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Literature / Anna Karenina

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"All happy families are like one another; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

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 numerous characters.

One of the main threads of the novel centers on Anna Arkadaevna Karenina, who is a good, kind, and 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. One day, after travelling from St. Petersburg to Moscow on a train, she meets the brave officer Alexei Krillovich Vronsky, who at the time appears to be on the fast track in his military career, at the train depot. 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' ways) 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 "Stiva" Oblonsky (Anna's brother, 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 to decide whether or not he will officially divorce Anna). Levin's brother and half-brother, the destitute Nikolai Dmitrievich and the highly successful Sergius Ivanich, also play large roles in some chapters, particularly by interjecting philosophical viewpoints in various discussions (which, in some cases, are thoroughly mocked in the narration).

This book is a Russian classic and tends to be considered a timeless 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 (twice, in 1927 and in 1935), Vivien Leigh (1948), Nicola Pagett (1977), Jacqueline Bisset (1985), Sophie Marceau (1997) and Keira Knightley (2012) in the title role. It was also adapted into The ABC miniseries The Beautiful Lie, with a Setting Update to contemporary Australia and starring Sarah Snook as Anna.

Entertainment Weekly ranked it the #1 novel ever written.

This novel provides examples of:

  • Arcadia: The country, where Levin lives, is quite idealized.
  • Author Filibuster: The entire final section of this book is 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 50 page section is nothing except for a prolonged Author Filibuster by Levin.
  • Beta Couple: Levin and Kitty. Their story of heartbreak, healing, and reconciliation (later crowned by a happy marriage) contrasts Anna and Vronsky's passionate affair. Kitty would probably have married Vronsky if he hadn't fallen in love with Anna; as it is, Kitty gets a whole arc of character development and a much more stable husband in Levin.
  • Bittersweet Ending: For Levin and Kitty, they live happily ever after in pastoral harmony. Even Karenin is able to be happy as a father and public servant. But the most famous element of the ending is that Anna commits suicide, leaving heartbreak in her wake for everyone who cared about her.
  • Cannot Spit It Out: Koznyshev, when Varenka wants him to propose. He seems to like her and appreciate her good qualities, but he does not spit it out and there is no match between them.
  • Cast Full of Rich People: The book is about the intertwined relationships of several families in the Russian nobility, with a focus on skewering the value system of Society at the time.
  • Character Title: Anna Karenina.
  • Clingy Jealous Girl:
    • Dolly feels awful because of her husband Stiva's infidelity in the beginning. Justified— she is his wife, she relies on him for everything, she hardly has any recourse (ie divorce). Her character development comes in the form of "being the bigger person" by forgiving Stiva's indiscretions, because he'll always come back to her.
    • Kitty is briefly jealous of Anna, who first "steals" Vronsky from her.
    • Kitty wants Levin to be jealous, but since Levin is truly happy with his wife, there is no real cause for alarm.
    • Anna towards Vronsky at the book's end, as their relationship (and her mental state) falls apart. She accuses him of courting other women in preparation for when he dumps her.
  • Costume Porn: The adaptations have all the Gorgeous Period Dresses and Pimped Out Dresses the costume designers could get away with.
  • Dance of Romance: Anna and Vronsky dance together during their second meeting at the ball and their mutual attraction grows considerably.
  • 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?
  • Dogged Nice Guy: Levin qualifies. He loves Kitty and wants her to be happy. Only about halfway through the book does he realize he stands a chance with Kitty, and he tries to win her heart again.
  • Doorstopper: It's massive. The book is over 800 pages long.
  • Driven to Suicide:
    • Vronsky is Driven to Suicide earlier in the story but his attempt fails and he reconsiders.
    • Anna throws herself under a train when everything falls apart.
    • Levin struggles with suicidal urges near the end, due to not finding any true meaning in life.
  • Duel to the Death: Defied. When wondering what to do about Anna's affair, Karenin briefly wonders if he should challenge her lover to a duel. Though he dismisses the idea on the grounds that he'd lose and was afraid of death; he does realize how utterly futile it would have been if he'd won as he'd merely have killed a man he'd never really know, and his marriage would be none the better.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: You can tell the author's standpoint on each character depending on how they are at the end of the story. The characters who embody the author's ideals got the best endings, especially Levin and Kitty.
