Anna Karenina
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Anna Karenina Themes

by Leo Tolstoy

Major Themes

Hypocrisy

This theme is first touched upon with the novel's epigraph: "Vengeance is mine, I shall repay." This epigraph is a warning to both Russian Society and to the reader that the only person allowed to judge is God. The rest of us, being imperfect, merely make ourselves into hypocrites when we judge someone else. Russian Society is full of hypocrites in this book‹indeed, the very corruption of this society is symbolized by the way socialites treat Anna after she elopes with Vronsky. Although most members of Russian Society (men and women included) conduct extra-marital affairs, they turn on Anna when it turns out that her affair goes deeper than mere carnal desire. Princess Betsy is an excellent example of the hypocrisy in Russian Society.

Jealousy

Anna Karenina features portraits of three relationships: Dolly and Oblonsky, Kitty and Levin, and Anna and Vronsky. In all three of these relationships, jealousy plays a role that affects the success of the relationship. In general, the less jealous a couple are, the more successful they will be. Dolly is jealous when Oblonsky is unfaithful, but she represses this feeling for the good of their children and their home, and they stay together as a result. Levin and Kitty are jealous of each other at first, but as they grow into themselves and their relationship (and, in Levin's case, his relationship with God), their jealousy fades and their relationship strengthens. Finally, Anna's relationship with Vronsky is destroyed by her all-consuming jealousy.

Faith

Faith is the overriding aspect of Levin's story. Tortured by existential doubts throughout most of the book, he experiences an epiphany at the end that shows him the reason for his existence. By learning to have faith in God, and following His rules, Levin experiences the joyful peace that is faith. Faith also saves his relationship with Kitty, because he learns that he must place his life in the hands of the Lord, and not look at Kitty to be his Savior.

Fidelity

Like jealousy, fidelity is a concern of the three relationships highlighted in the novel. When a young man flirts with Kitty, Levin "already saw himself as a deceived husband, who was needed by his wife and her lover only in order to provide them with the comforts of life and with pleasures." Meanwhile, Dolly's trust in Oblonsky is shattered when she learns that he has been unfaithful. And, due to double standards of fidelity for men and women, Anna is punished the most of all for her infidelity. (Though, it must be said, that Anna also abandoned her husband and son, thereby causing the most damage.) The importance of fidelity‹at least the fidelity of women‹is underlined throughout the novel.

Family

The importance of the family, and of keeping the family intact, is one of the most important aspects of Anna Karenina. This includes the extended family as well‹for example, one of the reasons why the Shcherbatskaya daughters are presented as the epitome of virtuous women is that they care not just for their husbands but for their parents and for their husbands' families. (Kitty, for example, gains a great deal of Levin's esteem after she cares for his dying brother Nicholas.) And one of Anna's biggest concerns about getting a divorce from Karenin is that she will no longer have access to her beloved son.

Marriage

Tolstoy presents portraits of marriage that are astonishing for their lack of romance. Although these women are princesses, baronesses and countesses, there are no fairy-tale endings in Anna Karenina. Instead, marriage is portrayed with all of its faults and problems, from jealousy to lack of passion to abandonment. Tolstoy does not advocate the ending of marriage as a social institution at all‹indeed, he believes it is the glue that holds societies together, but he is realistic about how it works. The only fully successful marriage in Anna Karenina is between Levin and Kitty, and it only becomes that way when they understand that a man and a woman occupy separate social roles, and that it is necessary for a couple to give each other space.

Society

Russian High Society comes in for a beating in Anna Karenina. The hypocrisies and petty, small-minded beliefs of Society are painstakingly documented‹from their condemnation of Anna to their crusade to "save" the Slavs at the end of the book. But Tolstoy also offers an amazing portrayal of Society's rules and rituals: dinners, balls, parties, horse-riding and croquet games. And social interaction is vital to the health of a relationship: one of the major reasons why Anna is so jealous of Vronsky is because he has the freedom to move in society, whereas she has been cast out from society.

Progress

While Tolstoy was writing Anna Karenina, Russia was experiencing an influx of Western thought, politics, and technology. This was popularly known as "progress," and many intellectuals in the novel, such as Koznyshev, applaud the changes that have gone on in Russia due to these Western influences. One of Tolstoy's major projects in Anna Karenina is to question the "improvements" that are happening to Russia due to Western "progress." The train, for example, a symbol of evil and death in Anna Karenina, came from the West. Virtually everything Koznyshev says is derided by another, more credible character, such as Levin or Dolly. Instead of regarding Western things as progress, Tolstoy champions the Russian land and Russian traditions.

Carnal Desire

In Anna Karenina, carnal desire is a destructive force. Anna and Vronsky do not create but destroy‹Anna becomes sterile, Vronsky abandons his career, Karenin is ruined, and Seroyzha loses his mother‹all in the name of carnal desire. This is a reflection of Tolstoy's Christian message.

"The Land"

The Land takes on a spiritual aspect in this book. The scenes of Levin planting with his peasants are reverent in their sensuality. Throughout the book there are many questions about the land and the people who work it (peasants), all based on real political questions that Russia was asking itself at the time. Levin becomes very concerned with these issues and implements a communal agricultural theory. Tolstoy believes strongly in the primacy of the land to Russian well-being; one of his major concerns about Western progress is that it seemed to focus on cities and abandon the land. Indeed, only the characters who regularly connect to the land‹by either living on it, as Levin does, or escaping the city often to be in the country, as Dolly does‹are fully sympathetic characters.

The City

Urban centers are hotbeds of corruption and destruction. They are fashionable and seductive, but they lead to evil things. Russian Society is centered in St. Petersburg and Moscow; all the new ideas from Europe arrive in the cities first. As if to prove the corruption of these places, Levin always feels uncomfortable in cities, whereas Anna feels out of sorts away from them.

Passion

Passion is distrusted in Anna Karenina because it can lead to destruction, as it does in Anna's case. But Anna's double, Levin is also an extremely passionate individual, and his passion is championed because it leads him to the Lord. In general, passion itself is not a bad force, but it can be easily corrupted and lead to problems.

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