Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Tolstoy sets his tale of adultery and self-discovery against the backdrop of the huge historical changes sweeping through Russia during the late nineteenth century, making the historical aspects of the novel just as important as the personal and psychological aspects. In the Russia of Anna Karenina, a battle rages between the old patriarchal values sustaining the landowning aristocracy and the new, liberal—often called “libre penseur,” or freethinking, in the novel—values of the Westernizers. The old-timer conservatives believe in traditions like serfdom and authoritarian government, while the Westernizing liberals believe in technology, rationalism, and democracy. We see this clash in Levin’s difficulty with his peasants, who, refusing to accept the Western agricultural innovations he tries to introduce, believe that the old Russian ways of farming are the best. We also see the confusion of these changing times in the question of the zemstvo, or village council, in which Levin tries to participate as a proponent of democracy but which he finally abandons on the grounds that they are useless.
The guests at Stiva’s dinner party raise the question of women’s rights—clearly a hot topic of the day, and one that shows the influence of Western social progress on Russia. That Dolly and Anna suffer in their marriages, however, does not bode well for the future of feminism in the world of the novel. Courtship procedures are equally uncertain in the world of Anna Karenina. The Russian tradition of arranged marriages is going out of fashion, but Princess Shcherbatskaya is horrified at the prospect of allowing Kitty to choose her own mate. The narrator goes so far as to say plainly that no one knows how young people are to get married in Russia in the 1870s. Taken together, all this confusion created by fading traditions creates an atmosphere of both instability and new potential, as if humans have to decide again how to live. It is only in such a changing atmosphere that Levin’s philosophical questionings are possible.
Anna Karenina is in many ways a recognizable throwback to the genre of “family novels” popular in Russia several decades earlier, which were out of fashion by the 1870s. The Russian family novel portrayed the benefits and comforts of family togetherness and domestic bliss, often in a very idealized way. In the radically changing social climate of 1860s Russia, many social progressives attacked the institution of the family, calling it a backward and outmoded limitation on individual freedom. They claimed that the family often exploited children as cheap labor. Anna Kareninajoins in this family debate. The first sentence of the novel, concerning the happiness and unhappiness of families, underscores the centrality of this idea.
While the novel takes a pro-family position in general, it is nonetheless candid about the difficulties of family life. The notion that a family limits the freedom of the individual is evident in Stiva’s dazed realization in the first pages of the novel that he cannot do whatever he pleases. This limitation of freedom is also evident in Levin’s surprise at the fact that he cannot go off to visit his dying brother on a whim but must confer with his wife first and respond to her insistence that she accompany him. Yet despite these restrictions on personal liberty, and despite the quarrels that plague every family represented in Anna Karenina, the novel portrays family life as a source of comfort, happiness, and philosophical transcendence. Anna destroys a family and dies in misery, whereas Levin creates a family and concludes the novel happily. Anna’s life ultimately loses meaning, whereas Levin’s attains it, as the last paragraph of the novel announces. Ultimately, Tolstoy leaves us with the conclusion that faith, happiness, and family life go hand in hand.
Readers of Anna Karenina are sometimes puzzled and frustrated by the extensive sections of the novel devoted to Levin’s agricultural interests. We are treated to long passages describing the process of mowing, we hear much about peasant attitudes toward wooden and iron plows, and we are subjected to Levin’s sociological theorizing about why European agricultural reforms do not work in Russia. Yet this focus on agriculture and farming fulfills an important function in the novel and has a long literary tradition behind it. The idyll, a genre of literature dating from ancient times, portrays farmers and shepherds as more fulfilled and happy than their urban counterparts, showing closeness to the soil as a mark of the good life. Farmers understand growth and potential, and are aware of the delicate balance between personal labor and trust in the forces of nature. In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy updates the idyll by making his spokesman in the novel, Levin, a devoted farmer as well as an impassioned philosopher—and the only character in the novel who achieves a clear vision of faith and happiness.
For Levin, farming is a way of moving beyond oneself, pursuing something larger than one’s own private desires—a pursuit that he sees as the cornerstone of all faith and happiness. His days spent mowing the fields bring him into closer contact with the Russian peasants—symbols of the native Russian spirit—than anyone else achieves. Other characters who harp on the virtues of peasants, such as Sergei, rarely interact with them. Levin’s connections with farmers thus show him rooted in his nation and culture more so than Europeanized aristocrats like Anna. He is in closer touch with the truths of existence. It is no accident that Levin finally finds faith by listening to his peasant Fyodor, a farmer. Nor is it accidental that Levin’s statement of the meaning of life in the novel’s last paragraph recalls agriculture. Levin concludes that the value of life is in the goodness he puts into it—just as, we might say, the value of a farm lies in the good seeds and labor that the farmer puts into it. Ultimately, Levin reaches an idea of faith based on growth and cultivation.