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Literature: Anna Karenina

"Happy Families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
— The opening line of the novel

"The central theme of Anna Karenina is that a rural life of moral simplicity, despite its monotony, is the preferable personal narrative to a daring life of impulsive passion, which only leads to tragedy."
— Klaus Baudelaire's take on the book's central theme, in A Series of Unfortunate Events

Anna Karenina is a Russian novel by Leo Tolstoy, who also wrote War and Peace. It was first published as a serial novel in 1873. Like War and Peace, it has Loads and Loads of Characters.

One of the main threads of the novel centers on Anna Arkadaevna Karenina who is a good, kind, empathetic, but impulsive person and a loving mother who dotes on her son. Like the majority of the women in her social circle, her marriage was determined not by love, but by polite courtship and social convenience. She's married to the much older, cold, and highly respected diplomat Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin (Russian last names generally get altered by gender). One day, after traveling from St. Petersburg to Moscow on a train, she meets the brave officer Alexei Krillovich Vronsky at the train depot, who at the time appears to be on the fast track in his military career. It's Love at First Sight, though the fact that Anna is married — and cannot be granted a fair divorce in the Russian legal system — complicates matters significantly. Gradually, the pair sacrifices everything else they value for each other. Unfortunately, this is not a typical Western romance, but a tragedy: giving everything up for love may not be worth it, as the reactions of friends and family show, especially when said love may be transient.

The other main thread revolves around Konstantin Dmitrievich Levin, who (in contrast to most of the other characters) lives on an estate out in the country rather than in Moscow or St. Petersburg. His country lifestyle (and overly romanticized appreciation for the peasants' way of life) comes into conflict with the customs of high society in the cities, particularly in his stern but well-meaning outlook on life. At the story's start, he is seeking to be married to Ekaterina Alexandrovna "Kitty" Shtcherbatskaya, whom he has known for some time. However, he faces numerous issues of confidence, such as the fact that Kitty is also initially being courted by the very handsome and desirable Vronsky. Although Levin and Anna are both impulsive, Levin carefully considers his options, whereas Anna is unable to resist her desire for a better life.

Some chapters take the point of view of other characters, such as Levin's easygoing friend Stepan Arkadyevich Oblonsky (who is entering a tough spot in his marriage due to infidelity) and Alexei Karenin (who becomes severely depressed when he learns of Anna's infidelity and finds it very difficult deciding whether he will officially divorce Anna, a socially risky move for him, her, and their son). Levin's brothers, the destitute Nikolai Dmitrievich and the highly successful Sergius Ivanich (Levin's half-brother), also play large roles in some chapters, particularly by interjecting philosophical viewpoints in various discussions (which, in some cases, are throughly mocked in the narration).

This book is a Russian classic and tends to be considered a classic love story, though it also contains touches of satire of contemporary Russian society. The novel has been adapted into many versions for both theatrical film and TV, with actresses such as Greta Garbo, Vivien Leigh, Jacqueline Bisset, Sophie Marceau and Keira Knightley in the title role.

Entertainment Weekly ranked it the #1 novel ever written.

This novel provides examples of:

