but rather in a stunning but tasteful black dress. These clues tell us from the very beginning that although Tolstoy may harshly condemn adultery on an abstract level, he does not portray Anna as a passion-crazed vixen—as popular novels of the time often represented the straying wife.

Anna’s appearance also reinforces the importance of family life in the novel. Anna is not a vamp who thwarts old-fashioned Russian family values or shows hostility to domestic harmony. On the contrary, her initial appearance in Moscow—and in the novel—is prompted by her desire to see a family stay together. Anna’s mission to reconcile her brother and his wife is successful; she brings a couple on the verge of separation back together. Anna is also naturally motherly: in her conversations with Dolly’s children, she shows that she is aware of their individual personalities almost as much as their own mother is. Moreover, Anna is clearly devoted to her own eight-year-old son, Seryozha, from whom she is apart for the first time in his life when she goes to Moscow. Even more important, Anna has no bone to pick with society’s expectations of propriety. She does not willfully flout public norms of behavior. When she finds herself dancing with Vronsky, she is startled by her own actions.

The parallel structure of Anna’s and Levin’s story lines—one of Tolstoy’s strokes of genius in composing Anna Karenina—allows us to make subtle and continuous comparisons and contrasts between the two characters and their fates. On the most obvious level, their stories begin on very different notes: Anna finds love with Vronsky just at the moment when Levin loses love with Kitty. Anna’s decision to act on her feelings brings her thrills and excitement, whereas Levin’s decision brings him dejection and depression. These contrasts, however, only point out how similar the two characters are. Both Anna and Levin seek truth in their personal relationships, unwilling to settle for anything less. Anna discovers that she would prefer to suffer with her true love rather than continue to lead a life of lies and deceit with a man she does not love deeply. Anna’s unconventional actions are prompted by a desire not for rebellion for its own sake but for absolute sincerity in her emotional life. Similarly, Levin, after Kitty’s rebuff, does not go after the next girl on his list but resigns himself to eternal bachelorhood and withdraws to the country. Like Anna, Levin wants all or nothing in love.