  • Foreshadowing: The death of a railroad worker in the book's first chapters, which coincides with Anna and Vronsky's first meeting and prefigures Anna's eventual suicide by train. Anna even calls this an "evil omen" in-text. Also, the bizarre dream shared by Vronsky and Anna foreshadows the same event.
  • Full-Name Ultimatum: When the Karenins start to call each other "Anna Arkadyevna" and "Alexei 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 of untranslated French dialogue. 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.
  • 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.
  • Hypocrite: All of the Society that treat Anna badly after her elopement probably all have had affairs themselves; however, they have had servants as lovers (like her brother Stiva). Also, their relationships were just for sex and were kept behind closed doors. However, Anna's relationship is with a Count, and she breaks the rules by not hiding it.
  • Hypocritical Heartwarming: Nikolai is quite rude to Masha sometimes, but ready to bite the head off anyone else who disrespects her.
  • 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.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Averted with Karenin. He does let Anna go with Vronsky, but he does so 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.
  • 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).
  • 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.
  • The Masochism Tango: Anna and Vronsky slide into this after moving in together - while Vronsky is free to socialize with whomever he likes, Anna has no one but him to turn to for support, which makes her bitterly jealous, and him increasingly disgusted by her jealousy.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: The strange dream shared by Vronsky and Anna, which foreshadows Anna's death.
  • Mal Mariée: Anna is a young beautiful woman married to Karenin, a decidedly middle-aged and boring guy. Their marriage is not exactly romantic even before young and exciting Count Vronsky comes on the scene with whom Anna has a tragic love affair.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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. (The 2012 film alludes to this in the horse scene race where Anna worriedly cries out for "Alexei," referring to Vronsky, and it's Karenin who steps up to comfort her.)
  • 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 is extremely anxious when his young wife Kitty gives birth.
  • Parental Issues:
    • 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.
  • Rape as Drama: Kitty is molested by a very unpleasant doctor, and she is 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 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.
  • Rejected Marriage Proposal: Kitty very awkwardly rejects Levin's initial marriage proposal, because she is hoping the more dashing Vronsky will propose to her instead. Unfortunately, Vronsky was only playing around with her and does not propose, leaving Kitty with no romantic prospects. This sends both of them into despair; Kitty falls ill and has to leave the country to recover, while Levin retreats from society to isolate himself at his country house. The embarrassment of this rejection keeps both of them from getting together for most of the book, despite their mutual interest in each other.
  • 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 movie, 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.
  • Switching P.O.V.: While the majority of the book follows a core group of maybe seven characters (Levin, Anna, Vronsky, Karenin, Kitty, Oblonsky, and Dolly), virtually everyone in the huge cast gets at least a moment in the spotlight. A couple of scenes even put us in the head of Levin's dog!
  • Translation Convention: This 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.
  • Tragic Stillbirth: Anna loses her and Vronsky's baby.
  • 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.
  • Viewers Are Goldfish: The author loves to have characters keep on reiterating their situations and predicaments. Justified, considering the length of the book and the many POV skips, as well as the fact that it was originally published in serialized installments.
  • Women Are Wiser: Kitty is much more practical and level-headed than her husband, which he loves and admires; especially during Nikolai's death.
  • Zero-Approval Gambit: Karenin tries this and Anna actually walks right into one, knowing that it is her only option.

Tropes found in the 1927 film ("Love"):

  • Comforting Comforter: Anna tucks her son in.
  • Multiple Endings: MGM ordered two endings—Tolstoy's ending, in which Anna throws herself in front of the train, and a happy ending in which Anna survives and she and Vronsky are reunited after Karenin's death. Contrary to what the restored edition of the film says, the Happy Ending was not specifically for American audiences; exhibitors had a choice of which ending to show and in many areas the original ending was shown.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: Conforms more or less to Anna's story, but includes none of Levin's story.
  • Studio Audience: A rare example of this in a live-action film. When this film was given a musical score as it was being restored in 1994, the score was recorded in the presence of a live audience that was watching the movie. This resulted in a score with audience laughter at inappropriate moments, and the sound of applause when Anna and Vronsky are reunited in the Happy Ending.
  • Time Skip: Three years between Anna leaving Vronsky and the Happy Ending.