Anna Karenina is a novel written by Leo Tolstoy.
- Anna Arkadyevna Karenina - A beautiful, aristocratic married woman from St. Petersburg whose pursuit of love and emotional honesty makes her an outcast from society. Anna's adulterous affair catapults her into social exile, misery, and finally suicide. Anna is a beautiful person in every sense: intelligent and literate, she reads voraciously, writes children's books, and shows an innate ability to appreciate art. Physically ravishing yet tastefully reserved, she captures the attentions of virtually everyone in high society. Anna believes in love—not only romantic love but family love and friendship as well, as we see from her devotion to her son, her fervent efforts to reconcile Stiva and Dolly Oblonsky in their marital troubles, and her warm reception of Dolly at her country home. Anna abhors nothing more than fakery, and she comes to regard her husband, Karenin, as the very incarnation of the fake, emotionless conventionality she despises.
- Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin - Anna's husband, a high-ranking government minister and one of the most important men in St. Petersburg. Karenin is formal and duty-bound. He is cowed by social convention and constantly presents a flawless façade of a cultivated and capable man. There is something empty about almost everything Karenin does in the novel, however: he reads poetry but has no poetic sentiments, he reads world history but seems remarkably narrow-minded. He cannot be accused of being a poor husband or father, but he shows little tenderness toward his wife, Anna, or his son, Seryozha. He fulfills these family roles as he does other duties on his list of social obligations. Karenin's primary motivation in both his career and his personal life is self-preservation. When he unexpectedly forgives Anna on what he believes may be her deathbed, we see a hint of a deeper Karenin ready to emerge. Ultimately, however, the bland bureaucrat remains the only Karenin we know.
- Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky - A wealthy and dashing military officer whose love for Anna prompts her to desert her husband and son. Vronsky is passionate and caring toward Anna but clearly disappointed when their affair forces him to give up his dreams of career advancement. Vronsky, whom Tolstoy originally modeled on the Romantic heroes of an earlier age of literature, has something of the idealistic loner in him. Yet there is a dark spot at the core of his personality, as if Tolstoy refuses to let us get too close to Vronsky's true nature. Indeed, Tolstoy gives us far less access to Vronsky's thoughts than to other major characters in the novel. We can never quite forget Vronsky's early jilting of Kitty Shcherbatskaya, and we wonder whether he feels guilt about nearly ruining her life. Even so, Vronsky is more saintly than demonic at the end of the novel, and his treatment of Anna is impeccable, even if his feelings toward her cool a bit.
- Konstantin Dmitrich Levin - A socially awkward but generous-hearted landowner who, along with Anna, is the co-protagonist of the novel. Whereas Anna's pursuit of love ends in tragedy, Levin's long courtship of Kitty Shcherbatskaya ultimately ends in a happy marriage. Levin is intellectual and philosophical but applies his thinking to practical matters such as agriculture. He aims to be sincere and productive in whatever he does, and resigns from his post in local government because he sees it as useless and bureaucratic. Levin is a figurehead in the novel for Tolstoy himself, who modeled Levin and Kitty's courtship on his own marriage. Levin's declaration of faith at the end of the novel sums up Tolstoy's own convictions, marking the start of the deeply religious phase of Tolstoy's life that followed his completion of Anna Karenina.
- Ekaterina Alexandrovna Shcherbatskaya (Kitty) - A beautiful young woman who is courted by both Levin and Vronsky, and who ultimately marries Levin. Modeled on Tolstoy's real-life wife, Kitty is sensitive and perhaps a bit overprotected, shocked by some of the crude realities of life, as we see in her horrified response to Levin's private diaries. But despite her indifference to intellectual matters, Kitty displays great courage and compassion in the face of death when caring for Levin's dying brother Nikolai.
- Stepan Arkadyich Oblonsky (Stiva) - Anna's brother, a pleasure-loving aristocrat and minor government official whose affair with his children's governess nearly destroys his marriage. Stiva and Anna share a common tendency to place personal fulfillment over social duties. Stiva is incorrigible, proceeding from his affair with the governess—which his wife, Dolly, honorably forgives—to a liaison with a ballerina. For Tolstoy, Stiva's moral laxity symbolizes the corruptions of big-city St. Petersburg life and contrasts with the powerful moral conscience of Levin. However, despite his transgressions, the affable Stiva is a difficult character to scorn.