  • Arcadia: The country, where Levin lives, is quite idealized.
  • Anguished Declaration of Love: Levin has one of these early on in the book.
  • Author Avatar: Konstantin Levin, by Tolstoy's admission.
  • Author Filibuster: Tolstoy loves this trope. In fact, the entire final section of this book, after Anna's suicide, which nobody seems to remember, is nothing except an anarcho-pacifist Christian moralist lecture.
  • Author Tract: The book more or less is a vehicle with which to deliver it. By the end of the book, all pretense is dropped and the final 100 page section of the book is nothing except for a prolonged Author Filibuster by Levin.
  • Beta Couple: Levin and Kitty.
  • Big Fancy House: Being written about the Russian aristocracy of the late 19'th century, you can expect that these turn up all the time.
  • Bittersweet Ending
  • Cannot Spit It Out: Koznyshev, when Varenka wants him to propose.
  • Clingy Jealous Girl:
    • Anna towards Vronsky.
    • Dolly feels like this about Stiva's infidelity in the beginning, but eventually learns to ignore it.
    • Kitty is briefly jealous of Anna, who first "steals" Vronsky from her, then attempts to do the same to Levin, but since Levin is truly happy with his wife, there is no real cause for alarm.
  • Crazy Jealous Guy: Karenin and Levin, though the latter gets over it.
  • Costume Porn: At least the adaptations, with all the Gorgeous Period Dress and Pimped Out Dresses the costume designers could get away with.
  • Danceof Romance: Anna and Vronsky during their second meeting at the ball.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Karenin, a trait which grates on Anna's nerves even before her affair, and even more so afterwards.
    Anna: (returning home after her visit to Stiva) Is Seryozha all right?
    Karenin: Is that all I get in return for my ardour?
  • Deconstruction: Possibly one to romance tales of the time.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Anna or Levin, depending on who you ask.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Anna, Vronsky, and many other characters go through this.
  • Dogged Nice Guy: Levin is somewhat like this, although he doesn't start trying to get Kitty back until much later in the story.
  • Doorstopper: It's massive. The book is over 800 pages long.
    • Which is nothing compared to his more famous War and Peace which was several times longer.
  • Did You Think I Can't Feel?: Alexei to Anna.
  • Driven to Suicide: Anna, when everything falls apart. Vronsky is also Driven to Suicide earlier in the story but his attempt fails and he reconsiders. Levin struggles with suicidal urges near the end, due to not finding any true meaning in life.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: You can pretty much tell the author's standpoint on each character depending on how they are at the end of the story. The characters who embodies the author's ideals got the best endings, especially Levin and Kitty.
  • Forbidden Fruit: Vronsky to Anna and vice versa.
  • Fourth Date Marriage: Sort of, with Levin and Kitty. They've known each other for years, and the love between them was mutual, but Kitty turned down his proposal because of Vronsky. When Levin returns later in the story, he hadn't seen her in almost a year, but she accepts his proposal on the same night.
  • Full Name Ultimatum: When the Karenins start to call each other "Anna Arkadyevna" and "Alexey Alexandrovitch", it's a sure sign that their marriage is falling to pieces. Similarly, Stiva knows that as long as his wife calls him by his nickname, she still loves him.
  • Good Girls Avoid Abortion: Whether or not Anna is a good girl is debatable, but she does imply once to her friend Dolly that she either has had, or plans to have, an abortion, because she is afraid that losing her beauty due to pregnancy will make Vronsky lose interest in her.
  • Good Is Old-Fashioned: Vronsky, Stiva and their fashionable city friends feel this way about the country values upheld by Levin.
  • Gratuitous English: The characters talk in many different languages, including English.
  • Gratuitous French: A lot.
    • Truth in Television, it was fashionable for the Russian aristocracy to learn French at the time. The use of French in this novel is pointedly invoked to show when characters are being shallow or keeping each other at a distance, with Russian being the language of honesty and intimacy.
  • Gratuitous German: Occasionally.
  • Happily Married: Levin and Kitty in the latter part of the story, as well as Kitty's parents, and Vronsky's brother and his wife.
  • Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: Kitty, fitting with being The Ingenue.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Nikolai's lover, Masha, whom he rescued from a brothel and who looks after him devotedly throughout his illness.
  • Hypocritical Heartwarming: Nikolai is quite rude to Masha sometimes, but ready to bite the head off anyone else who disrespects her.
  • Ill Girl:
    • Nikolai Levin is a male example. He at several points says that his illness is Definitely Just a Cold and claims to be feeling better, even on the day of his death, but it's clear he is seriously ill.
    • Kitty after Vronsky's rejection; she gets better.
  • I'm a Man, I Can't Help It: Stiva's justification for cheating on his wife; his casual attitude contrasts sharply with the intense tragedy of Anna and Vronsky.
  • In Harm's Way: Vronsky, severely depressed, returns to his military roots in the quasi-epilogue and goes off to fight for Serbian independence as his coping mechanism for Anna's suicide.
  • It Was His Sled: Nabokov invoked this trope about Anna's suicide so his students wouldn't focus entirely on the plot.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Averted with Karenin. He does let Anna go with Vronsky, but in a spirit of bitterness; later on, he refuses to grant a divorce, on the grounds that his strict religion will not allow it.. At times, Vronsky states he would respect Anna's decision to stay with Karenin (for her son) early on.
  • Jerkass: Vronsky
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Anna. Also Karenin, though his heart of gold is buried very deep down.
  • Kick the Dog: Happens all the time, especially when Anna is around.
  • Light Feminine Dark Feminine: Kitty and Anna, respectively.
  • Love at First Sight: Vronsky and Anna.
  • Love Makes You Crazy: Anna
  • Love Makes You Evil: Anna and Vronsky
  • Love Dodecahedron
  • Love Hurts
  • Madonna-Whore Complex: Played straight with Levin at first; to him, women are either "angels" (Kitty and her family) or "vermin" (Stiva's mistresses), with not much room in between. Subverted when he meets Anna near the ending of the book and sincerely admires her.
