Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina

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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.
Society and Class  Theme Icon

During the 1870s, while Tolstoy was writing Anna Karenina, Russia was undergoing a great deal of political and societal change. Anna Karenina takes place against the backdrop of liberal reforms introduced by Emperor Alexander II in the 1860s. These reforms included rapid growth of industry, building of railroads, introduction of local government in the form of the zemstvo, military reforms, and a freer press. Throughout the novel, there is a growing tension between the old, patriarchal aristocracy and the rise of a new, freethinking middle class. There is a great deal of tension in the countryside between modernity and tradition. Levin participates in the zemstvo, where we see many debates unfold between new innovation and established methods.

Emperor Alexander’s reforms are huge topic of discussions for the characters throughout the novel. Women’s rights fall under particular scrutiny, both by the characters themselves and by the readers as they watch these debates unfold. During Oblonsky’s dinner party, for example, characters vigorously debate the various nuances and merits of feminism. Traditions are beginning to fade and change, but not without a fight. Dolly and Anna feel suffocated in their marriages and have very few escape options, demonstrating that feminism has yet to take hold in any sort of practical way, even though more and more people may be beginning to embrace some liberal concepts in the abstract. Princess Shcherbatskaya is horrified when Kitty wishes to choose her husband rather than submit to an arranged marriage. And it is certainly no coincidence that Anna and Oblonsky suffer very different levels of consequences for their separate adulteries.

In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy also exposes what he saw as the artifice and vanity of 19th century Russian aristocratic society. The urban world is full of scandal and deception, gossip and rumor. Events in the city are treated on the basis of their societal repercussions. For example, Anna’s adultery is treated primarily as a social sin, not a religious one, and its repercussions are weighted in the matrix of how it will play out in society rather than the personal, individual ramifications. The landed aristocracy is decaying, and a new, rich, bourgeois middle class is taking its place. Tolstoy himself wrote treatises on education and philosophy. After Anna Karenina, he founded utopian communities based on his anarchist ideas that individuals, rather than bureaucratic agencies, should take care of each other and work for the greater good.

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Society and Class ThemeTracker

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

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

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Page Number: 1
Explanation and Analysis:

The famous opening line of the novel sets the novel’s tone. Rather than launching straight into the plot itself, or allowing one of the characters to begin speaking right away, Tolstoy poses a philosophical generalization that sets the stage for the events that are to follow. The opening line also recalls the genre of the family novel, a type of literature popular in Russia during the nineteenth century but seen as old-fashioned by the time Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina. Tolstoy is riffing on the traditional form of the family novel, but expanding it into a philosophical and political meditation.

This opening line establishes the complex relationship to happiness and morality that the novel will present throughout. On the one hand, happiness is of course a state to be desired over unhappiness. On the other hand, there would be no novel if there were no unhappiness—or, at least, the very novel we’re reading wouldn’t be able to exist. Every family in Anna Karenina has its share of deep unhappiness, but that unhappiness is also what makes the family different and intriguing. The relationship between happiness and unhappiness is hardly a simple binary: in many ways, unhappiness is actually the more desirable state.

This opening has also been adopted in popular culture. The “Anna Karenina principle,” for example, which has been widely applied in social sciences, ecology, and statistics, describes a situation in which a failure in any one of a number of categories will cause the whole enterprise to fail.

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Part 1, Chapter 22 Quotes

Kitty had seen Anna every day, was in love with her, and had imagined her inevitably in lilac. But now, seeing her in black, she felt that she had never understood all her loveliness. Now she understood that Anna could not have been in lilac, that her loveliness consisted precisely in always standing out from what she wore, that what she wore was never seen on her. And the black dress with luxurious lace was not seen on her; it was just a frame, and only she was seen – simple, natural, graceful, and at the same time gay and animated.

Related Characters: Anna Arkadyevna Karenina, Princess Katerina (Kitty) Alexandrovna Shcherbatsky
Page Number: 79
Explanation and Analysis:

Anna is so full of inner "animation" that her clothes exist only as a backdrop to her own fire and passion. She is an object of desire not because of the clothes she wears, but because she exudes such a force of character that the clothes "frame" her. Kitty’s description of Anna also illustrates Tolstoy’s ability to slip in and out of the minds of various characters throughout the novel—a technique known as "free indirect discourse." In this depiction, the reader sees Anna as Kitty sees her, with all of Kitty’s particular opinions and biases. If Kitty were viewing Anna unfavorably, she might have chosen to criticize her outfit as seeming too alluring or too suggestive. Anna’s choice to wear a black, revealing dress, rather than an outfit in a more demure color, emphasizes that she wishes to be viewed as a sexually desirable woman. But because Kitty sees Anna with admiration, the reader admires her, too.

