History: Published in serial installments from 1873 to 1877 in the periodical The Russian Messenger. Tolstoy clashed with its editor Mikhail Katkov over issues that arose in the final installment; therefore, the novel's first complete appearance was in book form. Tolstoy considered Anna Karenina his first true novel, when he came to consider War and Peace to be more than a novel. The character of Anna was likely inspired, in part, by Maria Hartung (Russian spelling Maria Gartung, 1832–1919), the elder daughter of the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. Soon after meeting her at dinner, Tolstoy began reading Pushkin's prose and once had a fleeting daydream of "a bare exquisite aristocratic elbow", which proved to be the first intimation of Anna's character.
Although Russian critics dismissed the novel on its publication as a "trifling romance of high life", Fyodor Dostoevsky declared it to be "flawless as a work of art.
Plot: The novel opens with a scene introducing Prince Stepan Arkadyevitch Oblonsky, "Stiva", a Moscow aristocrat and civil servant who has been unfaithful to his wife Darya Alexandrovna, nicknamed "Dolly". Dolly has discovered his affair - with the family's governess - and the house and family are in turmoil. Stiva's affair and his reaction to his wife's distress shows an amorous personality that he cannot seem to suppress. In the midst of the turmoil, Stiva reminds the household that his married sister, Anna Arkadyevna Karenina is coming to visit from Saint Petersburg. Meanwhile, Stiva's childhood friend Konstantin Dmitrievich Levin ("Kostya") arrives in Moscow with the aim of proposing to Dolly's youngest sister Princess Katerina Alexandrovna Shcherbatskaya, "Kitty". Levin is a passionate, restless but shy aristocratic landowner who, unlike his Moscow friends, chooses to live in the country on his large estate. He discovers that Kitty is also being pursued by Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky, an army officer.
At the railway station to meet Anna, Stiva bumps into Vronsky. Vronsky is there to meet his mother. It surmises that Anna and the Countess Vronskaya have traveled together in the same carriage and talked together. As the family members are reunited, and Vronsky sees Anna for the first time, a railway worker accidentally falls in front of a train and is killed. Anna interprets this as an "evil omen." Vronsky is infatuated with Anna. Anna, who is uneasy about leaving her young son, Seryozha, alone for the first time, talks openly and emotionally to Dolly about Stiva's affair and convinces Dolly that her husband still loves her, despite his infidelity. Dolly is moved by Anna's speeches and decides to forgive Stiva.
Dolly's youngest sister, Kitty, comes to visit her sister and Anna. Kitty, just 18, is in her first season as a debutante and is expected to make an excellent match with a man of her social standing. Vronsky has been paying her considerable attention, and she expects to dance with him at a ball that evening. Kitty is very struck by Anna's beauty and personality and is infatuated with her. When Levin proposes to Kitty at her home, she clumsily turns him down, because she believes she is in love with Vronsky and that he will propose to her.
At the ball, Vronsky pays Anna considerable attention, and dances with her, choosing her as a partner instead of Kitty, who is shocked and heartbroken. Kitty realises that Vronsky has fallen in love with Anna, and that despite his overt flirtations with her he has no intention of marrying her and in fact views his attentions to her as mere amusement, believing that she does the same.
Anna, shaken by her emotional and physical response to Vronsky, returns at once to Saint Petersburg. Vronsky travels on the same train. During the overnight journey, the two meet and Vronsky confesses his love. Anna refuses him, although she is deeply affected by his attentions to her.
Levin, crushed by Kitty's refusal, returns to his estate farm, abandoning any hope of marriage, and Anna returns to her husband Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin, a senior government official, and their son Sergei ("Seryozha") in Petersburg.
On seeing her husband for the first time since her encounter with Vronsky, Anna realises that she finds him repulsive, noting the odd way that his ears press against his hat.
The Shcherbatskys consult doctors over Kitty's health which has been failing since she realizes that Vronsky did not love her and that he did not intend to propose marriage to her, and that she refused and hurt Levin, whom she cares for, in vain. A specialist doctor advises that Kitty should go abroad to a health spa to recover. Dolly speaks to Kitty and understands that she is suffering because of Vronsky and Levin. Kitty, humiliated by Vronsky and tormented by her rejection of Levin, upsets her sister by referring to Stiva's infidelity and says she could never love a man who betrayed her.
