Tolstoy's style in Anna Karenina is considered by many critics to be transitional, forming a bridge between the realist and modernist novel. According to Ruth Benson in her book about Tolstoy's heroines, Tolstoy's diaries show how displeased he was with his style and approach to writing in early drafts of Anna Karenina, quoting him as stating, "I loathe what I have written. The galleys of Anna Karenina for the April issue of Russkij Vestnik now lie on my table, and I really don't have the heart to correct them. Everything in them is so rotten, and the whole thing should be rewritten—all that has been printed too—scrapped, and melted down, thrown away, renounced (1876, JI 62: 265)".
Anna Karenina is commonly thought to explore the themes of hypocrisy, jealousy, faith, fidelity, family, marriage, society, progress, carnal desire and passion, and the agrarian connection to land in contrast to the lifestyles of the city. According to literary theorist Kornelije Kvas, in the novel Anna Karenina, "unofficial institutions of the system, presented through social salons, function as part of the power apparatus that successfully calms the disorder created by Anna’s irrational emotional action, which is a symbol of resistance to the system of social behavioral control." Translator Rosemary Edmonds wrote that Tolstoy does not explicitly moralise in the book, but instead allows his themes to emerge naturally from the "vast panorama of Russian life." She also says one of the novel's key messages is that "no one may build their happiness on another's pain."
Levin is often considered a semi-autobiographical portrayal of Tolstoy's own beliefs, struggles, and life events. Tolstoy's first name is "Lev," and the Russian surname "Levin" means "of Lev." According to footnotes in the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation, the viewpoints Levin supports throughout the novel in his arguments match Tolstoy's outspoken views on the same issues. Moreover, according to W. Gareth Jones, Levin proposed to Kitty in the same way as Tolstoy to Sophia Behrs. Additionally, Levin's request that his fiancée read his diary as a way of disclosing his faults and previous sexual encounters parallels Tolstoy's own requests to his fiancée Behrs.