Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina

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Compassion and Forgiveness Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Marriage and Family Life  Theme Icon
Adultery and Jealousy Theme Icon
Physical Activity and Movement Theme Icon
Society and Class  Theme Icon
Farming and Rural Life Theme Icon
Compassion and Forgiveness Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Anna Karenina, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Compassion and Forgiveness Theme Icon

The Biblical epigraph to Anna Karenina is “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” Despite this mentality of revenge underpinning the novel, forgiveness and vengeance are both core components in how characters approach their various situations. In Anna Karenina, characters are neither wholly good nor entirely bad. Everyone has a mixture of admirable qualities and shameful flaws, so all individuals need to be understood and treated on their own terms rather than judged and dismissed. Although compassion has a strong Christian underpinning throughout the novel, characters are primarily driven to forgive not by their desire to fulfill an abstract, higher Christian law but by their empathy for others on an individual, human level. When Anna has her daughter, Annie, she becomes seriously ill in childbirth. She asks Karenin for compassion as she sobs bitterly, exclaiming that she knows she does not deserve his compassion. Karenin forgives her, compelled rationally by his sense of Christian morality but convinced emotionally by the physical presence of Anna’s grief. However, when Anna recovers, she still leaves with Vronsky rather than remaining in her stifling marriage. Though Karenin forgives Anna when she appears to be on her deathbed, his compassion does not extend toward granting her the divorce she desires. Ultimately, Karenin accepts Anna’s daughter after Anna commits suicide, thus sealing their relationship in forgiveness rather than bitter enmity for the future.

Forgiveness spreads from individual to individual throughout Anna Karenina: characters often come to respect each other by being able to understand and forgive others. Compassion for another human being strengthens the relationship between Kitty and Levin. Although they have a difficult time at first adapting to marriage and life together on the farm, by caring together for Levin’s sick brother, Nikolai, they come to develop forgiveness for each other’s flaws as well. When Dolly reluctantly decides to forgive Oblonsky, she tells Anna, “If you forgive, forgive completely,” explaining that complete forgiveness resulting in a blank slate is the only way her marriage can ultimately heal.

Not only does Tolstoy describe how other characters develop forgiveness for each other throughout the novel, the reader is compelled to feel compassion and empathy for characters themselves, even when these characters have made terrible mistakes or have committed hurtful actions. Tolstoy uses the technique of the interior monologue to describe what’s going on inside the characters’ heads. Readers see the world directly as the characters see it. When the reader knows exactly how the characters perceive the world, they are more inclined to feel sympathy towards and forgive these characters, even when their deeds put them in the wrong. Although Anna’s adulterous actions are objectively wrong, for example, readers empathize with her decisions because they see the world through her suffering.

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Compassion and Forgiveness ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Compassion and Forgiveness appears in each chapter of Anna Karenina. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Compassion and Forgiveness Quotes in Anna Karenina

Below you will find the important quotes in Anna Karenina related to the theme of Compassion and Forgiveness.
Part 1, Chapter 32 Quotes

And the son, just like the husband, produced in Anna a feeling akin to disappointment. She had imagined him better than he was in reality. She had to descend to reality to enjoy him as he was.

Related Characters: Anna Arkadyevna Karenina, Count Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin , Sergei Alexeich (Seryozha) Karenin
Page Number: 107
Explanation and Analysis:

The version of the world that exists in Anna’s imagination and the world that she actually lives in are not always parallel. Indeed, over the course of the novel, the gap between Anna’s mind and the physical world grows and grows until, in the end, she is consumed by warped perceptions and jealous thoughts. Anna has constructed a vision in her head of how she thinks the world ought to be and how she believes she should feel, and when that vision of herself does not match reality, she has to figure out which version of herself she trusts.

Although imagination initially seems to be more majestic than the real world, once Anna returns to reality and interacts with the real version of her son, she finds that his physical presence soothes her and produces a sense of “moral ease.” Reality and the physical world are much more trustworthy than imagination throughout the novel. Even though Anna initially thinks that the paragon of her son in her mind’s eye is superior to real life, living in a fantasy of ideal figures is unsustainable, and coming down to reality is not a letdown, but an act that is morally and emotionally grounding.

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Part 4, Chapter 12 Quotes

“I cannot forgive, I do not want to, and I consider it unjust. I did everything for that woman, and she trampled everything in the mud that is so suitable to her. I am not a wicked man, I have never hated anyone, but I hate her with all the strength of my soul, and I cannot even forgive her, because I hate her so much for all the evil she has done me!”

