91 pages 3 hours read

Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1879

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Summary and Study Guide


Anna Karenina is Leo Tolstoy’s second novel, following War and Peace (1869). Serially published in 1877, Anna Karenina depicts the efforts of its titular character to escape an unhappy marriage to her older, civil servant husband and pursue a love affair with a young and dashing count, Alexei Vronsky. The novel is a sweeping family drama exploring Tolstoy’s interest in marriage, family, agrarian politics, and gender roles. The work is also a portrait of Russian society after the emancipation of serfdom, depicting the nobility’s changing social role in a world where peasants were free laborers and increasing numbers of wealthy Russians lived urban lives far from their estates. For these reasons, it is frequently assigned not only in surveys of Russian literature, but also in history and cultural studies courses.

Tolstoy was born to an aristocratic family in 1828 and lived at his family estate, Yasnaya Polyana, which he inherited. Later, his short fiction focused on religious issues; he was excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1901. Anna Karenina has been frequently adapted for film.

This guide refers to the 2000 translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, which received the PEN/Book-Of-The-Month Club Translation Prize.

Content warnings for this work include descriptions of opioid use, suicidal thoughts and death by suicide, childbirth descriptions, postpartum illness, and mentions of child death.

Russian Naming Conventions

In formal writing and address, Russians are known by their full first names and a patronymic: a gendered adjective based on their father’s first name. Stepan Arkadyich Oblonsky, called “Stiva,” is the son of a man named Arkady. In this guide, this character is referred to as either Stiva or Oblonsky.

Oblonsky’s sister is Anna Arkadyevna Karenina, the feminine version of the family patronymic and her husband Karenin’s surname. Konstantin Levin is addressed by the Russian diminutive form, “Kostya.”

Plot Summary

Anna Karenina is Leo Tolstoy’s portrait of Russian society in flux, combining family drama with broader political currents. Anna tries to pursue freedom and emotional fulfillment, but is held back because of her gender and Russian social and legal codes. Levin tries to pursue the same, in an agricultural landscape where he must confront the challenges of Russia’s economy and changing social system. The novel is a portrait of happy and unhappy domesticity, gender politics, and the consequences of defying social norms. Though Tolstoy was a defender of traditional marriage and Christianity, Anna’s dynamism as a character—and the flaws of the men in her life—result in a complex portrait of a world both familiar and alien to modern readers.

Anna Karenina opens with Part One in Moscow with the Oblonsky family in disarray as Stepan Arkadyich, the family patriarch, has recently been discovered as an adulterer having an affair with one of the family governesses. His wife, Darya Alexandrovna (Dolly), already a mother of five children, is beside herself and contemplating separation. Stepan, or Stiva, has summoned his sister from St. Petersburg in a desperate attempt to earn Dolly’s forgiveness. Anna Arkadyevna Karenina is unhappily married to a senior official, Alexei Karenin, and has a young son, Sergei or “Serezha.” She is beautiful and empathetic, and soon wins over Dolly’s youngest sister, Kitty. Kitty is hoping to marry the dashing officer Aleksei Vronsky, who her mother prefers above her other suitor, Stiva’s childhood friend Konstantin Levin, who traveled to Moscow from his country estate to propose to her. Kitty rejects his proposal. Levin is socially awkward, ill at ease in the city, and feels deeply unworthy of Kitty. He discovers his younger brother Nikolai is gravely ill, having fallen out with the family over his radical political beliefs.

Vronsky is wealthy, dashing, and has few cares in the world. He does not realize Kitty’s parents would consider his conduct with Kitty improper if they knew he had no desire to marry her. Vronsky is besotted with Anna, and the mores of his social class encourage such affairs. At a ball, Vronsky falls in love with Anna and soon forgets Kitty, much to her despair as she realizes she made a mistake in rejecting Levin. Vronsky follows Anna to St. Petersburg, hoping to pursue her.

In Part Two, Kitty Scherbatsky has become physically ill over Vronsky’s rejection, and her family quarrel over allowing the romance with Vronsky to continue. Kitty deeply regrets rejecting Levin, and cannot let go of her despair. Her family decides to send her to Europe for a rest cure. In St. Petersburg, Vronsky is enjoying his notoriety for his pursuit of Anna, who is increasingly attached to him. Anna is anxious, knowing their affair may jeopardize her access to her son. Karenin becomes aware of the scandal and urges Anna to worry more about her social status. Anna gives in to Vronsky’s seductions, despairing of her future.

Levin returns to his country estate, contemplating the purpose of his life and the possibilities of agricultural reform and productive farming. He tries to give up his dreams of marriage. Levin is shocked to learn Kitty did not marry Vronsky, and admits to Oblonsky that he is humiliated by his failure. Vronsky is increasingly aware that the depth of his passion for Anna is considered unseemly, especially by his mother. He prepares for a public horse race, and Anna tells him she is pregnant. His horse dies on the course, and Anna is so publicly emotional that she eventually admits to Karenin she is Vronsky’s mistress and expecting his child.

At a spa in Germany, Kitty briefly pursues a more spiritual life, inspired by the pious Madame Stahl. The woman’s ward, Varenka, urges Kitty to accept her heartbreak and move past her shame. She briefly meets Levin’s brother but does not recognize him. She soon realizes charitable acts are not effective, however, and her father tells her the older woman insincerely performs virtue. Kitty returns home, ready to pursue sincere faith.

