A Guide to Anna Karenina

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Themes and Symbols

Foreshadowing in the Novel:  Trains and Frou-Frou

      Tolstoy employs the literary element of foreshadowing in Anna Karenina most notably with Vronsky’s racehorse Frou-Frou and trains.  Both the racehorse and trains serve as important symbols in the novel.  They foreshadow the fates of Vronsky, Anna, and their relationship.

      Trains are a destructive element.  Tolstoy creates a litmotiv out of the train in the novel.  The first time a train station is depicted in the novel is when Anna departs from a train to help Stiva and Dolly.  As she gets off, a worker falls under a train nearby and dies.  Anna refers to this as “a bad omen” (67).  Indeed, the death at the train station foreshadows Anna’s suicide in which she dies by throwing herself in front of a train.  The train station also helps bring Vronsky to his presumed death. In Part VIII of the novel, following Anna’s death, Vronsky boards the train to fight the war in the Baltics.  Seeing as Tolstoy was a pacifist, it can be considered a legitimate possibility that Vronsky is going to die in a brutal fashion there.  Also, it is at the train station where Anna meets Vronsky.  This is the beginning of the end for Anna.  Vronsky and Anna fall in love, and she abandons all stability in her life to pursue her passions.  In doing so, she and Vronsky lose everything for little gain.  It is the train that transports the two away from stability towards supposed love but actual hardship.  The train station thus foreshadows the death of Anna, the unknown but presumably unfortunate fate of Vronsky, and the death of their relationship that at one point had much promise.  It ties back to the assimilation debate.  Trains are a symbol of modern times, capitalism, and assimilation.  In Anna Karenina, these Russian trains only bring about downfall.  Tolstoy’s use of the French language to refer to trains enforces this discontent with Russia’s modernization.

      Tolstoy does an effective job foreshadowing with Frou-Frou as well.  Frou-Frou is the name of Vronsky’s fancy, expensive racehorse.  Frou-Frou is a beautiful, promising horse that ultimately collapses to its downfall after Vronsky’s careless mistake.  The racehorse both symbolizes and foreshadows Anna and Vronsky’s relationship, and to an extent Anna’s own downfall.  Before the race, it is evident Anna and Vronsky’s relationship is heating up.  No longer is it a fling but instead a passionate affair.  Events preceding the race concerning their relationship boggle Vronsky’s mind.  Consequently, he begins the race well but takes a disastrous turn and crashes the horse, crippling Frou-Frou but luckily not injuring himself.  Anna is publicly beside herself with worry, thereby revealing her love to Vronsky in plain sight for the first time.  Afterwards, she reveals to Karenin that she loves Vronsky.  Thus begins a new stage of their relationship.  Vronsky’s race with the horse is initially successful, like Anna and Vronsky’s affair.  However, it eventually fails as a result of Vronsky’s error.  Vronsky has complete control over Frou-Frou (a reflection on the patriarchal society of Russia in the 1870s), but his inability to control the horse mirrors his inability to control Anna’s passion.  Like the horse’s death, Anna’s end is a sad waste that seems all too avoidable.

Protagonists’ Relationship with Death

      Death is a present force in the novel for both protagonists of Anna Karenina, Levin and Anna.  Death manifests itself in the lives of both Anna and Levin, but each cope with death differently.  It is through death that both characters grapple with the meaning of life in their own way.

      Levin is very afraid of death.  He does not understand it, nor does he understand life.  This is most evident when his brother Nikolai suffers for a prolonged time and dies.  Levin is unable to handle his brother’s death for it makes death a reality for him.  No longer is it some abstract concept—Nikolai’s death proves to Levin that death can occur under any circumstances and strikes everyone.  This exacerbates Levin’s quest to discover the meaning of life (a question Tolstoy himself struggled with after his brother died).  Kitty is not repulsed by Nikolai’s body whereas Levin is.  This furthers Levin’s philosophical search for meaning, and as death confronts him he struggles.  At one point, Levin considers suicide.  Tolstoy writes, “Levin was several times so close to suicide that he hid a rope lest he hang himself with it, and was afraid to go about with a rifle less he shoot himself” (789).  Levin, unlike Anna, does not resort to suicide.  Towards the novel’s end, he is able to achieve a raison d’être and discovers a religious way of thinking to contend with human mortality.

