A Guide to Anna Karenina

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Important Quotations Explained

“Vengeance is mine; I shall repay it.” – Epigraph

      The epigraph of Anna Karenina comes from the Bible (Romans 12:19).  Throughout the novel, there is vengeance for wrongdoings and forgiveness, but both result in futility.  Tolstoy ultimately chooses vengeance over forgiveness (since vengeance happens more often than forgiveness) but both those who try to forgive and forget and those who seek revenge lose.  For example, Dolly chooses to forgive Stiva for his wrongdoings.  This forgiveness does not pay off with Stiva because he continues to cheat on her.  Her only saving grace are her children.  Karenin, meanwhile, seeks vengeance against Anna by keeping Seryozha.  He at first forgives Anna when she is on her deathbed, but since this forgiveness means nothing to Anna when she recuperates (since she immediately runs off with Vronsky), he opts for vengeance due to her infidelity.  Karenin by the novel’s end is not depicted as being the victor, nonetheless.  Tolstoy himself neither seeks vengeance nor forgives any of his characters.  He instead opts to analyze their actions rather than condemn/condone them for their actions.  Tolstoy believes that while these people determined their own fate, vengeance shall come from a higher being.  He does not seek to punish these people and finish their fates in these 817 pages—a greater, more profound fate lies beyond what happens to the characters in the course of the novel.  This is best evidenced when Anna attempts to enact revenge on Vronsky with suicide.  She says, “You…you will repent of this!” after their last fight, and then in an effort to seek revenge decides to kill herself (746).  While her suicide is more complicated than mere vengeance, her effort to thwart Vronsky only leads to disaster.  When she is at the train station, she cries, “Lord, forgive me for everything!” before committing suicide (768).  She understands this death is not her punishment—whatever punishment Anna will receive will happen afterwards.  Tolstoy does not write Anna’s suicide to have the last laugh; he merely does so because that is the only way it can end for Anna.  Those who live for themselves and seek vengeance are never happy—whatever sins one may commit will be punished appropriately, but not by fellow mankind.  Levin does not live only for himself and seek vengeance, and he ends the novel at peace.

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way (1).”

      This quote, the opening line of Anna Karenina, is one of the most famous lines in all of literature.  The quote applies to the novel in that the book is a focus on unhappy families in essence.  All families in Anna Karenina (which drive the plot of the book) are unhappy, and each is unique in its own right.  Dolly suffers from Stepan’s infidelity and mismanagement of their finances.  Alexei struggles with Anna and her shameful infidelity.  When they separate, the question of who gets Seryozha further wrecks them.  Anna’s affair with Vronsky would seem like the perfect match but ultimately ends disastrously for seemingly petty reasons.  Even Levin and Kitty, the most successful couple, suffer from various spats, envy, and Levin’s self-struggles.  It is clear when reading this that one does not want to be like them—it is the perfect family everyone strives for.  However, no one wishes to be the mundane couple that is “alike” every other couple.  This catch 22, the inability to be both unique and happy, is a conflict Tolstoy recognizes.  Furthermore, it is a conflict that is applicable outside this story (seen through Tolstoy’s use of the present tense in this quote).

      This sentence is the perfect beginning to this novel.  Anna Karenina is a novel that focuses on family conflict and dysfunction between personal relationships.  It is an enthralling story and masterful analysis of unhappy families and the reasons for their distress.  This simple observation becomes painfully true as the novel progresses, and through these unhappy families the novel’s themes are revealed.

Stiva:  “Sometimes a sweet roll is so fragrant that you can’t help yourself.” …

Levin:  “Don’t steal sweet rolls.” (41)

      Stiva cannot retreat from his old ways.  When he is dining with Levin, he eats very expensive foods despite having severe financial difficulties.  He cannot afford these sweet rolls but he eats them nonetheless.  This quote illustrates his opinion on affairs.  A sweet roll represents a woman.  He cannot help himself despite the fact that he is full.  Although he neither needs it nor can afford it, he indulges.  This blatant inconsideration and callousness is seen in his marriage as well.  Stiva does not believe he can control himself, claiming he is “lost.”  He thus chooses to live life by his own terms, even if it means desecrating his marriage with Dolly.  Levin’s advice to Stiva to not steal the sweet rolls demonstrates that he values the sanctity of marriage.  He never cheats on Kitty and is a respectable husband who sees Kitty as his equal.  This allows him to achieve the happy marriage at the end of the novel.  There are stark ideological differences between Levin and Stiva.

“Kitty gazed admiringly at Anna waltzing. She expected [Vronsky] to invite her for a waltz, but he did not, and she glanced at him in surprise. He blushed and hastened to invite her to waltz, but he had only just put his arm around her slender waist and taken the first step when the music suddenly stopped. Kitty looked into his face, which was such a short distance from hers, and long afterwards, for several years, that look, so cut her heart with tormenting shame.” (80)

      This is another one of those moments similar to the one between Varenka and Sergei. This marks the beginning of the falling out between Kitty and Vronsky, where Kitty realizes that Vronsky was just being a tease. Kitty is young and naïve and thinks that she is in love with Vronsky, but this one glance that he gives her tells her that their relationship is going nowhere.

