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Anna Karenina. By Lev Tolstoy. A Classic. Considered one of the world’s greatest novels At least nine film and TV film versions, plus theatrical dramatizations Opening sentence famous, frequently quoted: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

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Anna karenina l.jpg

Anna Karenina

By Lev Tolstoy


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A Classic

  • Considered one of the world’s greatest novels

  • At least nine film and TV film versions, plus theatrical dramatizations

  • Opening sentence famous, frequently quoted:

    “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

  • Commonly seen simply as a novel about an extra-marital affair that ends in suicide (cf Flaubert, Madame Bovary)

  • In fact a complex interweaving of themes and characters


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The product of its age

  • Novel written and published from 1873 to 1877 in “thick journal” Russky vestnik (The Russian Messenger).

  • Journal refused the last part, so that the instalment version ended with Anna’s suicide. Refused mainly because of Tolstoy’s sarcastic depiction of the Russian volunteers going to fight in Serbia.

  • Definitive book version appeared in 1879.


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Background: Alexander II’s reforms

  • Period of rapid change in Russian society

  • Complication of the situation of the Russian nobility (дворянство)

  • The liberation of the serfs: the emergence of the future “kulaks”

  • The rise of a new business class – partly Jewish

  • The creation of zemstvos: local democracy

  • Railway as symbol of the new industrialized Russia in the making


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Levin as Tolstoy

  • Position of Tolstoy the conservative thinker expressed by Levin

  • Clearly autobiographical figure: shares details of Tolstoy’s own life

  • The invisible narrator-author shines through in Levin – cf Nikolenka in Childhood

  • Direction of sarcasm (e.g. description of Obolensky at the restaurant) is clearly felt by the reader to be that of Tolstoy.


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Social changes reflected in plot

  • Opening sentence states the theme: happy and unhappy families

  • Polemic with the radical/nihilistic thinking about free love

  • The changing nature of marriage: Princess Shcherbatskaia does not know how to arrange her daughter’s marriage

  • Shifting social attitudes towards divorce and the family


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More social changes reflected in plot

  • The clash of values: imported, Western values

  • French, English influence marked as negative

  • Hostility towards foreign languages

  • The question of faith: how can an educated nobleman believe the way the simple peasant believes?

  • The polemic with rationalism, Western social theories


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Marriage among the upper class in the 1870s

  • In transition from the arranged marriage, towards one based on love

  • Anna is in an arranged marriage (considered an abomination by the radicals)

  • The older couple Shcherbatskys almost certainly in well-arranged marriage

  • Why did Stiva Oblonsky marry Dolly? – For her money.

  • Officially the woman’s wealth remains her property in marriage


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Divorce in Tsarist Russia

  • Divorce is difficult and usually the result of fake evidence about who is “guilty.”

  • “Guilty” party loses parental rights

  • Tolstoy shows the hypocrisy surrounding extra-marital affairs and depicts the complicated procedures for divorce.

  • Does he disapprove or approve of society’s norms?


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A paradigm of couples

  • Tolstoy creates a spectrum of couples in the text, who illustrate the varieties of relationships possible, and the outcomes.

  • The plot weaves back and forth from one couple to another.

  • Certain “affinities” are detected between individuals outside the couples: e.g.,Vronsky and Kitty, Levin and Anna

  • The real heart of the novel is the Anna – Levin – Dolly triangle


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Spatial and temporal organization

  • Takes place from February 1872 to July 1876

  • At one point the time of Vronsky-Anna is over a year ahead of Levin-Kitty

  • Action shuttles spatially from place to place

  • Moscow – perceived as the good, patriarchal heart with true Russian values

  • St Petersburg: the centre of a cold bureaucracy with imported, foreign values

  • The Russian countryside

  • Western Europe: German spa Solden and Italian town


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Vronsky and Anna(Vasily Lanovoy from film by Aleksandr Zarkhi 1967 and Greta Garbo 1935 dir. Clarence Brown)


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The adulterers

  • Prime dramatic focus of the novel: seen intimately, right down to their emotions and dreams, but ultimately viewed from the perspective of Levin/Tolstoy

  • Anna is married to Aleksei Karenin, some 20 years older than her (NB Vronsky’s name is also Aleksei.)


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Stiva and Dolly Obolensky

  • Stiva Oblonsky is Anna’s brother. Both were brought up by an aunt. Stiva is a bon vivant, and the novel begins with the news of his affair

  • Dolly is Kitty Shcherbatsky’s older sister.

  • Along with Levin, Dolly serves as one of the moral foci of the novel. She is the devoted mother of her children.

    (left: Aleksandr Abdullov as Oblonsky)


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Levin and Kitty

  • Levin’s first proposal is rejected because of Vronsky

  • The ritual of the second proposal and the wedding taken from Tolstoy’s own life

  • Kitty is a junior version of her sister Dolly: a coper and someone devoted to family values


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Minor couples

  • Nikolai Levin (Konstantin’s brother) and his common-law wife Marya Nikolaevna or Masha

  • Sergei Ivanovich Koznyshev (Levin’s half-brother and Varenka – to whom he nearly proposes.

  • Aleksei Karenin and Countess Lydia Ivanovna, who becomes his confidante after the break-up of his marriage


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Lev Tolstoy in 1873

The real drama in Anna Karenina: a strong virile man with a powerful sex drive, who is in conflict with his own puritanical outlook on sex. The book can be a seen as an attempt to come to terms with this contradiction.


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