Part 1, Chapter 29 Quotes

Anna Arkadyevna read and understood, but it was unpleasant for her to read, that is, to follow the reflection of other people’s lives. She wanted too much to live herself.

Related Characters: Anna Arkadyevna Karenina
Related Symbols: Written Language, Foreign Language, and Communication
Page Number: 100
Explanation and Analysis:

Ironically, Anna, the titular character of a novel dedicated to delving into its characters’ psychologies, does not trust the experience of reading about people, instead insisting on action. However, Anna does not object to reading because she finds it to be a pale comparison of life. On the contrary, reading over-stimulates her emotions, forcing her to spin around and around her decisions with intense scrutiny instead of moving forward.

In her desire to act rather than to read, Anna mirrors Levin. The nervousness and overstimulation that reading produces within her foreshadows Levin’s anxiety when he speaks with his brother about societal concerns. When both characters live too much in the world of words and artificially created structures, they grow overly self-critical and nervous. Anna and Levin both feel restored and calmed by coming back into contact with the natural world. Anna steps outside into the icy air, which exhilarates her and helps lift her feelings of shame and paranoia.

Part 4, Chapter 2 Quotes

“What was that? What? What was that terrible thing I saw in my dream? Yes, yes. The muzhik tracker, I think, small, dirty, with a disheveled beard, was bending down and doing something, and he suddenly said some strange words in French. Yes that’s all there was to the dream,” he said to himself. “But why was it so horrible?”

Related Characters: Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky (speaker)
Related Symbols: Written Language, Foreign Language, and Communication, Dreams and Spiritualism
Page Number: 355
Explanation and Analysis:

Although Vronsky pretends to put on a brave face to the outside world, he feels increasingly fraught with an impending doom that he perceives looming over his life, and he projects this fear into the interpretation of his night visions. Rather than brushing aside dreams, Vronsky takes them seriously. The fact that Vronsky cannot interpret the words of the muzhik (Russian peasant) in his dream fills him with dread. Tolstoy frequently underscores the inability of language to express great emotions throughout the novel: when characters want to express something truly profound or moving, they say nothing at all. However, the inability to understand a spoken language triggers a different set of emotions: fear, anxiety, and dread. When the unspoken is mutually understood, the non-verbal communication creates a shared language between the speakers. But since Vronsky cannot understand what the muzhik is saying, he creates the worst possible scenario in his imagination.

The muzhik’s use of unintelligible French also creates the sense that the social order has been unsettled. In nineteenth-century Russia, French was the language of high culture, and people spoke in French to elevate their positions in society. However, in the dream, the peasant is speaking the language of the aristocracy that Vronsky can no longer understand, which ominously portends Vronsky’s own fall from grace.

Part 4, Chapter 3 Quotes

“And this something turned, and I saw it was a muzhik with a disheveled beard, small and frightening. I wanted to run away, but he bent over a sack and rummaged in it with his hands...” And she showed how he rummaged in the sack. There was horror on her face. And Vronsky, recalling his dream, felt the same horror filling his soul.

Related Characters: Anna Arkadyevna Karenina (speaker), Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky
Related Symbols: Written Language, Foreign Language, and Communication, Dreams and Spiritualism
Page Number: 361
Explanation and Analysis:

Vronsky and Anna have shared the shame dream. When Anna tells Vronsky about her dream of the French-speaking, bearded muzhik rummaging in a sack, unbeknownst to her, she is describing the same person that Vronsky saw in his nightmare. The two lovers are seemingly so bonded that they share a subconscious mind, but the figure in their shared dream arouses horror within both of them. Anna tells Vronsky that Karenin has read the dream to indicate that she will die in childbirth. Karenin’s role in the relationship is already quite shaky: he keeps up the façade of their marriage because he doesn’t want to ruin his reputation, yet he knows that this sham cannot last forever, and so he perceives the vision as causing an end to this fragile state of affairs. The fact that Anna is relaying Karenin’s version of the dream to Vronsky and seeking Vronsky’s reassurance underscores the complicated power dynamic between all of them: though Anna is psychologically and physically bonded with Vronsky, she is still socially bound to Karenin.

However, when Anna is telling Vronsky about the dream, she feels the first stirrings of her child kicking inside her, and her emotions change suddenly from horror to joy. Since Vronsky cannot share the physical cause of her joy, he is puzzled by her sudden shift. Despite the ominous nightmare, Anna, at this point, is still capable of experiencing happiness brought on by the physical world: though she is worried and superstitious, she hasn’t yet surrendered herself completely to omens and dreams.

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 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 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 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.