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.
Society and Class ThemeTracker
Society and Class Quotes in Anna Karenina
All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
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.
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.
“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?”
“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.
“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.”
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.
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.
“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!”