Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina. 1877. Trans. Richard Pevear. Deckle Edge, 2004.
Summary of Work
The Oblonsky family is in tatters over adultery: Dolly caught her husband, Stiva, having an affair with their children’s former governess, and she is seriously considering leaving him. Stiva can’t comprehend quite why his wife is so upset, but he is sad that his actions have upset her this badly. He has his sister Anna come to mediate the situation, and she successfully convinces Dolly to stay with him. At the same time, Dolly’s youngest sister is being courted by two men: Konstantin Levin, a wealthy landowner in the country who is incredibly awkward in his manners, and Alexei Vronsky, a military man with great career potential. Kitty’s mother tells her that she must turn down Levin in order to accept Vronsky, but after she does so and they go to a ball, Vronsky falls in love with Anna. This leaves Kitty ill over the loss of both suitors, and Anna runs away to St. Petersburg.
Vronsky follows Anna there, and she ends up falling in love with him and starting an affair, and her husband, government official Karenin, does not seem to realize the situation he is in, which causes the entirety of their social society to gossip. Anna nearly abandons her old social circles and starts spending time with Betsy Tverskaya and her friends so she can be close to Vronsky more often. One evening when she has a particularly private and long conversation with Vronsky at Betsy’s home, Karenin takes notice. Vronsky, in that conversation, revealed his love for her. When Karenin confronts her about the conversation, she curtly responds and dismisses his concerns as silly.
The affair gets more heated, and on the day of the military officers’ horse race, Anna tells Vronsky that she is pregnant with his child. They are both uncertain as of what to do, and Anna loves her son too much to get a divorce and leave him. When Vronsky participates in the race, he makes a riding mistake that breaks his horse’s back, and the horse has to be shot. Anna is so visibly upset over the accident that Karenin notices, and when he takes her home, she tells him of her affair and her hatred for him and love for Vronsky.
Kitty, meanwhile, has taken a trip abroad to Germany to recover from her loss, and she meets a Russian woman and her ward and caretaker, Varenka. Kitty becomes enamored with her, and she tries to do good just like them, and this much revives her. She also meets Levin’s infamous and sick brother, Nikolai, who is trying to recover from illness at the same spa.
Levin, having gone home to the country to mourn his failure and recover and move on, is visited by his brother Sergei Koznyshev, who criticizes him for quitting his post in the local government and having no faith in the council there. Levin cannot find a way to explain to his brother how useless he finds the work, so instead he decides to work with the peasants on his estate to try and better the crops and the situation, but is continually frustrated by the lack of interest or even resistance to new agricultural technology that would increase yields. At this time, he also spends some time with Stiva, who has gone to the country to sell some of his wife’s land inheritance for money, since they are severely in debt. Dolly also takes a summer in the country with the children, and Levin goes to visit her at Stiva’s request. He offers his services, but when she suggests that he take another chance to have a relationship with Kitty, he never visits again. He also sees his brother Nikolai several times, and he struggles to know how to keep a relationship with him and help him through his sickness into death.
When Levin goes back to town to visit and to conduct some business, he is invited to the Oblonsky’s home for dinner, and he meets Kitty again and falls in love. They quickly become engaged, to everyone’s happiness. While all of this is occurring, Karenin does not know how to best handle the situation, knowing that it will be bad for him socially and politically to get a divorce. He determines to not allow a divorce, but to instead let Anna continue the affair as long as she does not bring Vronsky into his home. They must keep up appearances. She spends some time in the country, and sees Vronsky often. Vronsky is struggling to choose between his military career and Anna, and yet his opportunities are passed by for the military in his effort to be near her. When Karenin finds Vronsky at his home one day, he decides that they must get a divorce because he cannot take the insult.
