Life Conflict: “Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy Essay

May 16, 2022 by Essay Writer

Updated: May 30th, 2020

In the ever-memorable epic of a woman in Russian society, trying to achieve self-will, Anna Karenina, is an exemplification of conflicts between the accepted and unaccepted social norms. Anna Karenina is a treatise of conflict between the novel’s commiseration for both the adulterer and the family. Tolstoy, from the very beginning of the novel, is empathetic towards Anna even though he accepts her conduct as sinful, and includes an image of familial life that could prevent it. The problem of adultery of married women gained importance in nineteenth-century novels (for example, Madam Bovary by Gustave Flaubert).

The problem of non-adherence to the conventional role of a married woman becomes a paradigm for the analysis of the problems that are created in interrelated patterns. Tolstoy tried to portray that marriage is a mediator of the social, familial, religious, and transcendental realms. Overall, the story of Anna Karenina is the story of a woman in her twenties who is married to a staunch, boring man and leads a dull life. She falls in love with another man who presents her with the passions of life that marriage failed to provide. The affair diminishes into mere sensuality of relationship, most probably due to its illicit nature.

With heightened sexuality arises insecurity of love. As time passes, Anna becomes more demanding of her lover and feels out of desperation that she will lose her lover. With time, her jealousy thrives more, and she becomes more demanding, in doing so, only driving him further away. Eventually, frustrated with burning jealously and insecurity, Anna commits suicide by throwing himself in front of a train. The novel deals with the conflict of the adulteress who has broken a human and societal code but still gains sympathy from the author and the readers. Marriage was mythologized in Shakespearean drama, while in the nineteenth-century, marriage was the myth that the fictions like Anna Karenina demystified.

Background of Anna Karenina

French literature has been bursting with the theme of adultery since the publication of Les Liaisons Dangeureauses. French proses on adultery influenced the creation of Tolstoy’s love epic. The story drew heavily from French proses and the philosophy of Rousseau. It had been fashioned in European style and had been written as a moral philosophical treatise based on the relation of Karenin, Anna, and Vronskii. Tolstoy presents to the readers an adulterous triangle in Anna, her husband, lover, and the happy marriage of Kitty and Levin. These two marriages, juxtaposed with one another, to demonstrate the Gospels of the sacrament of marriage.

The difference between Tolstoy’s tale of adultery is that the French stories were narrated from the point of view of the deceived husbands. Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary from the perspective of the heroine, which was unlike any other novel dealing with the subject of female adultery (Karpushina 75). However, Tolstoy fathomed prose that incorporated all the subtexts and perspectives.

Family and Marriage

What units constitute a family? What idea of family is expressed in the novel? How does Tolstoy distinguish between a good and a bad family? The presence of family is an essential part of the novel Anna Karenina. The novel begins with Tolstoy’s belvedere on family: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” (Tolstoy 4). Here the word “happy” implies harmonious. Families may be discerned by the problems that they face.

The equation of the families in Tolstoy’s novel is not linear. Not all families that are “good” are not “happy.” For instance, the Sviazhskiis are not “happy” as a family, but their family may be considered “good.” They are childless, but they have a good time. For instance, they are constantly quarreling over the future of Kitty. Kitty’s mother wants to arrange Kitty Vronskii’s marriage, failing to see that it would be a bad match for Kitty as was for Dolly. Kitty’s mother does not see why she was sick, but her father, being an intuitive man, finds the reason. On the insistence of Kitty’s father, she is married to Levin. Hence, we see the Sviazhskiis family comprises of a “good” father and slightly vain mother.

Kitty and Levin to have a good family, but their family is not always bestowed with happiness. Kitty and Levin have a “good” family but the incidents of domestic conflicts based on trifles such, as jealousy does not show the picture of a “happy” family.

In another instance, the childless marriage of the Wendens may apparently seem satisfactory but if they are happy or not is debatable. Lady Wenden is does not discourage the officers to steel fleeting glances at her. Karenin too recollects Darialov’s name as one among the cuckolds of high society. The only family, which can be considered happy in Tolstoy’s novel, is that of the Lavov’s. One reason for this may be the loyalty the spouses hold towards each other that makes their marriage a success. The novel presents a decadence of morality and fidelity from traditional marriage and family. Thus, Tolstoy’s philosophy of a happy family and marriage is predominantly based on the question so loyalty and disloyalty to one’s spouse.

Tolstoy believes a spouse’s infidelity creates a vacuum for the familial life, which corrupts the very essence of marriage. Infidelity leads to impurity in the pedigree of the future generation and imbibes corruption within the familial walls (Karpushina 67). Implicitly, Tolstoy propagates the belief that the characters shown by parents influence the child largely, and therefore, creates a specific view of life in the child. For instance, Levin was an orphan and his parentless formative years left him insecure as an adult. His remembrance of his parents was only through his mother, and hence, he wanted his wife to resemble the image of his mother he had in his mind. Levin’s concept of family is one that Tolstoy propagates.