In St. Petersburg, Anna begins to spend more time with the fashionable socialite and gossip Princess Betsy and her circle, in order to meet Vronsky, Betsy's cousin. Vronsky continues to pursue Anna. Although Anna initially tries to reject him, she eventually succumbs to his attentions.
Karenin warns Anna of the impropriety of paying too much attention to Vronsky in public, which is becoming a subject of society gossip. He is concerned about his and his wife's public image, although he believes that Anna is above suspicion.
Vronsky, a keen horseman, takes part in a steeplechase event, during which he rides his mare Frou-Frou too hard and she falls and breaks her back. Vronsky escapes with minimal injuries but is devastated that his mare must be shot. Anna tells him that she is pregnant with his child, and is unable to hide her distress when Vronsky falls from the racehorse. Karenin is also present at the races and remarks to her that her behaviour is improper. Anna, in a state of extreme distress and emotion, confesses her affair to her husband. Karenin asks her to break off the affair to avoid society gossip and believes that their relationship can then continue as previously.
Kitty goes with her mother to a resort at a German spa to recover from her ill health. There they meet the Pietist Madame Stahl and the saintly Varenka, her adopted daughter. Influenced by Varenka, Kitty becomes extremely pious, but is disillusioned by her father`s criticism. She then returns to Moscow.
Levin continues his work on his large country estate, a setting closely tied to his spiritual thoughts and struggles. Levin wrestles with the idea of falseness, wondering how he should go about ridding himself of it, and criticising what he feels is falseness in others. He develops ideas relating to agriculture and the unique relationship between the agricultural labourer and his native land and culture. He believes that the agricultural reforms of Europe will not work in Russia because of the unique culture and personality of the Russian peasant.
Stiva stays with Levin on his country estate when he makes a sale of a plot of land, to provide funds for his expensive city lifestyle. Levin is upset at the poor deal he makes with the buyer and his lack of understanding of the rural lifestyle.
Levin pays Dolly a visit, and she attempts to understand what happened between him and Kitty and to explain Kitty's behaviour to him. Levin is very agitated by Dolly's talk about Kitty, and he begins to feel distant from her as he perceives her behaviour towards her children as false. Levin resolves to forget Kitty and contemplates the possibility of marriage to a peasant woman. However, a chance sighting of Kitty in her carriage as she travels to Dolly's house makes Levin realise he still loves her.
In St. Petersburg, Karenin exasperates Anna by refusing to separate from her. He insists that their relationship remain as it was and threatens to take away their son Seryozha if she continues to pursue her affair with Vronsky.
Anna continues to pursue her affair with Vronsky. Karenin begins to find the situation intolerable. He talks with a lawyer about obtaining a divorce. In Russia at that time, divorce could only be requested by the innocent party in an affair, and required either that the guilty party confessed (which would ruin Anna's position in society) or that the guilty party was discovered in the act. Karenin forces Anna to give him some letters written to her by Vronsky as proof of the affair. However, Anna's brother Stiva argues against it and persuades Karenin to speak with Dolly first.
Dolly broaches the subject with Karenin and asks him to reconsider his plans to divorce Anna. She seems to be unsuccessful, but Karenin changes his plans after hearing that Anna is dying after a difficult childbirth. At her bedside, Karenin forgives Vronsky. Vronsky, embarrassed by Karenin's magnanimity, attempts suicide by shooting himself. He fails in his attempt but wounds himself badly.
Anna recovers, having given birth to a daughter, Anna ("Annie"). Although her husband has forgiven her, and has become attached to the new baby, Anna cannot bear living with him. She hears that Vronsky is about to leave for a military posting in Tashkent and becomes desperate. Stiva finds himself pleading to Karenin on her behalf to free her by giving her a divorce. Vronsky is intent on leaving for Tashkent, but changes his mind after seeing Anna.
The couple leave for Europe - leaving behind Anna's son Seryozha - without obtaining a divorce.
Much more straightforward is Stiva's matchmaking with Levin: a meeting he arranges between Levin and Kitty results in their reconciliation and betrothal.