      Anna is not as fortunate as Levin, as she is unable to handle death.  In the beginning of the novel, Anna sees a man fall to his death at the train station.  She is unsettled by his death, deeming it “a bad omen” (67).  This foreshadows Anna’s death.  Later, Anna is very near death when giving birth to her illegitimate daughter.  It is presumed she will die, but she manages to survive.  Afterwards, she finds illusory happiness with Vronsky.  Anna later starts to get upset, however, and begins to ponder death.  She wishes multiple times to have died during the childbirth scare.  Anna’s unhappiness and unfulfilled passion robs her of her vitality and liveliness.  To contend with her depression, she looks to death.  Anna sees no meaning in her life.  Unlike Levin, she does not try to solve the meaning of life and instead sees that she cannot escape herself.  Nonetheless, she has trouble completely accepting her own fate of suicide.  Tolstoy writes, “And in that same instant she was horrified at what she was doing.  ‘Where am I?  What am I doing?  Why?’  She wanted to rise, to throw herself back, but something huge and implacable pushed at her head and dragged over her” (768).  This quote demonstrates that even in the seconds before her death, she struggles with death.  Anna, unlike Levin, faces the “impossibility of any struggle” which leaves her with no other option but death (768).  Death for Anna is ultimately an escape—it is a tragedy because she never gets the opportunity to discover why life is worth living like Levin does

Marriage and Family

      The first line of the novel speaks directly to the novel’s theme of family: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  Family is a major theme of Anna Karenina.  Tolstoy is supportive of the family, but he illustrates this by characterizing and analyzing many unhappy marriages.  The entire novel is about unhappy families, and Tolstoy uses all eight parts to explain their unhappiness and why happiness is not always attainable.  Tolstoy clearly believes that the key to a happy, meaningful life is family.  However, it is difficult and unrealistic to have an ideal, happy family without strife.  With a happy family comes a responsibility.  Tolstoy creates a parallel between moral and familial responsibility.  In order discover the meaning of life one has to keep a family happy and intact.  The theme of family is most emphatically revealed with Dolly, Stiva, Levin, Kitty, Anna, Karenin, and Vronsky.

      Dolly and Stiva have an unhappy marriage but in some ways a successful family.  Stiva cheats on Dolly; he is a good father but not a good husband.  When he is caught for cheating, his remorse is for having been caught, not having hurt Dolly.  Dolly eventually takes him back because she realizes it is necessary to keep her family intact.  To divorce Stiva would be to destroy the family he has already hurt.  Dolly struggles with motherhood, but she is the ultimate good mother because she sacrifices everything.  She says, “‘Do you understand, Anna, who took my youth and beauty from me?  [Stiva] and his children.  I’ve done my service for him, and that service took my all, and now, naturally, he finds a fresh, vulgar creature more agreeable.’”  This quote underlines Dolly’s sacrifice.  In sacrificing so much, she maintains her family.  Stiva’s unhappiness with having to remain faithful and Dolly’s sacrifices show that family has its struggles.  However, Dolly is able to find happiness in her children (depicted when she visits Anna and realizes what she does have with her family).  For all its faults, her family serves as her saving grace.  In this regard, there is a clear difference between a happy family and a happy marriage.  Nonetheless, her unhappy marriage does not allow her to be completely happy with her family, and thus her life is not complete in every sense.

      Levin and Kitty are the one marriage and family that can be truly seen as happy by the novel’s end.  Levin is unhappy in the beginning of the novel.  As an outsider in Russian society, he wishes to find a greater meaning to his existence.  One way in which he does this is through marriage.  Levin genuinely loves Kitty, and he believes starting a family will give his life more purpose.  Tolstoy emphasizes that while it may be easy to start a family, to find happiness in family is a lot harder.  He writes:

      Levin had been married for three months.  He was happy, but not at all in the way he had expected.  At every step he found disenchantment with his old dream and a new, unexpected enchantment.  He was happy, but, having entered upon family life, he saw at every step that it was not what he had imagined.  At every step he felt like a man who, after having admired a little boat going smoothly and happily on a lake, then got into this boat.  He saw that it was not enough to sit straight without rocking; he also had to keep in mind, not forgetting for a minute, where he was going, that there was water underneath, that he had to row and his unaccustomed hands hurt, that it was easily only to look at, but doing it, while very joyful, was also very difficult (479-480).

      Thus, marriage is not the solution to all problems.  Levin continues to struggle.  Furthermore, he is bogged down by familial obligations.  When going to visit Nikolai, he is annoyed to realize he has to tell Kitty and then bring her along when she asks to come with him.  It is when Kitty goes to visit Nikolai, however, that Levin’s respect for her grows.  Levin expects to finally be happy with his family upon the birth of his first child.  When Kitty gives birth to a son, however, Levin still find himself unsatisfied.  Furthermore, their marriage is spoiled with jealousy on both sides.  Levin’s unhappiness is so great he even contemplates suicide at one point.  His revelation at the end of the novel lets him to be happy.  Marriage allows Levin to live for more than just himself.  His life now has greater meaning.  Like his discovery of faith, Levin’s marriage helps him realize that there is more to his existence than himself.  At the end of the novel, Levin believes he has lost both his son and wife in a storm.  When he realizes they are in fact okay, he realizes he loves his family in ways he had not known.  Kitty is finally happy when she learns Levin loves their son.  Thus, he finally is able to find the meaning to life he searches for throughout the novel.  This discovery of faith is coupled with Levin finally achieving the happy marriage.  Kitty’s embrace of motherhood is her saving grace.