- Darya Alexandrovna Oblonskaya (Dolly) - Stiva's wife and Kitty's older sister. Dolly is one of the few people who behave kindly toward Anna after her affair becomes public. Dolly's sympathetic response to Anna's situation and her guarded admiration for Anna's attempt to live her life fully hint at the positive aspects of Anna's experience. Well acquainted with the hardships of matrimony and motherhood, Dolly is, more than anyone else in the novel, in a position to appreciate what Anna has left behind by leaving with Vronsky. The novel opens with the painful revelation that Dolly's husband has betrayed her, and her even more painful awareness that he is not very repentant.
- Sergei Alexeich Karenin (Seryozha) - Karenin and Anna's young son. Seryozha is a good-natured boy, but his father treats him coldly after learning of Anna's affair. Anna shows her devotion to Seryozha when she risks everything to sneak back into the Karenin household simply to bring birthday presents to her son.
- Nikolai Dmitrich Levin - Levin's sickly, thin brother. The freethinking Nikolai is largely estranged from his brothers, but over the course of the novel he starts to spend more time with Levin. Nikolai is representative of liberal social thought among certain Russian intellectuals of the period; his reformed-prostitute girlfriend, Marya Nikolaevna, is living proof of his unconventional, radically democratic viewpoint.
- Sergei Ivanovich Koznyshev - Levin's half-brother, a famed intellectual and writer whose thinking Levin has difficulty following. Koznyshev embodies cold intellectualism and is unable to embrace the fullness of life, as we see when he cannot bring himself to propose to Varenka.
- Agafya Mikhailovna - Levin's former nurse, now his trusted housekeeper.
- Countess Vronsky - Vronsky's judgmental mother.
- Alexander Kirillovich Vronsky - Vronsky's brother.
- Varvara Vronsky - Alexander Vronsky's wife.
- Prince Alexander Dmitrievich Shcherbatsky - The practical aristocrat father of Kitty, Dolly, and Natalie. Prince Shcherbatsky favors Levin over Vronsky as a potential husband for Kitty.
- Princess Shcherbatskaya - Kitty, Dolly, and Natalie's mother. Princess Shcherbatskaya initially urges Kitty to favor Vronsky over Levin as a suitor.
- Countess Lydia Ivanovna - A morally upright woman who is initially Anna's friend and later her fiercest critic. Hypocritically, the religious Lydia Ivanovna cannot bring herself to forgive or even to speak to the “fallen woman” Anna. Lydia Ivanovna harbors a secret love for Karenin, and induces him to believe in and rely on psychics.
- Elizaveta Fyodorovna Tverskaya (Betsy) - A wealthy friend of Anna's and Vronsky's cousin. Betsy has a reputation for wild living and moral looseness.
- Marya Nikolaevna - A former prostitute saved by Nikolai Levin, whose companion she becomes.
- Madame Stahl - A seemingly devout invalid woman whom the Shcherbatskys meet at a German spa. Madame Stahl appears righteous and pious, but Prince Shcherbatsky and others doubt her motivations.
- Varvara Andreevna (Varenka) - A pure and high-minded young woman who becomes Kitty's friend at the German spa. Varenka, who is a protégée of Madame Stahl, nearly receives a marriage proposal from Koznyshev.
- Yashvin - Vronsky's wild friend from the army. Yashvin has a propensity for losing large sums of money at gambling.
- Nikolai Ivanovich Sviyazhsky - A friend of Levin who lives in a far-off province.
- Fyodor Vassilyevich Katavasov - Levin's intellectual friend from his university days.
- Vasenka Veslovsky - A young, pleasant, somewhat dandyish man whom Stiva brings to visit Levin. The attentions Veslovsky lavishes on Kitty make Levin jealous.
- Landau - A French psychic who instructs Karenin to reject Anna's plea for a divorce.
The oblonsky family of moscow is torn apart by adultery. Dolly Oblonskaya has caught her husband, Stiva, having an affair with their children's former governess, and threatens to leave him. Stiva is somewhat remorseful but mostly dazed and uncomprehending. Stiva's sister, Anna Karenina, wife of the St. Petersburg government official Karenin, arrives at the Oblonskys' to mediate. Eventually, Anna is able to bring Stiva and Dolly to a reconciliation.
Meanwhile, Dolly's younger sister, Kitty, is courted by two suitors: Konstantin Levin, an awkward landowner, and Alexei Vronsky, a dashing military man. Kitty turns down Levin in favor of Vronsky, but not long after, Vronsky meets Anna Karenina and falls in love with her instead of Kitty. The devastated Kitty falls ill. Levin, depressed after having been rejected by Kitty, withdraws to his estate in the country. Anna returns to St. Petersburg, reflecting on her infatuation with Vronsky, but when she arrives home she dismisses it as a fleeting crush.