Levin and Kitty marry and immediately go to start their new life together on Levin's country estate. The couple are happy but do not have a very smooth start to their married life and take some time to get used to each other. Levin feels some dissatisfaction at the amount of time Kitty wants to spend with him and is slightly scornful of her preoccupation with domestic matters, which he feels are too prosaic and not compatible with his romantic ideas of love.
A few months later, Levin learns that his brother Nikolai is dying of consumption. Levin wants to go to him, and is initially angry and put out that Kitty wishes to accompany him. Levin feels that Kitty, whom he has placed on a pedestal, should not come down to earth and should not mix with people from a lower class. However, Kitty persuades him to take her with him. Kitty nurses Nikolai until he dies. She also discovers she is pregnant.
In Europe, Vronsky and Anna struggle to find friends who will accept their situation. Whilst Anna is happy to be finally alone with Vronsky, he feels suffocated. They cannot socialize with Russians of their own social set and find it difficult to amuse themselves. Vronsky, who believed that being with Anna in freedom was the key to his happiness, finds himself increasingly bored and unsatisfied. He takes up painting, and makes an attempt to patronize an émigré Russian artist of genius. Vronsky cannot see that his own art lacks talent and passion, and that his clever conversation about art is an empty shell. Bored and restless, Anna and Vronsky decide to return to Russia.
In Petersburg, Anna and Vronsky stay in one of the best hotels but take separate suites. It becomes clear that whilst Vronsky is able to move in Society, Anna is barred from it. Even her old friend, Princess Betsy - who has had affairs herself - evades her company. Anna starts to become very jealous and anxious that Vronsky no longer loves her.
Karenin is comforted – and influenced – by the strong-willed Countess Lidia Ivanovna, an enthusiast of religious and mystic ideas fashionable with the upper classes. She counsels him to keep Seryozha away from Anna and to make him believe that his mother is dead. However, Seryozha refuses to believe that this is true. Anna manages to visit Seryozha unannounced and uninvited on his ninth birthday, but is discovered by Karenin.
Anna, desperate to resume at least in part her former position in Society, attends a show at the theatre at which all of Petersburg's high society are present. Vronsky begs her not to go, but is unable to bring himself to explain to her why she cannot go. At the theatre, Anna is openly snubbed by her former friends, one of whom makes a deliberate scene and leaves the theatre. Anna is devastated.
Unable to find a place for themselves in Petersburg, Anna and Vronsky leave for Vronsky's country estate.
Dolly, her mother the Princess Scherbatskaya, and Dolly's children spend the summer with Levin and Kitty on the Levin country estate. The Levin's life is simple and unaffected, although Levin is uneasy at the "invasion" of so many Scherbatskys. He is able to cope until he is consumed with an intense jealousy when one of the visitors, Veslovsky, flirts openly with the pregnant Kitty. Levin tries to overcome his jealousy but eventually succumbs to it and in an embarrassing scene evicts Veslovsky from his house. Veslovsky immediately goes to stay with Anna and Vronsky, whose estate is close by.
Dolly also pays a short visit to Anna at Vronsky's estate. The difference between the Levins' aristocratic but simple home life and Vronsky's overtly luxurious and lavish country home strikes Dolly, who is unable to keep pace with Anna's fashionable dresses or Vronsky's extravagant spending on the hospital he is building. However, all is not quite well with Anna and Vronsky. Dolly is also struck by Anna's anxious behaviour and new habit of half closing her eyes when she alludes to her difficult position. When Veslovsky flirts openly with Anna, she plays along with him even though she clearly feels uncomfortable. Vronsky makes an emotional request to Dolly, asking her to convince Anna to divorce her husband so that the two might marry and live normally. Dolly broaches the subject with Anna, who appears not to be convinced. However, Anna is becoming intensely jealous of Vronsky, and cannot bear it when he leaves her for short excursions. The two have started to quarrel about this and when Vronsky leaves for several days of provincial elections, a combination of boredom and suspicion convinces Anna she must marry him in order to prevent him from leaving her. She writes to Karenin, and she and Vronsky leave the countryside for Moscow.