      Anna’s destruction of two families demonstrates the unhappiest of marriages and families.  The happy family gives joy, relief, and meaning to an individual.  When Anna destroys a family, she writes her own death sentence and dies in misery (in stark contrast to Levin fostering his family and ending the novel finally finding an inner-peace).  Anna destroys her marriage and family with Karenin by cheating on him with Vronsky.  At first she is unwilling to leave Karenin for fear of losing Seryozha, her beloved son.  Ultimately she chooses Vronsky over her son, though it pains her to no end.  She destroys her family and becomes estranged from her child.  When she loses the relationship with her child, she loses the ability to find happiness.  Happiness and a solid family go hand in hand; in Anna attempting to fulfill her passions, she desecrates her familial and moral responsibility.  Tolstoy supports family values, evidenced by his refusal to make her a martyr of sorts and ignore her in Part VIII.  The traditional family is important.  One of the reasons Anna’s second relationship fails with Vronsky is that it does not support traditional familial values.  Vronsky’s thoughts on marriage are revealed early on in the novel when the narrator states, “Marriage had never presented itself as a possibility to him.  He not only did not like family life, but pictured the family, and especially a husband, according to the general view of the bachelor world in which he lived, as something alien, hostile, and, above all, ridiculous” (57).  Anna can never love her daughter.  Without being able to find any happiness from her children (Seryozha, her son she cannot see despite her love for him, and Anna, her daughter who she cannot make herself feel any affection towards), her unhappy marriages that create unhappy families are her undoing.  They indirectly lead her to such despair that she sees no way out in the end and commits suicide.  Thus, a happy family is essential to discovering stability and the meaning of one’s existence.

Male Dominance and Male Independence

      In 19th century Russia, males were dominant in the professional world and at home. Characters such as Stiva and Vronsky are aware of this dominance that they have over women and want to make sure that they remain supreme. Most of the conflicts that arise within their marriages result when one of the men feels that his wife is encroaching on his dominance or is in some was infringing on his “male independence”. Both Stiva and Vronsky comment on this: Stiva claims that, “A man must be independent” (590) and Vronsky states that he can, “give [Anna] everything, but not [his] male independence.” (645) Both Stiva and Vronsky value this power even over the love that they have for their spouses, and, in the end, it comes down to choosing their masculine identity or succumbing to the control of their wives.  In both cases, they choose their male independence and dominance. Levin, while less concerned with having full control over Kitty, still feels somewhat oppressed when is staying at his country house and Dolly, her kids, and Kitty’s friend are all in the house with them. After marriage, all of these men lose part of their previous freedom and Stiva and Vronsky have a harder time letting go than Levin, which leads to more problems in the formers’ marriages.  


      Jealousy is arguably the most significant emotion in the novel. Jealously is the thing that starts fights between Kitty and Levin, causes Kitty to fall ill, and leads Anna to her eventual suicide. Most of the characters don’t admit their jealously outright- they keep it to themselves as it is looked upon very negatively. Acknowledging publically that you are jealous shows a weakness in character and in your marriage. It’s interesting to note how much it takes to push each character to jealously. The slightly flirtatious words that Veslovsky speaks to Kitty send Levin over the edge, while (when Veslovsky talks with Anna), “Vronsky in this case [acts] not at all like Levin. He obviously [does] not attach any significance to Veslovsky’s chatter and, on the contrary, [encourages] these jokes.”  (632) Kitty also becomes jealous one night when Levin comes back from visiting Anna and she is convinced that he has fallen in love with her. While these burst of jealousy don’t seriously harm the relationship of Levin and Kitty, Anna and Vronsky’s marriage is destroyed by it. Anna’s suicide occurs because she becomes so “desperately jealous” (746) and convinces herself that Vronsky no longer has any feelings for her. Dolly and Stiva, on the other hand, have a different take on the situation. When Stiva cheats on Dolly at the beginning of the novel, Dolly is less jealous and more upset. The differentiation between their marriage and that of the former two discussed, is that Dolly and Stiva have fallen out of love over the years while the others are still in love. In this way, we can see which couples still feel love for each other and which couples are together merely for the sake of their families. 


      Anna Karenina is probably most well known for its themes on adultery. In the novel, both Stiva and Anna (brother and sister) are the only two who officially commit adultery on their respective spouses, but there are many other instances of wives or husbands flirting with others.