Vronsky, however, follows Anna to St. Petersburg, and their mutual attraction intensifies as Anna begins to mix with the freethinking social set of Vronsky's cousin Betsy Tverskaya. At a party, Anna implores Vronsky to ask Kitty's forgiveness; in response, he tells Anna that he loves her. Karenin goes home from the party alone, sensing that something is amiss. He speaks to Anna later that night about his suspicions regarding her and Vronsky, but she curtly dismisses his concerns.
Some time later, Vronsky participates in a military officers' horse race. Though an accomplished horseman, he makes an error during the race, inadvertently breaking his horse's back. Karenin notices his wife's intense interest in Vronsky during the race. He confronts Anna afterward, and she candidly admits to Karenin that she is having an affair and that she loves Vronsky. Karenin is stunned.
Kitty, meanwhile, attempts to recover her health at a spa in Germany, where she meets a pious Russian woman and her do-gooder protégée, Varenka. Kitty also meets Levin's sickly brother Nikolai, who is also recovering at the spa.
Levin's intellectual half-brother, Sergei Koznyshev, visits Levin in the country and criticizes him for quitting his post on the local administrative council. Levin explains that he resigned because he found the work bureaucratic and useless. Levin works enthusiastically with the peasants on his estate but is frustrated by their resistance to agricultural innovations. He visits Dolly, who tempts him with talk of reviving a relationship with Kitty. Later, Levin meets Kitty at a dinner party at the Oblonsky household, and the two feel their mutual love. They become engaged and marry.
Karenin rejects Anna's request for a divorce. He insists that they maintain outward appearances by staying together. Anna moves to the family's country home, however, away from her husband. She encounters Vronsky often, but their relationship becomes clouded after Anna reveals she is pregnant. Vronsky considers resigning his military post, but his old ambitions prevent him.
Karenin, catching Vronsky at the Karenin country home one day, finally agrees to divorce. Anna, in her childbirth agony, begs for Karenin's forgiveness, and he suddenly grants it. He leaves the divorce decision in her hands, but she resents his generosity and does not ask for a divorce. Instead, Anna and Vronsky go to Italy, where they lead an aimless existence. Eventually, the two return to Russia, where Anna is spurned by society, which considers her adultery disgraceful. Anna and Vronsky withdraw into seclusion, though Anna dares a birthday visit to her young son at Karenin's home. She begins to feel great jealousy for Vronsky, resenting the fact that he is free to participate in society while she is housebound and scorned.
Married life brings surprises for Levin, including his sudden lack of freedom. When Levin is called away to visit his dying brother Nikolai, Kitty sparks a quarrel by insisting on accompanying him. Levin finally allows her to join him. Ironically, Kitty is more helpful to the dying Nikolai than Levin is, greatly comforting him in his final days.
Kitty discovers she is pregnant. Dolly and her family join Levin and Kitty at Levin's country estate for the summer. At one point, Stiva visits, bringing along a friend, Veslovsky, who irks Levin by flirting with Kitty. Levin finally asks Veslovsky to leave. Dolly decides to visit Anna, and finds her radiant and seemingly very happy. Dolly is impressed by Anna's luxurious country home but disturbed by Anna's dependence on sedatives to sleep. Anna still awaits a divorce.
Levin and Kitty move to Moscow to await the birth of their baby, and they are astonished at the expenses of city life. Levin makes a trip to the provinces to take part in important local elections, in which the vote brings a victory for the young liberals. One day, Stiva takes Levin to visit Anna, whom Levin has never met. Anna enchants Levin, but her success in pleasing Levin only fuels her resentment toward Vronsky. She grows paranoid that Vronsky no longer loves her. Meanwhile, Kitty enters labor and bears a son. Levin is confused by the conflicting emotions he feels toward the infant. Stiva goes to St. Petersburg to seek a cushy job and to beg Karenin to grant Anna the divorce he once promised her. Karenin, following the advice of a questionable French psychic, refuses.