In Part Three, Levin devotes himself to estate labor and questions of Russia’s political economy after serfdom. Dolly joins him in the country with her children, taking refuge in her family as Stiva remains unfaithful. Levin realizes he still loves Kitty when he sees her from a distance on the road. He tries to distract himself with more prospects of researching political economy and agriculture, but his brother’s illness reminds him of his own mortality. He goes to Europe to research and escape his new dread of death since as an agnostic, he has no hope of an afterlife.

In St. Petersburg, Anna and Karenin are miserable together, as Karenin knows he cannot best Vronsky in a duel and considers a divorce humiliating, as he would have to both prove adultery and also face the idea of Anna being happy with Vronsky. He tells Anna he must not find any public evidence of the affair or his own sullied reputation. Anna is tortured by indecision, knowing she will have no legal rights to her son as a divorced woman. Vronsky thinks little of this aspect, only preparing to duel Karenin if necessary. He realizes his affair has damaged his career but cannot give up Anna.

In Part Four, Karenin, Vronsky, and Anna remain at an impasse, and Anna increasingly thinks of death in childbirth. Karenin briefly pursues divorce, outraged because he accidentally met Vronsky at the family home. He soon discovers he has insufficient evidence to prove Anna is unfaithful, and would have to invent an affair himself to allow Anna to divorce him. He meets Stiva in Moscow and has dinner with him, where he informs both Stiva and Dolly of the increasingly tense situation. At the same dinner party, Levin and Kitty meet again, and this time, she accepts his proposal.

Karenin receives word that Anna has given birth and is dying, and reluctantly returns home, fearing a trick. Karenin finds that as Anna is truly dying he forgives her and even allows Vronsky in the house. Vronsky is in despair and attempts death by suicide. Karenin finds Anna does not want his forgiveness and society seems to reproach him for not taking more decisive action. Stiva arrives and tries to arrange a divorce, but Anna decides to go abroad with Vronsky, unable to face the loss of her son. Vronsky has resigned from the military.

In Part Five, Levin and Kitty prepare for their marriage. Levin confronts his agnosticism and forces Kitty to learn of his sexual past with other women, in order to prove his honesty. They marry and leave for his estate. Anna and Vronsky also begin life together, where Vronsky desperately searches for a new occupation. He tries to pursue art, but finds he has little talent. The couple decides to return to Russia.

In Part Six, Levin and Kitty adjust to married life, sometimes arguing. Levin is unhappy to realize work and marriage split his attention and he feels less productive. He reluctantly agrees to have Kitty accompany him to his brother Nikolai’s deathbed. There, he gains a new appreciation for Kitty’s kindness and domestic skill. He is horrified by his brother’s death and begins to think more about the existence of God, especially as Kitty learns she is pregnant.

Karenin, desperately lonely with Anna gone, turns to Christianity for consolation—particularly the rigid spirituality of Countess Lydia, who is in love with him and despises Anna. Lydia tries to prevent Anna from seeing their son, but Anna has the servants sneak her in for her son’s birthday. Vronsky is angry and disconcerted to find Anna is not accepted in society and even his former friends criticize them. Anna does not speak of her suffering for her son, and ignores Vronsky’s warnings that if she attends the theater she will face social ridicule. The two quarrel, ultimately deciding to escape to the country where they might live more freely.

Levin is unhappy to be hosting many guests, including a distant family friend who flirts with Kitty. Dolly goes to visit Anna, envying her freedom but also horrified by her situation—particularly when Anna alludes to either using contraception or abortion to avoid having more children. Dolly admires Vronsky’s devotion to Anna and tries to convince her to pursue divorce. Anna is increasingly jealous, which Vronsky resents. Levin and Vronsky meet again at the local elections for the provincial assembly. Levin finds the process empty and resents interacting with nobles who have few ties to the area. Anna and Vronsky have a serious argument as she summons him back from the elections on a pretense; she finally agrees to ask Karenin for a divorce.

Part Seven finds the Levins still in Moscow for Kitty’s labor. Levin tries to take an interest in Dolly’s welfare, and Kitty finds she is able to normally interact with Vronsky. Levin gambles and visits gentlemen’s clubs. He even agrees to meet Anna, who he finds both pitiful and entrancing. Kitty is distressed by this, but the two reconcile as Levin blames his behavior on the urban setting. Kitty goes into labor, and Levin finds himself able to pray, slowly adjusting to his son’s existence.

Anna recognizes that her threats of death by suicide if Vronsky leaves her are counterproductive, and increasingly dreads their arguments and her own inability to stop engaging in or escalating them. Stiva tries to get Anna a divorce, but Karenin is reluctant, and insists on consulting his spiritual advisor, who sends him away and influences Karenin’s final refusal. Anna decides she and Vronsky must leave the city in any case. She resents Vronsky’s independence, his role in the loss of her son, and fears he will marry another. She hopes love will be enough, and insists she does not value marriage. The two decisively quarrel, and Anna’s despair increases. After saying goodbye to Dolly, she throws herself under a train.

As the novel ends, Russians are increasingly invested in the Balkan wars of independence from the Ottoman Empire. Vronsky, in despair, is going there to fight. Levin is tormented by his religious doubts, finding refuge only in his work. He comes to love his son, recognizing that the baby knows who he is. Soon, a conversation with his peasant workers reminds him that he already knows how to live for the good in the world based on his childhood faith. He accepts this ability to live in accordance with these moral values as proof God exists, and finds comfort in the new purpose of his life.