Character: Anna Karenina
From: Anna Karenina
Created by: Leo Tolstoy
Portrayed in Other Media by: Betty Nansen (1915 film), Greta Garbo (1935 film), Ingrid Bergman (1944 radio), Vivien Leigh (1948 film), Marlene Dietrich (1949 radio), Jacqueline Bisset (1985 TV movie), Sophie Marceau (1997 film), Kelly Kaduce (1997 opera), Keira Knightley (2012 film)
Character History: Anna Karenina was a young woman in 19th century Russia, a member of the elite ruling class. At a young age, she married Alexei Karenin, a prominent statesmen who was twenty years her senior. While she did not love him, she loved what he could give her and she enjoyed his company, filled with what she viewed as intelligence. After the birth of their son Seryozha and Alexei's rise to power, Anna became removed from Alexei's daily life and devoted herself to their son.
One day, while journeying to St. Petersburg to visit her brother Stiva and his wife, the Princess Darya (nicknamed Dolly), Anna met Count Vronsky, a wealthy, vibrant military man, at the train station when a railroad worker is killed by a train. Vronsky is taken by her beauty and poise. Anna does her work of convincing Dolly not to divorce Stiva for his infidelities in their marriage, as they are both still quite happy and in love despite his cheating.
Anna meets Vronsky again at a ball, and she becomes aware of his infatuation for her. Unloved by her husband, Anna is moved by him. When returning to Moscow, she forces herself into Vronsky's path, by befriending his cousin Princess Betsy, and when the two finally meet again alone, they become lovers.
During a horse chase in which Vronsky is competing, Karenin realizes what everyone else around him already knows: his wife is cheating on him with the Count. He asks Anna to do what is right for their son: namely, never see Vronsky again, and Karenin will forgive her.
But Anna is pregnant, and after giving birth to what is surely Vronsky's daughter Annie, she nearly dies. Karenin, realizing that he had been cold and distant to Anna and how he might be partially to blame for their love affair, forgives Vronsky. Vronsky, in horror at his breach of honor, tries to commit suicide by a gunshot through the chest but fails. Anna too survives but Karenin refuses to grant the divorce the lovers want.
Vronsky, deciding to escape back into the army, is preparing to leave after he recovers. Anna comes to him, and they decide to run away to Europe, instead. They take their daughter, nicknamed Annie, but they are forced to leave Seryozha, which breaks Anna' s heart. Karenin tells their son that Anna is dead.
Anna and Vronsky, after a period of boredom with their lives and missing home, return to Russian society, but Anna is mortifed by the rejection she feels from her former friends. Anna manages to meet Seryozha in secret, and the boy confesses he never believed his mother was dead. Anna and Vronsky retire to his St. Petersburg estate, even though Vronsky has become estranged from his family due to his affair with Anna.
While Anna entertains some of the more liberal members of society, she stills feels that her life was been destroyed, though by her actions, by Karenin, or by Vronsky, she is not sure. She becomes increasingly jealous of Vronsky, begins to drug herself, and does not love Annie the way she loves Seryozha. Vronsky becomes popular in the political world, even while Karenin suffers a fall from grace. Anna devotes herself to charming Vronsky's new friends and to being the patron of an orphaned girl.
When Vronsky becomes so involved with his newly refound freedom, Anna becomes even more isolated. Anna, now paranoid, sends Vronsky a telegram to come home. When he fails to do so, she chases after him, and being unable to locate him, throws herself onto the tracks of a coming train. She is killed. Since she and Karenin were never divorced, Karenin reclaims Annie to raise as his own, while Vronsky leaves his new found political career to re-enter the army.
Personality: Anna begins the book as a vibrant and beautiful young woman who is married to a man she doesn't really love but at least respects. It is not until she falls passionately in love with Vronsky does her world unravel, including her own mind. She loves her son but cannot love her daughter in the same way. Towards the end of her life, she becomes increasingly paranoid and thoughts of suicide invade her daily thoughts. She was smart and a little brave but could not handle the stress of losing her place in society. She was most afraid of being alone.
