Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina

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Anna Karenina Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.

Originally published in serialized form over a number of years in the 1870s before finally being published as a complete novel in 1878, Anna Karenina is widely regarded as one of the great 19th  century novels and one of the most significant books ever written. Through the lives of an extended family of Russian aristocrats and their excesses, affairs, and other struggles, it explores the extreme changes occurring in Russian society as well as timeless themes such as love, marriage, jealousy, and death.

When the novel begins, Prince Stepan Arkadyevich Oblonsky, or “Stiva” as he is known, has been quarrelling with his wife Princess Darya Alexandrovna, or “Dolly,” for three days, since she discovered that he has had an affair. When Stiva receives a telegram saying his sister, Princess Anna Arkadyevna Karenina, is coming to visit, he hopes that she will help save his marriage. Also visiting is Konstantin Dmitrievich Levin, a shy but passionate aristocrat and childhood friend of Stiva. Konstantin has come to Moscow with the intention of proposing to Dolly’s eighteen-year-old sister, Princess Katerina Alexandrovna Shcherbatskaya, who is generally known as “Kitty.” However, Kitty is more interested in her other suitor, Count Vronsky, a rich and handsome military officer. Anna arrives and succeeds in convincing Dolly to forgive Stiva, but her presence is also disruptive. After Kitty turns down Levin’s marriage proposal, believing Count Vronsky will soon propose to her, she is devastated to learn that the Count is now besotted with Anna, even though Anna already has a husband and son. Devastated by Kitty’s rejection, Levin retires to his country estate while Kitty, distraught over the Count’s rejection, becomes unwell.

Anna leaves Moscow to return to her husband and child in St. Petersburg but is followed by Vronsky, who confesses his love for her. Although she is attracted to him, Anna initially turns down his advances. However, Vronsky persists and, partly encouraged by the freethinking attitudes of Vronsky’s cousin Betsy and her friends, Anna eventually begins an affair with him. Although Anna’s husband, Count Karenin, warns her that she is causing rumors and scandal by showing too much interest in Vronsky, she is easily able to convince him that such gossip is unfounded. However, after Anna witnesses Vronsky accidently cause the death of a horse he was riding and distressed that she is carrying Vronsky’s child, , Anna eventually confesses the affair to her husband. Karenin asks her to end it before it causes any more scandal.

Meanwhile, Kitty moves to a German spa in an effort to shake her depressive illness and attempts to deny her sexuality by becoming pious and devoutly religious, although she eventually dismisses this path as hypocritical and returns to Moscow. While she is there, she is seen by Levin, who had attempted to distract himself by managing his estate, but is now reminded that he still loves her. Later, the two reconcile and agree to marry. Back in St. Petersburg, Karenin initially refuses to end his marriage to Anna, threatening to take her son away if she does not end her relationship with Vronsky. When Anna refuses, Karenin attempts to begin divorce proceedings but eventually gives this up when he learns that a complicated birth has left Anna seriously unwell. At what appears to be her deathbed, Karenin forgives Anna and Vronsky, an act of high-minded generosity that deeply embarrasses Vronsky, causing him to attempt suicide. However, he survives and after Anna recovers, they run away to Europe together.

Kitty and Levin’s marriage is initially fraught with difficulties but gradually improves, especially when Kitty helps look after Levin’s dying brother. The couple is delighted to discover that Kitty is pregnant. Things are far less pleasant for Anna and Count Vronsky who are bored in Europe and struggle to find companions who will not judge or exclude them. Eventually, they decide to return to St. Petersburg, where they discover that Vronsky has not been excluded from the upper echelons of Russian society. The same is not true for Anna, who finds herself widely shunned and prevented from seeing her son. Things come to a head when Anna attempts to attend the theatre but is viciously and publicly shamed by old friends. Struggling to maintain their relationship in the face of such pressure, Anna and Vronsky leave St. Petersburg to stay at Vronsky’s country estate. However, when Dolly visits Levin’s estate and then Vronsky’s, she finds both couples in turmoil. In an embarrassing scene, Levin ejects a guest from his home because he was flirting with Kitty whilst, over in the decadent luxury of Vronsky’s estate, Anna is becoming desperate to maintain her beauty and obsessively jealous about Vronsky doing anything other than spending time with her.

When, for their own varied reasons, the characters all move to Moscow, Levin is soon drawn into the decadent, corrupting lifestyle of the city and argues with Kitty about him visiting—and maybe falling in love with—Anna. However, the two reconcile and Kitty gives birth to a son. Stiva attempts to convince Karenin to let Anna have a divorce but he refuses. Finally, Anna, now addicted to  morphine and convinced her relationship with Vronsky is doomed, throws herself in front of a train and dies. In the final section of the book, the remaining characters begin to pick up the pieces. Karenin adopts Anna and Vronsky’s child, whilst Vronsky, himself now suicidal, volunteers to fight in the Russo-Turkish war. Levin has a revelation and returns to the Christian values with which he was raised. He now understands that , although humans will always make errors, he can still strive to live a good life as free from selfish desire as possible. With this, Levin finds genuine meaning and peace in his life, a source of contentment that the other characters are, tragically, largely denied.