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"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
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 sacrifice 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. There are several films of the book.
- 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
- Blue and Orange Morality: This is more or less how Vronsky lives. He has a very internally inconsistent, but armor clad set of rules about how he may act, treat other people, handle situations, and everything else in his life.
- Cannot Spit It Out: Koznyshev, when Varenka wants him to propose.
- Costume Porn: At least the adaptations, with all the Gorgeous Period Dress and Pimped Out Dresses the costume designers could get away with.
- 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.
- 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. 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.
- Gratuitous English: The characters talk in many different languages, including English.
- Gratuitous French: A lot
- 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.
- Ho Yay: A blink-and-you'll-miss-it scene between Vronsky and his friend Yashvin early on in the book has raised more than a few questions about Vronsky and his love interest.
- 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.
- 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 hard with Karenin.
- Jerkass: Vronsky
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Anna
- Kick the Dog: Happens all the time, especially when Anna is around.
- Les Yay: Between Kitty and Anna early on (some translations describe Kitty has having "fallen in love" with Anna, and Kitty and Varenka later.
- Love At First Sight: Vronsky and Anna.
- Love Makes You Crazy: Anna
- Love Makes You Evil: Anna and Vronsky
- Love Dodecahedron
- Love Hurts
- 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.
- 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.
- No Hugging, No Kissing: Strongly averted, even between the men.
- Oh Crap: Anna, upon revealing her affair with Vronsky.
- One Steve Limit: Anna's husband Karenin and her lover Vronsky have the same first name, Alexei. And Vronsky has a brother with the similar name Alexander.
- 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.
- The Philosopher: Levin
- Poisonous Friend: Countess Lydia, for Karenin.
- Pretty in Mink: Of course it's Russia, but adaptations are certainly 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.
- 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.
- Tall, Dark and Bishoujo: Anna
- The Everyman: Levin
- The Ingenue: Kitty
- The Not So Stoic: Anna is married to one of the most controlled characters in fiction.
- The Stoic: Anna's Husband, Alexei Karenin.
- The Unfair Sex: While Dolly (understandably) is hurt and shocked by her own husband cheating on her, she completely and avidly supports Anna cheating on her husband. She even lies to Stiva that she cheated on him due to admiration for Anna's own confession.
- 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.
- Upper Class Wit: Many of the characters, despite their nobility, are not stupid and most are highly educated.
- Viewers Are Goldfish: The author loves to have characters keep on reiterating their situations and predicaments.
- Walking the Earth: Nikolai Levin, as a result of some poor financial and lifestyle choices.
- 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.