Related Characters: Count Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin (speaker), Anna Arkadyevna Karenina
Page Number: 394
Explanation and Analysis:

Karenin’s outburst against Anna arises as the culmination of emotions that he has kept bottled up for a long time. As the affair between Vronsky and Anna builds, Karenin becomes more and more uncomfortable talking about Anna, because he feels ashamed and cuckolded. At a dinner party at Oblonsky’s house, the men start discussing infidelity, which makes Karenin deeply uncomfortable. Karenin would rather not talk at all about Anna, preferring instead to maintain the façade of social respectability on all accounts, but when Dolly begs him to have a conversation with her about Anna, Karenin finally cracks and does so, revealing the deep anger brewing under his stoic surface.

Dolly pleads on Anna’s behalf to Karenin, begging him to forgive Anna and to do anything but divorce her. Dolly appeals to Karenin’s sense of fairness and rationality, arguing that because Anna had helped Dolly through Oblonsky’s infidelity, and because Anna had saved Dolly’s life, Karenin should pay the gesture forward and forgive Anna. Karenin is typically a man of reason and logic, and such arguments should have worked. However, in this situation, Karenin’s own irrefutable emotions override rationality. Even though he wants to keep up appearances, he also has a deeply stubborn streak, and because he feels he has been wronged, he cannot bend his own sense of the situation. Karenin’s outburst of emotion is surprising, because he typically does not reveal such passion, but in other ways, it is also comes as something of a relief, as it breaks the tension and reveals Karenin as a fully dimensional character capable of being hurt, rather than putting up with anything to maintain his reputation.

Part 4, Chapter 13 Quotes

“Here,” he said, and wrote the initial letters: w, y, a, m: t, c, b, d, i, m, n, o, t? These letters meant: “When you answered me: ‘that cannot be,’ did it mean never or then?” ... She wrote, t, I, c, g, n, o, a ... And he wrote three letters. But she was reading after his hand, and before he finished writing, she finished it herself and wrote the answer: “Yes.”

Related Characters: Konstantin (Kostya) Dmitrich Levin (speaker), Princess Katerina (Kitty) Alexandrovna Shcherbatsky (speaker)
Related Symbols: Written Language, Foreign Language, and Communication
Page Number: 397-398
Explanation and Analysis:

Oblonsky’s dinner party is ostensibly an event that brings people together for a single, united purpose. However, Tolstoy uses the occasion to explore all the various subplots and conversations swirling under the surface of the event. At the same dinner party in which Karenin explodes to Dolly in a rage against Anna, revealing the passions that had been building unspoken inside of him, Levin and Kitty are developing their own relationship, revealing to both themselves and each other the bond that has grown between them. Throughout Anna Karenina, language is a weak tool for communication, and the deepest bonds are revealed when people can connect without words.

Levin’s proposal to Kitty is almost a parody of the extent to which words are superfluous when two people are deeply in love. Levin presents Kitty with an abbreviated code of initial letters, rather than full words, to express his hope that she can forgive him. The fact that they communicate in written code, rather than spoken word, also deepens the power of their unspoken communication. Not only do Levin and Kitty have a coded interaction happening on the page in front of them, they are physically very close to each other, so they are having an unspoken physical conversation that reinforces the unspoken written conversation.

Levin’s proposal and Kitty’s acceptance also have an air of superstition. The emotions are so fraught and fragile that bringing them out into the open air might make the whole situation doomed. Instead, Levin writes them in code, so that they can be unheard and therefore more profoundly understood for their true nature. Tolstoy translates the code between Levin and Kitty for the reader. The reader must experience their love through the secondhand, imperfect medium of words, and the reader can watch but not enter the bond between Levin and Kitty.

Part 4, Chapter 15 Quotes

All that night and morning Levin had lived completely unconsciously and had felt himself completely removed from the conditions of material life. He had not eaten for a whole day, had not slept for two nights, had spent several hours undressed in the freezing cold, yet felt not only fresh and healthy as never before but completely independent of his body.

Related Characters: Konstantin (Kostya) Dmitrich Levin
Related Symbols: Natural World
Page Number: 402
Explanation and Analysis:

When Levin proposes to Kitty and she accepts him, the world seems to align itself to Levin’s benefit. Here, the natural world is not a mirror of Levin’s mood, but instead, he sees his own happiness reflected in the world around him. Even the most mundane sights, like pigeons flying in the sun and cabbies waiting to drive people home, appear to be imbued with significance and joy.

