Anna Karenina Summary and Analysis
by Leo Tolstoy
Part One Summary:
Prince Stephen Oblonsky, known as Stiva, wakes up from pleasant dreams to an unfortunate memory: he has slept on the sofa in his study, because he and his wife Dolly have had a serious quarrel. Three days earlier, Dolly discovered that he had an affair with their children's French governess. Since her discovery, she has refused to see him or leave her quarters, and subsequently the house has been chaotic. Though, as he claims, he is only sorry for being caught, Oblonsky despises the uproar that he has inflicted on his house, and, on the advice of Matrona, the children's nurse, he makes a rather comic attempt at begging for forgiveness. Dolly, sensing his insincerity, reaffirms her threat to leave for her mother's house with their children. Though upset that his attempts to smooth things over with Dolly have failed, Oblonsky goes on about his duties as head of a Government Board in Moscow. He is partially optimistic for his sister, Anna Karenina, will be coming to visit the next day, and he anticipates that her presence will have a soothing effect on Dolly. Anna's husband is a distinguished government minister in St. Petersburg and Anna herself is renowned as a lovely and charming woman; they move in the highest circles of society.
During his lunch break, Oblonsky runs into his friend Constantine Levin, who has just arrived from his country estate and gone straight to Oblonsky's office. Levin has an urgent matter to discuss, but he is a shy man and does not wish to talk in front of Oblonsky's business friends. Oblonsky, whose tact and camaraderie with men is well-renowned, quickly discerns that Levin is in town to see Oblonsky's sister-in-law, Kitty Shcherbatskaya, for Levin is rather smitten with the eighteen-year-old girl. Oblonsky suggests a meeting with Levin later that evening at the park where Kitty ice-skates. Levin has been a particularly reticent suitor, even though he has been in love with the entire Shcherbatskaya family for many years and has considered marrying all three of the sisters. After meeting Oblonsky, Levin goes to his half-brother's house. Sergius Ivanich Koznyshev is a well-known writer and intellectual, and he and Levin have trouble getting along. This happens again when Levin arrives; Koznyshev is entertaining a professor and the three of them have a philosophical argument. After the professor leaves, Levin and Koznyshev talk about their other brother, Nicholas, the ruined and impoverished pariah of the family.
Levin goes to the park. He skates with Kitty and flirts with her boldly, but she sends him mixed signals. Her mother also appears rather lukewarm about Levin's obvious intentions. Oblonsky arrives and Levin leaves for dinner with relief. They eat at a fine restaurant named the Angleterre. Tolstoy describes the ritual of the meal in great detail. Over dinner, Oblonsky teases Levin about Kitty, and they discuss the matter of his proposal. Though he encourages Levin, Oblonsky also tells him about his rival: Count Alexis Kirilovich Vronsky, a wealthy, dashing young officer and Imperial aide-de-camp. Oblonsky also admits that he feels little pain at the idea of adultery (on behalf of men).
Meanwhile, at the Shcherbatskys' house, the (elder) Princess Shcherbatskaya frets over Kitty's marriage opportunities. Though she prefers Vronsky, considering Levin peculiar and awkward in public, she fears that Vronsky is not interested in marrying Kitty. Levin arrives and immediately proposes to Kitty; she rejects him in the hopes that Vronsky will make his proposal soon. Other guests soon arrive, and one of them, Countess Nordston, mocks Levin for his country manners. Levin banters with the Countess until Vronsky arrives in the hopes of learning more about his rival. Vronsky is charming; Levin leaves feeling dejected. After all the guests have left, Kitty's parents argue over her future. Her mother still prefers Vronsky, while her father prefers Levin.
When Oblonsky goes to the railway station to meet Anna the next morning, he runs into Vronsky, who is waiting for his mother to get off the same train. It turns out that Anna and Vronsky's mother were seatmates in the same compartment, and his mother is quite taken with Anna. So is Vronsky, at once, charmed by Anna's spirit and vitality. As the four of them exchange banalities, a railroad guard is run over and killed by a passing train. At the urgings of Anna, Vronsky leaves 200 roubles for the guard's widow.
Oblonsky's optimism is well-placed: Anna ably convinces Dolly not to leave. She also charms Kitty. But at a ball the next night, Kitty notices that Vronsky is distracted and inattentive to her. The source of this inattention becomes clear when she watched Vronsky waltz with Anna. The two of them are completely smitten, and Kitty's heart is shattered. She realizes that her hopes are shot; Vronsky never wanted to marry her.
Levin goes to see his elder brother Nicholas, who is sickly and lives in depraved conditions. Disgusted with the entire trip, Levin leaves Moscow for his country estate. At home he feels comforted by his servants, his house and his lands, and he swears that he will be happy without marriage. Anna leaves the same day as Levin, on the train for St. Petersburg. She is distressed over her new acquaintance. During a brief stop in the middle of a snowstorm, Vronsky emerges on the platform and tells her that he is in love with her and will follow her. He follows her to St. Petersburg, where he makes his presence known immediately to Karenin upon arrival, asking for the privilege of calling on them. Karenin dislikes him on sight. Anna, anxious to resume her life, throws herself into routine, but finds that she is constantly displeased with Karenin, her social circle, and her beloved son Serezha for reasons that she cannot comprehend.