Anna picks a quarrel with Vronsky, accusing him of putting his mother before her and unfairly postponing plans to go to the country. Vronsky tries to be accommodating, but Anna remains angry. When Vronsky leaves on an errand, Anna is tormented. She sends him a telegram urgently calling him home, followed by a profusely apologetic note. In desperation, Anna drives to Dolly's to say goodbye, and then returns home. She resolves to meet Vronsky at the train station after his errand, and she rides to the station in a stupor. At the station, despairing and dazed by the crowds, Anna throws herself under a train and dies.
Two months later, Sergei's book has finally been published, to virtually no acclaim. Sergei represses his disappointment by joining a patriotic upsurge of Russian support for Slavic peoples attempting to free themselves from Turkish rule. Sergei, Vronsky, and others board a train for Serbia to assist in the cause. Levin is skeptical of the Slavic cause, however.
Kitty becomes worried by Levin's gloomy mood. He has become immersed in questions about the meaning of life but feels unable to answer them. One day, however, a peasant remarks to Levin that the point of life is not to fill one's belly but to serve God and goodness. Levin receives this advice as gospel, and his life is suddenly transformed by faith.
Later that day, Levin, Dolly, and Dolly's children seek shelter from a sudden, violent thunderstorm, only to discover that Kitty and Levin's young son are still outside. Levin runs to the woods and sees a huge oak felled by lightning. He fears the worst, but his wife and child are safe. For the first time, Levin feels real love for his son, and Kitty is pleased. Levin reflects again that the meaning of his life lies in the good that he can put into it.
On a literal level, Frou-Frou is the beautiful, pricey horse that Vronsky buys and then accidentally destroys at the officers' race. On a figurative level, Frou-Frou is a clear symbol of Anna, or of Vronsky's relationship with her—both of which are ultimately destroyed. Frou-Frou appears in the novel soon after Vronsky's affair with Anna becomes serious and dangerous for their social reputations. Vronsky meets Anna just before the race, and his conversation with her makes him nervous and unsettled, impairing his performance. This link connects Anna with Frou-Frou still more deeply, showing how Vronsky's liaison with Anna endangers him. The horse race is dangerous as well, as we find out when several officers and horses are injured during the run. Vronsky attempts to ride out both dangers—the horse race and the affair—with his characteristic coolness and poise, and he manages to do so successfully for a time. But his ability to stay on top of the situation is ultimately compromised by the fatal error he makes in sitting incorrectly on Frou-Frou's saddle, ending with a literal downfall for both man and horse.
The symbol of the racehorse implies much about the power dynamic between Anna and Vronsky. The horse is vulnerable and completely under Vronsky's control, just as in an adulterous affair in 1870s Russian society it is the woman who runs the greater risk of being harmed. For Vronsky and the other officer riders, the race is a form of entertainment in which they choose to participate. But there is a deeper force leading both Anna and Frou-Frou into the race, and the stakes are much higher for them than for Vronsky—the race is a matter of life and death for both woman and horse. Ultimately, the horse's death is a needless result of someone else's mistake, just as Anna's death seems unfair, a tragic waste of a beautiful life.
Levin and Kitty's Marriage
Levin's courtship of and marriage to Kitty is of paramount importance to Anna Karenina. Tolstoy frames the marriage as a stubborn individualist's acceptance of and commitment to another human being, with all the philosophical and religious meaning such a connection carries for him. Levin is something of an outcast throughout the early part of the novel. His views alienate him from noblemen and peasantry alike. He is frustrated by Russian culture but unable to feel comfortable with European ways. He is socially awkward and suffers from an inferiority complex, as we see in his self-doubts in proposing to Kitty. Devastated by Kitty's rejection of his marriage proposal, Levin retreats to his country estate and renounces all dreams of family life. We wonder whether he will remain an eccentric isolationist for the rest of his days, without family or nearby friends, laboring over a theory of Russian agriculture that no one will read, as no one reads his brother Sergei's magnum opus.
When the flame of Levin's and Kitty's love suddenly rekindles, leading with lightning speed to a marriage, it represents more than a mere betrothal. Rather, the marriage is an affirmation of Levin's connection with others and his participation in something larger than himself—the cornerstone of the religious faith he attains after marriage. Levin starts thinking about faith when he is forced to go to confession in order to obtain a marriage license. Although he is cynical toward religious dogma, the questions the priest asks him set in motion a chain of thoughts that leads him through a crisis and then to spiritual regeneration. Similarly, Levin's final affirmation of faith on the last page of the novel is a direct result of his near-loss of the family that marriage has made possible. It is no accident that faith and marriage enter Levin's life almost simultaneously, for they are both affirmations that one's self is not the center of one's existence.