Yet Levin’s emotions, wonderful as they may be, are not sustainable. Levin is so filled with joy that he doesn’t notice the cold weather, or that he might be hungry or tired; instead, he ignores his responses to the natural world in favor of celebrating his pure joy upon a triumphant proposal to Kitty. On the one hand, transcending the needs of the body is exhilarating, and Levin indulges in his excitement. However, at some point Levin will have to live in the real world, and he must learn how to balance his emotional and his bodily sensations.

Part 5, Chapter 6 Quotes

Often and much as they had both heard about the belief that whoever is first to step on the rug will be the head in the family, neither Levin nor Kitty could recall it as they made those few steps. Nor did they hear the loud remarks and disputes that, in the observation of some, he had been the first, or, in the opinions of others, they had steps on it together.

Related Characters: Konstantin (Kostya) Dmitrich Levin , Princess Katerina (Kitty) Alexandrovna Shcherbatsky
Page Number: 457
Explanation and Analysis:

Even though Levin and Kitty did not immediately seem as though they were destined for matrimonial bliss, their relationship takes a happy trajectory over the course of the novel. If Dolly and Oblonsky’s marriage is unhappy yet remains content, and Anna and Karenin’s unhappy marriage falls apart, Kitty and Levin work through failed courtships and the unhappiness of separation to achieve, ultimately, a happy marriage.

Kitty and Levin’s marriage ceremony demonstrates the equality that they will have throughout their relationship. The first one who steps on the pink silk at the altar is supposedly the symbolic head of the household, yet neither one of them, nor anyone at the ceremony, can tell who stepped first. Like Adam and Even leaving Eden hand in hand at the end of Paradise Lost, Levin and Kitty enter into their marriage with the same (symbolic, but not necessarily social) power. No one has stepped on the rug first, so they both have equal footing in their partnership. The fact that different spectators have different opinions about what occurred during the marriage ceremony also foreshadows some of the squabbles that they will have in their relationship. Equality, however, does not always mean perpetual harmony. Levin will still get jealous and possessive of Kitty, and Kitty might grow restless at times in the country. Yet ultimately, Levin and Kitty have a solid, loving partnership.

Part 5, Chapter 20 Quotes

The sight of his brother and the proximity of death renewed in Levin’s soul that feeling of horror at the inscrutability and, with that, the nearness and inevitability of death, which had seized him on that autumn evening when his brother had come for a visit. The feeling was now stronger than before; he felt even less capable than before of understanding the meaning of death, and its inevitability appeared still more horrible to him; but now, thanks to his wife’s nearness, the feeling did not drive him to despair: in spite of death, he felt the necessity to live and to love. He felt that love saved him from despair and that under the threat of despair this love was becoming still stronger and purer.

Related Characters: Konstantin (Kostya) Dmitrich Levin , Princess Katerina (Kitty) Alexandrovna Shcherbatsky, Nikolai Dmitrich Levin
Related Symbols: Natural World
Page Number: 504
Explanation and Analysis:

Nikolai’s death in the novel is the culmination, on the one hand, of tragedy and grief. However, his passing is ultimately part of the natural cycle of life, and it paves the way for rejuvenation and happiness. Tolstoy pairs Nikolai’s death with Kitty’s discovery of her pregnancy to celebrate the cycle of life. Levin can tolerate his brother’s passing because he has found his larger place within the natural world. When he had only his brother to cling to as a family figure, Levin tied his own self-worth with his brother’s illness. However, because he now has Kitty’s love, and because he loves Kitty, Levin does not fall into an abyss of despair over his brother’s passing. Instead, Levin grieves for Nikolai in a mature, balanced fashion, discovering that his grief can be balanced in an equal and opposite way by his emotions towards Kitty. Nikolai’s death crystallizes Levin’s deep bond with Kitty. Kitty helped care for Nikolai on his deathbed, easing one person out of the world as a new life, unbeknownst to her, began to quicken in her womb.

Part 6, Chapter 16 Quotes

But even without looking in the mirror she thought it was still not too late. She remembered Sergei Ivanovich, who was especially amiable to her, and Stiva’s friend, the kindly Turovtsyn, who had helped her take care of her children when they had scarlet fever and was in love with her. And there was also one quite young man who, as her husband had told her jokingly, found her the most beautiful of all the sisters. And Darya Alexandrovna pictured the most passionate and impossible love affairs.