Vronsky keeps a large apartment in St. Petersburg, which he has let out to his disreputable but dashing friend, a lieutenant named Petritsky. He goes to reclaim this apartment, and then dines with Petritsky and his lover, Baroness Shilton. Meanwhile he plans his entrée into the circles where he will meet Anna.
Part One Analysis:
Anna Karenina is a novel about many things: love, the idea of romance, marriage, nation, the changing state of Russia, Society, morality and justice. All of these things are featured in Part One of the novel. We are also introduced to all the major characters and the most important elements of their personalities.
Before the novel even begins, however, it is important to consider the epigraph, taken from the Book of Romans: "Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord." This is one of the most famous epigraphs in Western literature, because the object of the Lord's anger in this book could be so many different things and so many different people. The most obvious target is Anna, but there is also Vronsky, for his selfish role in causing her downfall. Another potential subject is Russian Society itself, for its hypocrisy and its inflexible, narrow-minded rules. In his diaries, Tolstoy claimed that he intended the epigraph to encapsulate one of his major themes: the importance of leaving the judgment of other people to the Lord.
That said, the novel opens with a scene of chaos caused by infidelity. The Oblonskys' problems and Dolly's pain are an apt way to begin Anna Karenina; these opening scenes will be echoed on a far higher level with Anna's own marriage. There are important differences between the Oblonskys' situation and Anna's own, though. First of all, the infidelity is a man's, and therefore Oblonsky is treated indulgently by society. Dolly, burdened by many children (and the promise of another, she is pregnant at this time in the book), is willing to live with contradictions in her life in order to save the household. Throughout the book, their marriageintact though unhappywill form a deliberate contrast to Anna's all-or-nothing attitude. Tolstoy draws out this comparison with a deliberate irony: Anna's arrival in the book is to save her brother's marriage, which she does at the cost of her own.
Before we even meet Anna, we meet Levin, whose story will run parallel to Anna's over the course of the book. He is Anna's double in the book, and indeed they share many personality traits: generosity and compassion, occasional irrationality, and an all-or-nothing attitude when it comes to "living life." Just like Anna, Levin cannot stand the idea of living his life with contradictions between his actions and his beliefs. The differences are that Levin is able to find socially acceptable outlets for his personality needs and desires, and that Levin is not constrained to the same world that Anna is. Levin lives in the countryside, where the narrow rules of the social order do not apply. The contrast between city and country will also form an important theme in this book.
Just as Stiva and Dolly's marriage is shown in contrast to Anna's romantic chaos, the courtship and marriage of Levin and Kitty provide another model for love and marital relations. The fact that Vronsky was originally attached to Kitty lingers over the book, a tantalizing "What if?" that is echoed as Anna's romance descends further and further into chaos.
The scene in which we are introduced to Anna (Chapter 18) is one of the most important ones of the novel. It forms a composite of the entire novel, a thumbnail sketch, if you will, and all the action is foreshadowed in this one scene. Anna is first introduced to us as she steps off a train. The train is an important symbol for Anna and also for Russian society in general: just as trains in the 1870s represented something new, terrifying, and disruptive, so bourgeois Russian society is in the midst of great change, although they do not recognize it. We are shown the essence of Anna's vitality, which both sustains and destroys her. "It was as though an excess of something so filled her whole being that it expressed itself against her willShe deliberately tried to extinguish that light in her eyes, but it blazed out against her will in that faint smile." We also come to recognize the limitations of Vronsky, limitations that will doom his love affair with Anna. He lacks the emotional depth and richness of Anna and therefore cannot sustain her or himself when he is cut off from the social world he loves. This is shown in subtle ways. For example, when the railroad guard dies, Anna immediately shows compassion and practical concern for his widow, but "Vronsky was silent; his handsome face was grave but quite calm." The death of guard, of course, foreshadows Anna's own death at the end of the book.
As in War and Peace, Anna Karenina is as much about a particular world and a particular historical time as it is about the many people moving through its pages. Tolstoy fleshes out the novel with an extraordinarily rich portrait of bourgeois Russia: dinners, balls, social propriety, manners, the importance of expected conduct and the role of economics. Some critics have argued that the plot of Anna Karenina is melodramatic, even ridiculous: it is the portrait of Russia that makes the book a classic. While this is not completely trueTolstoy also creates an incredible portrayal of love in all of its different appearancesit is true that one of the reasons Anna Karenina lives to this day is because Tolstoy made it the story of a crumbling society as well as a crumbling marriage.
Anna Karenina Essays and Related Content
- Anna Karenina: Major Themes
- Anna Karenina: Essays
- Anna Karenina: E-Text
- Anna Karenina: Questions
- Anna Karenina: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- Leo Tolstoy: Biography
- Anna Karenina Summary
- About Anna Karenina
- Character List
- Major Themes
- Summary and Analysis of Part One
- Summary and Analysis of Part Two
- Summary and Analysis of Part Three
- Summary and Analysis of Part Four
- Summary and Analysis of Part Five
- Summary and Analysis of Part Six
- Summary and Analysis of Part Seven
- Summary and Analysis of Part Eight
- Related Links on Anna Karenina
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 2
- Author of ClassicNote and Sources