  • May-December Romance: Anna and Karenin, although their marriage is not exactly romantic even before Vronsky comes on the scene.
  • Meaningful Name: Konstantin Levin. Constantine is of course the emperor who converted Rome to Christianity, just as Levin undergoes his own conversion at the end. And Levin is from "Lev" which is generally the Russian translation of "Leo" as befitting an Author Avatar.
  • Mood-Swinger: Anna and Levin are both victims of this trope, but while Levin has his work on the farm (and, later, Kitty) to help him calm down, Anna's only coping mechanisms are fighting with Vronsky and taking morphine to help her sleep.
  • Morality Chain: Seryozha is one for Anna, but ultimately her dislike of Karenin and love for Vronsky prove stronger than her desire to be with her son.
    • Ironically, little Annie can be considered this for Karenin at her birth.
  • No Hugging, No Kissing: Averted, even between the men.
  • Oh Crap: Anna, upon revealing her affair with Vronsky.
  • Old Maid: Varenka, Kitty's mentor and friend, who teaches her that living a good and useful life is more important than whether or not you get married.
    • Lydia Ivanovna is a less virtuous version.
  • One Steve Limit: Averted. Anna's husband Karenin and her lover Vronsky have the same first name, Alexei. And Vronsky has a brother with the similar name Alexander. Anna's name is shared by her maid and daughter, who are called "Annushka" and "Annie" to tell them apart.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: There's a touch of this although the characters are occasionally addressed by their full names. For example, Princess Ekaterina Alexandrovna Shcherbatskaya is usually referred to by her nickname "Kitty" and Stepan Arkadyevich Oblonsky is referred to as "Stiva." Justified, as people who are intimate in Russia refer to each other by diminutive forms of their names (as first names with patronymics often are uncomfortably long). In the girls' cases, taking Anglicised nicknames like "Kitty," "Betsy," and "Dolly" was the fashion at the time.
  • Panicky Expectant Father: Levin, when Kitty gives birth.
  • Parental Issues: Seryozha. Also Levin, whose mother died when he was very young, which led to him idealizing women (especially Kitty) to an almost impossible degree.
    • Vronsky admits to himself that he does not love, or even respect, his haughty and promiscuous mother.
  • Pet the Dog: Karenin forgiving Anna supposedly when she's dying and reaching out to him. And he bears affection for Annie, Anna's child by Vronsky.
  • The Philosopher: Levin
  • Poisonous Friend: Countess Lydia, for Karenin.
  • Pretty in Mink: It's Russia, but adaptations certainly like applying this trope.
  • Quest for Identity: Anna goes through a number of these, as does Vronsky. Most characters only seem to come to their true characterizations in the country.
  • Rape as Drama: Kitty is molested by a very unpleasant doctor, and very shaken by it.
  • Raven Hair, Ivory Skin: Anna, contrasted with Kitty's Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold. Anna is extremely beautiful with dark hair and white complexion associated with nobility.
  • Redemption Equals Death:
    • Subverted during the birth of Anna and Vronsky's baby. The two of them share a heartwarming moment of reconciliation with Karenin; he forgives them both, promises to the look after the baby... then Anna survives, to her own disappointment, and feels so inadequate in the face of Karenin's kindness that she leaves him, breaking his heart and their son's.
    • Played straight with the death of Nikolai Levin.
  • Romantic Two-Girl Friendship: Kitty has this with Anna, and later Varenka.
  • Royally Screwed Up: With the exceptions of Levin and Kitty, Kitty's parents, and Vronsky's brother and wife, nearly all of the royalty and aristocrats have unhappy and estranged families, or marriages that end in affairs or cold detachment.
  • Screaming Birth: Justified with Kitty's giving birth: she's young, it's her first baby, and medicine at that time wasn't exactly the most sophisticated thing around.
  • Sexless Marriage: Upon learning the truth about Anna's infidelity, Karenin informs her that from now on, she will "receive the privileges of a wife, but not the duties".
    • In the 2012 movies, she outright refuses to let him share the bed: "I can't ... I'm his wife now."
  • Slut Shaming: Anna is viciously shunned by almost everyone she knows, not so much for having an affair (which most of them have done) as for refusing to hide it.
  • The Everyman: Levin.
  • The Ingenue: Kitty.
  • The Kirk: Levin's character and philosophy fall in the middle between those of his two brothers, intellectual Sergey (The Spock) and passionate Nicolai (The McCoy).
  • The Masochism Tango: Anna and Vronsky slide into this after moving in together - while Vronsky is free to socialize with whomever he likes, Anna (see Slut Shaming) has no one but him to turn to for support, which makes her bitterly jealous, and him increasingly disgusted by her jealousy.
  • The Stoic: Karenin.
  • Translation Convention: Happens a lot, because the aristocrats have a tendency to speak in many different languages and it is only by the narrator cluing us in on what language is used that we are aware of this.
    • Many editions also have sections of untranslated foreign language, but it is normally explained in the footnotes.
  • Unwanted Rescue: Vronsky, after he shoots himself.
  • Unusual Euphemism: Levin compares Stiva's adultery to paying for a full meal and then stealing bread rolls. Stiva replies that sometimes "a roll smells so good, one can't help it". Later, whenever Levin jokingly admonishes Stiva about "stealing rolls", we all understand what is meant.
  • Upper-Class Wit: Many of the characters, despite their nobility, are not stupid and most are highly educated.
  • Victorious Childhood Friend: Levin has known Kitty since she was a child.
  • Viewers Are Goldfish: The author loves to have characters keep on reiterating their situations and predicaments. Justified, consiering the length of the book and the many POV skips.
  • Walking the Earth: Nikolai Levin, as a result of some poor financial and lifestyle choices.
  • Women Are Wiser: Kitty is much more practical and level-headed than her husband, which he loves and admires; especially during Nikolai's death.
  • Your Cheating Heart: Most of the aristocrats and royalty, with the exception of a pathetic few, have had (numerous) affairs.
  • Zero Approval Gambit: Karenin tries this and Anna actually walks right into one, knowing that it is her only option.

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alternative title(s): Anna Karenina
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