The Levins are in Moscow for Kitty's confinement. Despite initial reservations, Levin quickly gets used to the fast-paced, expensive and frivolous Moscow society life. He starts to accompany Stiva to his Moscow gentleman's club, where drinking and gambling are popular pastimes. At the club, Levin meets Vronsky and Stiva introduces them. Levin and Stiva pay a visit to Anna, who is occupying her empty days by being a patroness to an orphaned English girl. Levin is uneasy about the visit and not sure it is the proper thing to do, and Anna easily makes Levin fall in love with her. When he confesses to Kitty where he has been, she accuses him of falling in love with Anna. The couple are reconciled, realising that Moscow life has had a negative, corrupting effect on Levin.
Anna, who has made a habit of inducing the young men who visit her to fall in love with her, cannot understand why she can attract a man like Levin, who has a young and beautiful new wife, but cannot attract Vronsky in the way she wants to. Anna's relationship with Vronsky is under increasing strain, as whilst he can move freely in Society - and continues to spend considerable time doing so to stress to Anna his independence as a man - she is excluded from all her previous social connections. She is estranged from baby Annie, her child with Vronsky. and her increasing bitterness, boredom, jealousy and emotional strain cause the couple to argue. Anna starts to take morphine to help her sleep, and becomes dependent on it.
After a long and difficult labour, Kitty gives birth to a son, Mitya. Levin is both extremely moved and horrified by the sight of the tiny, helpless baby.
Stiva, visits Karenin's to encourage his commendation for a new post he is seeking. During the visit he asks him to grant Anna a divorce, but Karenin's decisions are now governed by a French "clairvoyant" – recommended by Lidia Ivanovna – who apparently has a vision in his sleep during Stiva's visit, and gives Karenin a cryptic message that is interpreted as meaning that he must decline the request for divorce.
Anna becomes increasingly jealous and irrational towards Vronsky, whom she suspects of having love affairs with other women, and of giving in to his mother's plans to marry him off to a rich Society woman. There is a bitter row, and Anna believes that the relationship is over. She starts to think of suicide as an escape from her torments. In her mental and emotional confusion, she sends a telegram to Vronsky asking him to come home to her, and pays a visit to Dolly and Kitty. Anna's confusion overcomes her, and in a parallel to the railway worker's accidental death in part 1, she commits suicide by throwing herself in the path of a train.
Stiva gets the job he desired so much, and Karenin takes custody of baby Annie. A group of Russian volunteers, including Vronsky, who does not plan to return alive, depart from Russia to fight in the Orthodox Serbian revolt that has broken out against the Turks. Meanwhile, amid the joys and fears of fatherhood, Levin no longer feels he lacks Christian faith; he decides to give his life its own meaning through acts of goodness.
Review: Written while Tolstoy was wrestling with a religious crisis that nearly destroyed him, the book is filled with passion and soul-searching. Yet Anna Karenina is a book that covers much more than one woman's misguided love affair. Tolstoy's broad canvas is big enough to include insight into happy marriages, adultery, sexuality, country life, politics, masculinity and femininity, individuality, conformity, altruism, love, death, longing and success. On nearly every one of its more than 800 pages is a sliver of Tolstoy's philosophy of life. Again and again, these small philosophical interludes resound with meaning that is as applicable today as it was more than a century ago. Tragedy unfolds as Anna rejects her passionless marriage and must endure the hypocrisies of society. Set against a vast and richly textured canvas of nineteenth-century Russia, the novel's seven major characters create a dynamic imbalance, playing out the contrasts of city and country life and all the variations on love and family happiness.
Opening Line: “Everything was in confusion in the Oblonskys' house.”
Closing Line: "I shall go on in the same way, losing my temper with Ivan the coachman, falling into angry discussions, expressing my opinions tactlessly; there will be still the same wall between the holy of holies of my soul and other people, even my wife; I shall still go on scolding her for my own terror, and being remorseful for it; I shall still be as unable to understand with my reason why I pray, and I shall still go on praying; but my life now, my whole life apart from anything that can happen to me, every minute of it is no more meaningless, as it was before, but it has the positive meaning of goodness, which I have the power to put into it."
Quotes: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. “
“And death, as the sole means of reviving love for herself in his heart, of punishing him, and of gaining the victory in that contest which an evil spirit in her heart was waging against him, presented itself clearly and vividly to her.”