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.
Compassion and Forgiveness ThemeTracker
Compassion and Forgiveness Quotes in Anna Karenina
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.
“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!”
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
“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.”
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.
“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!”