However, when Anna goes into labor and nearly dies, he changes his mind. He runs home from town and cancels his beginning the divorce proceedings, and he stays by her side; Vronsky is there as well. Anna begs for Karenin’s forgiveness, and he gives it to her and tells her that she can decide if she wants the divorce or not. His generosity bothers Anna, and so she does not get a divorce, but instead leaves him and goes with her child and Vronsky to Italy, where they do essentially nothing, and Vronsky takes up painting. A famous Russian painter paints a gorgeously stunning portrait of her that Vronsky keeps with them and hangs wherever they stay. When they return to Russia, however, they are outcasts from society because of their position. Vronsky keeps begging Anna to get a divorce, but she will not. She visits Karenin’s home on her son’s birthday, and she is forced to see her husband. She does not return, and forgets to give her son his gifts. At this point, she has become jealous of Vronsky’s freedom because he can go out in society while she must stay in the house because of her social position.
Levin is surprised at the difficulties of married life and the lack of freedom he suddenly has, and this is even more apparent when he gets a message that Nikolai is dying and Kitty refuses to let him go alone. He is at first angry, but then lets her come along. He regrets it when they get to the hotel that Nikolai is staying in because of the poor accommodations, but then immediately changes his position when he sees how good Kitty is at helping the dying man and making him comfortable as possible during his final days of life. Soon after that, Kitty learns she is pregnant, and she is joined by Dolly and her children for the summer at Levin’s estate. While there, Dolly decides to go visit Anna in the country, and finds her happy but somewhat bipolar as she switches from happiness to worry over her situation and her isolation and position in society. She is particularly worried that Anna is using strong sedatives to sleep, and she is wholly dependent on them. Furthermore, she realizes that Anna does not love her baby daughter, and it is apparent by her not knowing anything about her, but rather leaving her to the nurses to take care of. Vronsky’s place in the country is extravagant, and despite the comforts, Dolly is glad for the excuse of her children to go back to Levin’s. Stiva comes to visit them and brings a young male friend who is a cousin to Kitty with him. The young man flirts with Kitty, making Levin jealous to the point that he is unkind to his wife, and together they determine that in order to solve the problem, Levin needs to ask the man to leave. This insults Stiva, but nothing can be done about it.
When Kitty is close to her due date, Dolly and her mother insist that Kitty give birth in the city, and so they move to Moscow temporarily. Levin can’t believe how expensive it is to live in the city, and even Kitty laments that she misses home and wishes she could have had the child in the country. Levin has to take a trip to the provinces to take care of some business, and he takes part in the local elections there, where the liberals are victorious. He meets Vronsky there, and he agrees to go with Stiva to see Anna, who enchants Levin with her charm and the portrait of her. And Levin’s adoration only serves to make Anna more unhappy with Vronsky. When he returns and tells Kitty about his trip, she becomes jealous, worried that Anna has again stolen away her lover. Levin realizes that he has hurt her, and he tries to comfort her. When Kitty goes into labor, he is worried she might die, and he has feelings of resentment toward the child and then doesn’t know quite how to feel about his son.
Stiva leaves and goes to meet Karenin, who has a woman who has helped him raise his child and essentially be a wife to him. Stiva tries to get Karenin to agree to a divorce, but the woman has such a hold on him that he doesn’t make a decision without her and their psychic. When Stiva sees his nephew, he talks to him and he learns that his father and the woman have told him that his mother is dead. When they finally are able to meet with the psychic, Stiva cannot believe what is going on and he leaves the room. The psychic tells Karenin not to get a divorce. Meanwhile, Anna has become more and more frantic, accusing Vronsky of not loving her and of cheating, and no matter how accommodating he is to Anna, she will have fits of rage and insensibility. When she says she wants to go to the country again, Vronsky agrees, but not at the date she wants to go, and suggests they wait a few more days when his business is finished in town. When Vronsky goes out to run an errand, Anna is tormented about her behavior and writes a letter apologizing and asking him to come back, but he replies that he cannot come home until the evening when his business is concluded. She runs to say goodbye to Dolly and then catches a carriage to the train station, where she throws herself under a train and dies (just like a man had when she came into Moscow and first met Vronsky).