Archetypes: Anna is best suited to the archetypes of the Adulterer, and for her stunning beauty and her later games of making men fall in love with her, the Seductress. Her and Vronsky's relationship can best be described as The Dangerous Love, where the danger only adds to the passion of the romance. Thanks to the times she lives in, she could also be the Sinner, for while she has some faith, she cannot stop herself from falling in love with Vronsky and sinning against God with him. She could also be a Bad Mother, depending on your view, since she abandons her son and cannot bring herself to love her daughter as much as her other child.
Other Versions: Anna Karenina has been adapted into several other forms, all at least loosely based on the original text. Since the novel is considered one of the most representative of its era and a classic in its own right, it has been adapted onto film and TV screens, into ballets, operas, and stageplays, and had spin-offs written by other people inspired by the original work. It has also been alluded to hundreds of times by other works, especially Anna's death.
Main Analysis: In older stories, and we're talking old-old stories, the purpose was to teach a lesson. These didactic narratives eventually became teaching tools for children, and we tend to think that modern literature avoids this lesson-teaching ideal. But in reality, narratives (even popcorn lit) carry themes, the adult version of lesson-teaching. So what is Tolstoy trying to tell his readers when Anna throws herself in front of that train?
The question to be asked first, though, is whether Tolstoy is condemning Anna by this suicide (suicide still being a sin), or if his planned death for her was a release from a terrible life (as it could have been in pre-Christian or Eastern cultures). If it's the first, then Tolstoy is trying to make us sad or for us to condemn Anna ourselves for her wanton ways. If it's the second, then Tolstoy is saying that Anna did not deserve this fate and will be better off in the next world.
Anna's life was indeed awful by the time she died. Her husband had sundered her relationship with the son she loved, she was suffering from what many people would call postpartum depressive (she found little joy with her new daughter), and her growing dependence on drugs for sleep was seemingly driving her paranoia. By modern standards, Anna was suffering from severe depression.
But, still, Tolstoy does seem to suggest that Anna's hell is at least partially her creation, and partially the creation of Karenin and the society around her. Karenin marries Anna, even when he is sure she doesn't actually love him - and it's not even clear if Karenin even loves her. Like most things in his life, it was all about doing the right thing, in the eyes of society.
At the other end of the spectrum, Anna has lost her societal standing by taking up with Vronsky in lust. And while he makes her desperately happy, society still slowly destroys her, to the point that Vronsky becomes her enemy. Her jealousy and loneliness warp her mind, and Vronsky, now himself taken up by that same society, doesn't realize the danger until it is too late. While he knew something had to be done, he simply didn't know what to do to fix it, or at least, couldn't juggle his new life with his love for Anna.
In this view, Tolstoy is not condemning Anna. The only problem is, though, that Anna leaves behind two children. While Vronsky survives Anna's death, he is a shell of his former shelf (and Tolstoy hints in my opinion that he probably won't survive that army excursion) and Karenin loses his societal status and prestige. Only her brother Stiva seems to go on without her, returning to his extramarital affairs to ease the pain.
In this view, Anna's death is selfless, since Anna might give her children a better chance at life in society if the black mark that is theirmother is gone. Annie might actually be married if she is seen in polite society as not the bastard daughter but Karenin's rightful child. Seryozha, too, might do better without her, despite his love for his mother.
Anna's death is more a warning against the power of society on us than on the powers of love. Anna is not destroyed by her love for Vronsky (though jealousy is often seen as a flipside of extreme passion), but rather by the life society forces her into. If Karenin had granted Anna the divorce, Anna might not have succumbed to her paranoia. And while it might be partially due to his own self-interest, it was definitely mostly society that held Kareninback. Thus, society's influence wrecked not only Anna's chance at happiness, since her marriage to Karenin, proper and right in the eyes of society, was simply never happy.
Similar Characters: Lovers' Death by Suicide: Romeo and Juliet
Cheating Women: Madame Bovary
Women with Postpartum Depression: Brooke Shields in Down Came the Rain: My Journey Through Postpartum Depression
Buy It Here!: Anna Karenina