Related Characters: Princess Darya (Dolly) Alexandrovna Oblonsky (speaker), Prince Stepan (Stiva) Arkadyevich Oblonsky
Page Number: 608
Explanation and Analysis:

Dolly has made the choices in life that uphold her reputation and her husband’s reputation in society. When Oblonsky cheated on her, she did not leave him. Instead of having an affair or getting a divorce, she chose to save their marriage, remain faithful, and maintain their social status. Even though Dolly has made what society would deem to be the proper choice, she views Anna’s sexual prowess with envy and jealousy. Dolly wonders if she has squandered her youth and her ability to make men fall in love with her. Rather than chastising Anna, Dolly projects herself into Anna’s position.

Though Anna seems to have taken the less moral road, and though Dolly has made the choices that seem more ethically upstanding, Dolly has not found happiness. Dolly romanticizes Anna’s choice of love over societal conventions, and she imagines a glamorous fantasy of herself as a woman to be worshipped and desired by men. The difference between Dolly’s fantasy and Anna’s, however, is that Dolly’s vision of herself as having a wonderfully romantic affair remains squarely in the imagination, whereas Anna turns her love affair into reality. Even though Dolly gets to have all the benefits of her fantasy without any of the drawbacks of dealing with the negative repercussions of real life, she doesn’t get the pleasures of real life, either—while Anna, for her part, turns her fantasy into reality, and experiences all the not-so-romantic consequences.

Part 7, Chapter 14 Quotes

He knew and felt only that what was being accomplished was similar to what had been accomplished a year ago in a hotel in a provincial capital, on the deathbed of his brother Nikolai. But that had been grief and this was joy. But that grief and this joy were equally outside all ordinary circumstances of life, were like holes in this ordinary life, through which something higher showed. And just as painful, as tormenting in its coming, was what was now accomplished; and just as inconceivably, in contemplating this higher thing, the soul rose to such heights as it had never known before, where reason was no longer able to overtake it.

Related Characters: Konstantin (Kostya) Dmitrich Levin (speaker), Princess Katerina (Kitty) Alexandrovna Shcherbatsky, Nikolai Dmitrich Levin
Related Symbols: Natural World, Dreams and Spiritualism
Page Number: 713
Explanation and Analysis:

Levin sees both the death of Nikolai and the birth of his child as events that stand outside the scope of his normal life. At this point in the novel, Levin has proceeded throughout most of his daily activities without giving much thought to a higher power. However, in moments of extreme emotion, Levin embodies the cliché that "there are no atheists in foxholes." When he finds himself in the presence of birth or death, and feels powerless to make any change happen by his own physical means, Levin finds himself repeating a prayer over and over. He feels so deeply connected to Kitty that their bond transcends reason and logic and makes him aware of a force beyond the realm of ordinary existence.

Levin’s transformation from a staunch atheist into an avowed believer mirrors Tolstoy’s spiritual journey. When Tolstoy was a young man, he was a firm atheist, but by the end of his life, he had converted and become an extremely spiritual person. Levin’s deep connection with the natural world through his farm is paralleled by his growing connection to the supernatural world through faith.

Part 7, Chapter 24 Quotes

“Respect was invented to cover the empty place where love should be. But if you don’t love me, it would be better to say so.”

Related Characters: Anna Arkadyevna Karenina (speaker), Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky
Related Symbols: Written Language, Foreign Language, and Communication
Page Number: 744
Explanation and Analysis:

When Vronsky wants to delay traveling and getting married for a few days so that he can take care of business for his mother, Anna becomes hysterical, accusing Vronsky of using respect as an excuse to avoid committing himself to her. The leap of logic between Vronsky’s accusation that she doesn’t respect his mother and Anna’s assertion that Vronsky doesn’t love her makes little sense. Anna herself realizes that she’s going too far in making this link, but she cannot stop herself, even though she knows that she is going beyond the bounds of reason. Anna’s jealousy has warped her love for Vronsky into irrational, addictive possessiveness.

Tolstoy often uses the ability, or lack thereof, of characters to communicate without words as a barometer that demonstrates the strength of their relationship. In the beginning of their relationship, Anna and Vronsky hardly needed words at all to communicate, since their thoughts and emotions were in sync. With just the flicker of a glance across the platform at the railway station, they understood their love for each other and their bond to each other. However, as the novel progresses, Anna grows increasingly jealous and increasingly anxious about her relationship with Vronsky. She reads every situation as an opportunity to find a demonstration of how his love for her has dimmed.

Part 7, Chapter 30 Quotes

“No, you’re going in vain,” she mentally addressed a company in a coach-and-four who were evidently going out of town for some merriment. “And the dog you’re taking with you won’t help you. You won’t get away from yourselves.”