Kitty belonged to an honorable family, and Levin believed that she was representative of all the values that her family upheld. That is one reason he is dismissive of Vronskii who did not have an illustrious family background. Kitty’s parents are from a well to do society, with great family values and committed to family life. Dolly and Natalie, two of Kitty’s sisters are shows as a model of morality, goodness, and character in the novel. Natalie had a happy marriage (Meyer 211). Dolly’s marriage is not a happy one, which was primarily because of Stiva, her husband’s perfidy.

Here one must understand that Tolstoy makes a clear distinction between happy marriages and happy family. Marriage is entailed only to the relation between the husband and wife, while family has a larger spread, with different units. Incase of Dolly and Stiva it can be observed that Dolly and Stiva had an unsatisfactory married life, however, their family life went on smoothly. On the other hand, a happy family life was not an indication of a happy marriage.

Ancestry and Marriage

The idea of marriage in Tolstoy’s novel is restricted to the relationship between husband and wife. However, unhappiness in married life was restricted to mutual respect and fidelity between couples. An absence of loyalty in a marriage would create unhappy marriages.

To understand the background of the failure of Anna’s marriage one has to go back to the roots of its inception. Her aunt raised Anna. Anna’s aunt was a shrewd woman and she almost manipulated Karenin to marry her niece (Karpushina 72). Another of Anna’s aunt was Princess Varavara. She was shown as a parasite, who spent her life as a poor relation living under the roof of wealthier relatives (Karpushina 81).

Dolly who is demonstrated as the epitome of moral character in the novel scorns her. Apart from this, Tolstoy has spared no other detail regarding Anna’s childhood or ancestry. The only background divulged to judge Anna is that she is Stiva’s sister. Nothing has been told about Anna and Stiva’s parents in the novel. From this one may intuitively conclude that the key to understanding Anna’s character is her relationship with Stiva. Hence, if one understands that Tolstoy wanted to demonstrate the importance of upbringing on moral character as an adult, may be considered as a hint of Anna’s infidelity. However, Anna cannot be solely blamed for the downfall of their marriage (Meyer 208). Karenin, like Anna was orphaned at an early age and was brought up by relatives. Karenin had a brother. He soon after he and Anna were married (Karpushina 83). This sad past left Karenin an isolated heart.

Both Karenin and Vronskii were from descendants of family members who were employed with or were associated with the government office. Karenin’s uncle was a government official and Vronskii father’s social recognition rested on a special distinction received from the higher authorities. However, the difference between the characters of Karenin and Vronskii becomes apparent when the question of honor arises.

Karenin marries Anna for he believes it was his obligation and duty while Vronskii betrays Kitty’s hopes without any scruple (Meyer 210). Further Tostoy stresses on the absence of familial environment during the formative years of Vrinskii’s life to demonstrate the imminent unimportance of family life to him. Vronskii, though was not an orphan until late in life, was not close with his family, nor did he live them. He lived a lonely life with other young officers. He grew up in a military milieu away from the warmth of a family.

On the other extreme is Levin who cannot imagine a life beyond family values. Family holds the most important position in Levin’s heart. Indecency in Vronskii was mostly due to his parentage (Meyer 209).

His father gained his fortune through social climbing while his mother was a woman of easy virtue. This demonstrates that Vronskii was influenced by his lack of family values to have engaged in an affair with a married woman. Though Vronskii loved Anna, knew well that high society will not accept their relation, even if Anna successfully received a divorce from Karenin. He had no real family since childhood, and it is with Anna that he desperately tries to recreate a family. But it becomes a failure because Anna did not reciprocate to his desires for a family and since he did not know how to make one.

In the household of Dolly and Stiva, Dolly maintains the family and the marriage. The reason being she was from a “good” background. However, Anna’s family was doomed to fail as neither Anna nor Karenin had any real family to base their familial model on.

In the end of the novel, after Anna’s death, Vronskii shrugs responsibility of his and Anna’s daughter who is taken in by Karenin. Vronskii forsake his child because he did not want a family. His family line discontinues to absence of anyone to carry his name. On the contrary, Karenin’s name will live as Anna son and daughter will bear that name.

Social Tradition

Society and its code dominate the decorum of the life of the Moscovite high society. Traditions and social discourse dominate the mindset of the people living in the society and they judge people based on the habits that they have learnt. The idea of being upright, moral, honorable were considered assets. Anna, being an adulteress was branded as a “fallen woman”, was rejected by the society.