Two months later, Levin’s brother Sergei’s book has been published, but it has gone unnoticed. Sergei tries to stifle disappointment by getting in on the patriotism for Russian involvement in the Turkish-Slavic war. When he and Levin talk of it, Levin is uncertain about the motives behind the Slavic cause and Russian support, again to Sergei’s exasperation. Sergei boards a train to Serbia to assist, and Vronsky is also going, having enlisted and paid for an entire regiment himself in order to go to die after the loss of Anna.
Kitty and Levin go back to the country, and Levin becomes depressed even to the point of thinking about suicide, because he is unable to discern the meaning of life and what he should be doing. He then receives advice from a peasant that serving God and being good are the points of life, and Levin has a revelatory experience about those points, determining he will change his life as he has found faith. Later, he, Kitty, Dolly, and the children go out in the woods for a walk and to see some of the buildings and the work going on, and they are caught in a thunderstorm on the way back. When they are hiding under a tree waiting for it to pass, Levin realizes Kitty is not with them, and he runs to find her in the woods, coming upon an oak tree struck by lightening. He worries for them, thinking they may be dead, but finds them safe, his wife having stopped to take care of the child and then getting caught in the storm. He realizes how much he loves them, especially his son, and this change of attitude pleases Kitty. He determines that his life is very good, and the meaning of his life will be the good he can do while he is alive.
Discussion of Work
This work reminded me very much of a novel of manners like Jane Austen’s work. It explores expectations based on social class and gender in Russia before the communist revolution there. Women’s situation as dependent upon marriage and family for respectability is very clear, especially in the contrast between Anna and Kitty. Anna is highly educated and seemingly has it all. She has a child and a husband, but is unhappy and unable to change her state even with her intelligence. Vronsky is regularly surprised by her knowledge and expertise in many fields, but she is unable to use those skills and that knowledge to better her position once she has chosen to leave her husband and become a social outcast. Kitty, on the other hand, is very focused on purely domestic issues–marriage, children, housekeeping, and religion. She stays in the domestic sphere, and this causes her to be solely dependent upon the men in her life: first her father, and then Levin. Her situation in comparison with Dolly’s and Nikolai’s lover show that women were lucky if they had a situation like Kitty’s with a caring and faithful and loving husband who did well by her materially as well as emotionally. Even Anna is bound by this situation, and it is largely what brings her misery. Even these situations, however, are in flux, as Tolstoy writes in his work of a large discussion about how marriages should be arranged and if marriage and God were even socially necessary.
However, unlike Jane Austen’s work, Tolstoy’s work deals heavily in the economic and social situations that men dealt with during the time period, especially with the contrast between Levin and Sergei: Levin is the traditional nobleman who owns land and expects to be able to help the peasants he hires by finding ways for them to invest (through a form of sharecropping) and ways for them to increase yields. He is unable to see the use of democracy for anyone, especially the peasants, and he also sees no need to formally educate them when it will do them no good in their work life. Sergei, on the other hand, is the philosopher who believes in the democratic process, even if it doesn’t at first seem to get things done. He has a set of ideals and deals with those ideals in the written word, believing that the way forward is to allow everyone the chance to participate in government and to have and education to gain more economic opportunities. The many arguments that they get into, and that others in their company also engage in, show the struggle between the old Russian nobility and the newly emerging system. Many of these men live constantly in debt, like Stiva, putting further pressure on an already struggling economic system.
Life philosophies are largely put in stark contrast of one another, with Sergei, Anna, Vronsky, and Nikolai representing “newer” philosophies and Dolly, Stiva, Levin, and Kitty representing older ones. Both have their problems: terminal illness, struggles with satisfaction, struggles with relationships (both romantic and general social relationships), and economic struggles. However, Kitty and Levin represent the ideal in this work, as they stick with the old system and try to make slight modifications to it as befits their situation, and ultimately the old system prevails when Levin turns from secularism to God to live his life in goodness and faith. Religion in this book seems to be the key in what is otherwise a rather godless society.