Related Characters: Anna Arkadyevna Karenina (speaker)
Related Symbols: Trains
Page Number: 762
Explanation and Analysis:

As Anna is preparing to commit suicide at the train station, she projects her own despair onto her surroundings. Anna uses the sight of the innocent carriage-riders to express her own perturbed state of mind. She laments that these unknown travelers will never get away from themselves, which only underscores the all-consuming, self-centered nature of her own tragedy. Anna addresses the travelers in her mind, but it is really herself that she’s addressing. Anna can no longer perceive any other state of mind or emotion beyond that of her own despair. Anna’s misery has turned into a vortex that sucks in and distorts everything she sees.

Anna’s belief that everything in life is in vain mirrors Levin’s belief that everything humans do is in vain, but her approach is from a very different perspective. Anna has sacrificed everything in her life to feed her own desires, but she realizes that she can never get away from herself, and she concludes that her only option is to commit suicide. Levin, on the other hand, recognizes that even though life is futile, he can be happy by not attempting to rationalize everything, but instead accepting what life will offer him and living via faith and action. Anna’s solution to the futility of life rejects the idea of a higher power, but the fact that the novel continues after her death, and that it ends with Levin, not Anna, suggests that Tolstoy offers a worldview to the reader that promises redemption, despite Anna’s totalizing misery.

Part 7, Chapter 31 Quotes

And just at that moment when the midpoint between the two wheels came even with her, she threw the red bag aside and, drawing her head down between her shoulders, fell on her hands under the carriage, and with a light movement, as if preparing to get up again at once, sank to her knees.

Related Characters: Anna Arkadyevna Karenina (speaker)
Related Symbols: Trains
Page Number: 768
Explanation and Analysis:

When Anna succeeds in committing suicide, she does not leap wildly; rather, her fall is premeditated, and she kneels before the train, as though in prayer, or as though she is about to be married. Kneeling suggests that Anna is submitting herself to a higher power. The “red bag” is an important detail in this scene, as it symbolically references many previous aspects of the plot. The red bag gets in the way when Anna initially tries to jump into the tracks, just as Vronsky’s gun got in the way when he attempted to commit suicide and he misfired.

Although the red bag prevents Anna from jumping in front of the first carriage, she does not take its role as a shield to be a sign that she should not go through with her action. Instead, she tosses the protective bag aside and prostrates herself in front of the next carriage. Red is the color of love and of blood: with the bag on her arm, Anna is symbolically wearing her heart on her sleeve. The color also recalls Anna’s red lips when she saw Vronsky at the train station at the beginning of the novel. At the beginning of the novel, red signified desire and lust; while it still signifies desire here, this passion pulls Anna toward death, not love.

Part 8, Chapter 19 Quotes

“I’ll get angry in the same way with the coachman Ivan, argue in the same way, speak my mind inappropriately, there will be the same wall between my soul’s holy of holies and other people, even my wife, I’ll accuse her in the same way of my own fear and then regret it, I’ll fail in the same way to understand with my reason why I pray, and yet I will pray – but my life now, my whole life, regardless of all that may happen to me, every minute of it, is not only meaningless, as it was before, but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which is in my power to put into it!”

Related Characters: Konstantin (Kostya) Dmitrich Levin (speaker), Princess Katerina (Kitty) Alexandrovna Shcherbatsky
Page Number: 817
Explanation and Analysis:

Levin’s statement at the end of the novel is an opposite but mirrored image of the conclusion that Anna draws about the world. Like Anna, who projects her self-centered despair onto everything else around her, Levin finds evidence to support his frame of mind in the world around him. But unlike Anna, who perceives everything around her as evidence that she will never be able to get outside of herself, Levin sees the world as evidence of the power and potential of the essential good inside him. Anna sees herself as ultimately destructive, but Levin sees himself as ultimately productive and redemptive.

Anna’s story and Levin’s story are intertwined throughout the novel as point and counterpoint. Anna’s trajectory is tragic, as the fatal flaw of her jealousy consumes her entire world and leads her to despair. Levin’s trajectory, in contrast, is comic (in the dramatic sense, not in the sense of "amusing"), as his story concludes with a happy marriage and a harmonic resolution. Levin, not Anna, has the book's closing lines, suggesting that Levin’s perspective is the one that the reader is suggested to leave the novel with. Tolstoy opens the novel with his own philosophy, but he lets Levin have the final word, suggesting that the character has—at least in some ways––caught up to the narrator.