The novel strenuously interrogates the gender and marital relations based on the traditions and rules constructed by society. The social traditions that have been projected through the novel are basic to the gender roles that are specific to the characters. For instance, Stiva engages in adultery but is continuously forgiven by Dolly, and has no problem in gaining acceptance in society. However, Anna was shunned from society, branded as a “fallen woman”. She even had to meet her son secretly. The punishment society bestowed on Anna was higher than that imposed on men committing the same act were.

The case against Anna was a social retribution against her conducts, construed in such a way that she, ultimately, had to commit suicide. The society treats her in such a manner that suicide becomes inevitability for Anna. The use of conventional morality as a social norm and tradition drove the heroines of the nineteenth century to death. This definitely demonstrates the inequalities present in the western society against men and women. The moral message present in the story was the social tradition of the time. Anna’s death even before the last chapter, and Levin’s flourishing family life was due to the formers wrong choices and the latters right choices.

Social tradition and public opinion has a strong influence on the conducts of most of the characters of the novel. For instance, Karenin expresses to Anna that public opinion was important to him. In the end, it becomes an important part in creating Anna’s fate. Social traditions in the nineteenth century were strong and were right to deride a wife’s bad conducts and to leave the infidel unpunished was unthinkable in public moral discourse.

Karenin believed that the presence of their son had created a natural bond between Anna and himself; however, with the birth of a another child by Anna from her lover created fresh wrath in him for he could not accept the fact that her love for her son would be divided because of this newborn. This newfound anger makes him want to divorce Anna. Karenin’s voice is the tradition of the society that speaks throughout the novel.

The presence of a successful family as is found in that of Stiva and Dolly or Levin and Kitty forms a backdrop to Anna’s adultery. The question of happiness in family life is embedded through the social traditions, which in turn are related to the basic understanding of the customs of the society. The social customs and traditions based on Christian beliefs of morality and fidelity brands Anna as the culprit for the unhappiness of Karenin-Anna’s family. Social traditions dominate the perspective some of the other characters have towards Anna and towards her familial life.

Self Will and Freedom

Tolstoy considered the imposition of self-will for personal happiness as a hindrance to familial happiness. The couples that have been found to opt actions that would present personal happiness but would not. Necessarily, make others close to him/her happy has led to ill consequences and heartache in the family. For instance, in Dolly-Stiva relationship, happiness of the family is compromised due to Stiva’s infidelity.

On the other hand, the relationship of Kitty and Levin flourished due to mutual respect and faithfulness. A consistent communication that is found in the relationship of Kitty and Levin creates unambiguous relationship.

Anna, stuck in a mundane marriage, yearns for unbridled passion, which she finds in Vronskii. She is so bored in her lackluster family life that she goes beyond the social traditions, and the fear of being a social pariah, engages in an affair with another man. Anna’s expression of passion is a show of self-will that defines her character. However, this expression brings her fatal misfortune. On the other hand, controlled passion and unhindered communication results in happy marriages. The expression of self-will in the novel is done to break free from the ordinary existence – as observed in case of Stiva and Anna. However, this one expression led to other problems such as insecurity and jealousy. On the other hand, Levin and Kitty show the make of a more stable couple who embrace passion in their lives but do not allow it to rule them. Unlike them, Anna and Vronskii allow themselves to be completely swayed in the passion of lust, which eventually leads to their isolation.


Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina is an exposition marriage and happiness in marriage and family. Tolstoy differentiates between marriage and family in the novel. By developing his characters and couples, Tolstoy has shown the importance of love and fidelity in a relationship, which would dictate the happiness quotient of a marriage. Familial happiness though necessarily dependent on the relationship of the couples, was not a sufficient condition.

For instance, in case of Stiva and Dolly, they were an unhappy couple, but their familial life seemed harmonious. Here one must understand the social traditions of the time dictated the gender roles in a family, and adherence to it enabled a good and happy family. Marriages, on the other hand, were based completely on mutual trust and faithfulness of couples. Expression of self-will is also discussed in the novel through discussion of the characters. Anna is main character who expresses tremendous self-will by denouncing her marriage in favor of an illicit love affair that destroys her social standing. By choosing to be an adulteress, she was permanently branded as a fallen woman and found no place in the society.

Works Cited

Karpushina, Olga. “The Idea of the Family in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: The Moral Hierarchy of Families.” Studies in Slavic Cultures (2001): 63-92. Print.

Meyer, Priscilla. “Anna Karenina, Rousseau, and the Gospels.” The Russian Review 66(2) (2007): 204-219. Print.

Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina. NA: Creative Commons Attribution, na. E-book. Web.

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