      Adultery breaks the bonds of marriage and seeks to undermine the very family that is of the utmost importance in Russian society. By taking to steps to be adulterous, a person is consciously taking the risk of breaking apart their family and negatively impacting not only their own life, but also the lives of their children and their spouse. When Anna cheats on Karenin with Vronsky, she knows that her life will never be able to be the same. She ends up abandoning her son, who she previously claimed to care for more than she cared for herself, and leaves her husband to pick up the pieces. Readers are often torn about whom to feel sympathy for because, on the one hand, Karenin wasn’t an exceptionally loving husband, but, then again, Anna is the one who brings this situation upon herself.

      When Stiva cheats on Dolly, he realizes that the most important thing he can after the fact is to ensure the future stability of his family. Dolly considers leaving her husband, but again comes to the same conclusion that she must think of her family and try to keep them together.

      The double standard of adultery is also noted in the novel. While Anna is ostracized and pushed into isolation by society after she cheats on her husband, Stiva’s standing in society doesn’t change, and all he has to do to patch up his situation is apologize to his wife.


“Vengeance is mine; I will repay.”

      Tolstoy’s first line establishes an opposition between the desire to forgive and to exact retribution. The first scenes of Anna Karenina detail Dolly’s forgiveness of her husband’s adultery. She says to Anna, “‘Yes, I would forgive. I wouldn’t be the same, no, but I would forgive and forgive in such a way as if it hadn’t happened, hadn’t happened at all’” (70). Although Stiva’s adultery damages their marriage to the point that it will never be the same again, Dolly chooses to forgive him. She knows that the forgiveness must be complete, but Dolly’s forgiveness appears more like her choice to maintain the family unit and ignore her husband’s faults. Karenin, on the other hand never could forgive Anna because he desires vengeance for being shamed by his wife. Instead of forgiveness, he chooses hate saying:

      ‘I cannot forgive, I do not want to, and I consider it unjust. I did everything for that woman, and she trampled everything in the mud that is so suitable to her. I am not a wicked man, I have never hated anyone, but I hate with all the strength of my soul, and I cannot even forgive her, because I hate her so much for all the evil she has done me!’ he said with tears of anger in his voice (394).

      Later, he forgives Anna when she is on her deathbed, but after her recovery and resumed affair with Vronsky, he cannot sustain forgiveness. True forgiveness in the Christian sense requires incredible effort, especially when vengeance appears to be a much more fulfilling option. Neither Karenin nor society can forgive Anna. Even Anna cannot forgive herself. Anna’s final words are a cry for God’s forgiveness: “‘Lord, forgive me for everything!’” (768). Through her final plea, Tolstoy indicates that forgiveness only becomes possible with faith and through God.

Social Change

The theme of social change is played with throughout the book, especially when looking at the life of Levin.  Being a wealthy man, no one quite understands why Levin would choose to live in the isolation of the country when he could be living in the city.  Levin represents a more traditional lifestyle, while most of his friends choose a modern lifestyle in the city.

Even on his farm, Levin is very traditional with his methods.  He doesn't support the introduction of machines an wants everything to remain the way it has been for centuries.  Also, towards the end of the novel when Levin attends a government meeting, he feels out of place and lost in the world of modern politics.  At this time in Russia, there was a lot of social change going on, and Levin represents the part of society that does not adapt well to changing ways.  This reflects on Tolstoy's belief.  Tolstoy was against assimilation for Russia, instead believing that Russia should build on the fundamental values on which it was built.  This is seen with his clear favoritism towards Moscow over St. Petersburg.

Religion/Nihilism:  The Meaning of Life

      Throughout Anna Karenina, characters encounter death and tragedy and attempt to understand the meaning of their lives knowing that death is a natural progression. Levin, more so than any other character, struggles to make sense of his existence, ultimately revealing that the only way to create value in life is through some form of faith. When Karenin first suspects his wife of adultery, Tolstoy describes Karenin’s experience as “a feeling similar to what a man would feel who was calmly walking across a bridge over an abyss and suddenly saw that the bridge had been taken down and below him was the bottomless deep. This bottomless deep was life itself, the bridge the artificial life the Alexei Alexandrovich had lived” (143). Karenin is motivated by status and constructs a façade in order to deal with the reality of life. Tolstoy points out the fragility of such a façade, in contrast with Levin’s eventual realization: “faith in God, in the good, as the sole purpose of man. In place of each of the Church’s beliefs there could be put the belief in serving the good instead of one’s needs…. to understand one and the same thing with certainty and to compose that life of the soul which alone makes life worth living and alone is what we value” (799). Faith and living for others, in Levin’s case for Kitty and their son, is the only substantial “bridge” that he can build in his life—the sole way to construct meaning in life and answer Anna’s final questions “‘Where am I? What am I doing? Why?” (768).