“[Anna] stopped and looked at the tops of the aspens swaying in the wind, their washed leaves glistening brightly in the cold sun, and she understood that they would not forgive, that everything and everyone would be merciless to her now, like this sky, like this greenery.” (290)

      Even before Anna’s situation really takes a turn for the worse, she knows that society won’t accept her being with Vronsky. She claims that it couldn’t be any other way and that she couldn’t avoid falling in love with Vronsky, but that doesn’t mean that she couldn’t stop the liaison before things got out of hand. If she really cares for her son and really cares for her family, then she would have taken the hint when she noticed it and cut her losses. This moment shows that Anna is somewhat selfish in her actions and cares more for herself and her own pleasures than for those of others.

“Levin said what he had really being thinking lately. He saw either death or the approach of it everywhere. But his undertaking now occupied him all the more. He had to live his life to the end, until death came. Darkness covered everything for him; but precisely because of this darkness he felt that his undertaking was the only guiding thread in this darkness, and he seized it and held on to it with all his remaining strength.” (352)

      This moment is similar to the way that Anna feels at the end of the novel. Levin’s brother is dying and Levin has a hard time figuring out what he is even living for in the first place. Part of this feeling stems from the fact that Levin doesn’t have a wife or a family yet and doesn’t feel like his efforts are going towards anything. Again, drawing on the fact that family is what most of the characters live to preserve, Levin doesn’t see what the point of working on his farm is until he has a son and decides that the most important thing to do is protect and educate him.

“Levin could not look calmly at his brother, could not be natural and calm in his presence.  When he entered the sick man’s room, his eyes and attention would unconsciously become veiled, and he did not see or distinguish the details of his brother’s condition.  He smelled the terrible stench, saw the filth, the disorder, and the painful poster and groaning, and felt that it was impossible to be of help” (493).

      This quote serves to demonstrate Levin’s first true confrontation with death.  Levin is forced to face the reality of death when his brother Nikolai dies.  Nikolai’s death is a painful, drawn-out tragedy.  Levin, as seen in this quote, is both repulsed and unsettled by this natural event that occurs in life.  He is forced to grapple with mortality, a concept that before this had never been a reality in his life.  Death is not natural for him; it is foul and unbecoming.  This further deepens his plight in search for a meaning in life.  A comparison can be seen with Tolstoy and his search for the meaning of life after watching his brother die (presumably under similar conditions as described in this quote).  Levin’s consternation he suffers from witnessing this at one point leads him to think of suicide.  He simply cannot bear to accept that his existence has an end since it undoes all seeming purpose he attributes to his life.  It is this unsettlement that causes Levin to eventually discover a new purpose and meaning to his existence.

The main thing is to preserve the sanctity of the home” (590). –Stiva

      Amidst all of the chaos and complexity of this novel, the thing that is in the forefront of most characters’ decisions is their family. Dolly sacrifices so much to keep her family together even after her husband cheats on her and stops loving her; Karenin’s main dilemma for letting Anna have a divorce is that it will break apart his family; and the Prince and the Princess’s main goal is to get their daughters married so their family will remain prosperous in the future. Above all else, Stiva, and others with families, have their many struggles and conflicts because they are trying to keep their families together through hardships.

“I simply want to live; to cause no evil to anyone buy myself” (616). –Anna

      Deep inside, Anna may try to be unselfish. She doesn’t want to affect anyone else with her decisions, but by the details of her situation, there is no way that she could go about any situation without affecting others. This points to the mentality that Anna has which is that she can have everything that she wants if she tries hard enough or keeps trying at it. But this just isn’t true. She can’t live with Vronsky, have her son, and be accepted in society. She has to pick and choose, and when she is not able to make that decision, she goes so crazy that she commits suicide.

“That whole day, talking with the steward and the muzhiks, and at home talking with his wife, with Dolly, with her children, with his father-in-law, Levin thought about the one and only thing that occupied him during this time, apart from farm cares, and sought in everything a link to his questions: ‘What am I?  And where am I?  And why am I here?’” (792)

      At this point in the novel, Levin is having a serious crisis.  He is becoming further agitated with his life, unable to find meaning or purpose to his existence.  He cannot make sense of everything around him.  He believes he should be happy—after all, he is spending a lovely day at his home with his family.  Yet the family he initially thought would give him such happiness has in fact not, and he is unable to love his son.  Levin does not fit into Russian society because he thinks for himself, and in doing so becomes quite isolated despite developing a family.  He asks himself, “What am I?  And where am I?  And why am I here?” at the height of this search for the meaning of life.  He tries to take value in the simplicities of life but cannot seem to find the happiness he believes he is entitled to.  His questioning of self is very similar to Anna questioning herself, “What am I?  What am I doing?  Why?’” before her suicide (768).  Levin, unlike Anna, is able to find an answer to this question.  Whereas Anna believes she cannot escape herself and chooses to end her life, Levin understand that his self has worth.  He discovers he can live for others which gives meaning to his own existence, like with farming and raising his son.  In doing so, he is able to escape his darkest of times and give worth to his life, something Anna fails to do.