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Anna Karenina: Characters and the Life Novel

By examining the character list, one immediately notices the value

Tolstoy places on character. With one hundred and forty named characters and

several other unnamed characters, Tolstoy places his central focus in Anna

Karenina on the characters. He uses their actions and behavior to develop the

plot and exemplify the major themes of the novel. In contrast to Flaubert’s

Madame Bovary, Tolstoy wishes to examine life as it really is. Both novels have

relationships and adultery as a central theme. However, Tolstoy gives us a much

more lifelike representation in Anna Karenina by creating characters, both

major and minor, that contribute to the sense of realism.

The most striking feature of Tolstoy’s minor characters is that although

they may only appear briefly, they still possess a sense of lifelikeness. When

a character is introduced, Tolstoy provides the reader with details of the

characters appearance and actions that give a sense of realism. For example,

the waiter that Stiva and Levin encounter at their dinner, although a flat

character is definitely presented in a manner which allows him to have a sense

of lifelikeness and fullness. From the speech patterns the waiter uses to the

description of the fit of his uniform, one is presented with the details that

allow the waiter to contribute to the novel in means beyond simply the presence

of a minor character. His description and actions provide the novel with a

sense of “real life”.

Another way in which Tolstoy gives the minor character a sense of life

is by making them unpredictable. One sees this in the character of Ryabinin.

When initially discussed, the reader is told that upon conclusion of business,

Ryabinin will always say “positively and finally” (p161). However upon

conclusion of the sale of the land, Ryabinin does not use his usual tag.

This tag would normally be characteristic of the flat, minor character

such as Ryabinin.

However, Tolstoy wishes to add to the lifelikeness of even his minor

characters and allows them to behave as one would expect only major, round

characters. The detail Tolstoy gives to all of his characters, including the

minor characters, contributes to the realism of both the novel and the


Perhaps the most realistic of Tolstoy’s major characters is Konstantin

Levin. Throughout the novel, the reader witnesses the trials of Levin’s life

and his response to them. Unlike Flaubert, Tolstoy reveals Levin in a manner

which gives him a sense of roundedness and lifelikeness. On his quest for

meaning in his life, Levin is essentially a realist, just as Tolstoy wishes to

be in writing Anna Karenina.

We first encounter Levin when he arrives in Moscow to propose to Kitty

Shtcherbatsky. When Kitty refuses his proposal, Levin has been defeated in the

first step he feels is necessary for personal satisfaction. After the refusal,

Levin returns again to the county in hopes of finding personal satisfaction in

the country life style. He turns to farming, mowing with the peasants and other

such manual work to fill his time, all the while still searching for meaning in

his life. This desire for meaning remains unfulfilled until he finds happiness

and a sense of family happiness in his marriage to Kitty.

However, even in this state of happiness, Levin must face tragedy. Soon

after the marriage, Levin’s sickly brother, Nicolai Dmitrich Levin, is dying of

tuberculosis and Levin must confront his death. This death adds to Levin’s

sense of the reality of life, realizing that life now not only centers on living

but on not living. This event, combined with his previous search for meaning,

brings Levin to the conclusion that one must live for their soul rather that for

a gratification through things such as marriage and family.

It is this epiphany that gives Levin his sense of roundedness. Levin has

grown from the beginning of the novel when his search for happiness was centered

on personal fulfillment through marriage. By the conclusion of the novel Levin

has reached a sense of personal satisfaction as well as personal salvation

through his realization that love not only entails physical love, as that for

his wife, but also in a love of God and living for God.

In contrast to the growth that Levin experiences is the stagnation of

the life of the title character Anna Karenina. At the beginning of the novel,

the married Anna is confronted with a new suitor, Count Alexy Kirillovitch

Vronsky. At first Anna rejects Vronsky, but at the site of her husband upon

return she begins to notice his whining voice and the size of his ears. This

disgust at the banalities her husband sets her up for the pursuit and eventual

downfall of her relationship with Vronsky. Anna begins her search for

fulfillment in her affair with Vronsky with a sense of “all for love”, just as

Levin had begun his pursuit for happiness in a relationship with Kitty. However,

the striking difference in the two characters comes in the fact that Anna never

moves beyond the idea of fulfillment through the physical satisfaction of love.

Because Anna’s husband, Alexy Alexandrovitch Karenin, cannot satisfy the ideal

of love that Anna has set for herself, she must turn elsewhere for the

satisfaction that she feels will provide her with a sense of personal

fulfillment. For this fulfillment she turns to Vronsky, who she feels because

of status can provide the physical fulfillment that she so desires. Ironically,

it is the things that draw Anna to Vronsky that eventually lead to the downfall

of their relationship and Anna’s eventual suicide. Anna was drawn to Vronsky

because of the life he led. She found his carefree lifestyle and military

involvement to be desirable. However, at the end it is these exact things that

doom the relationship. Vronsky’s political duties limit the time he spends with

Anna and she begins to doubt his fidelity. The end of the relationship occurs

when Vronsky must leave on business and Anna doubts his true motive for leaving.

As she ponders the fight that has occurred, Anna realizes that she has now lost

everything, her lover and her child, because of her distorted view that physical

love could provide her with a sense of personal fulfillment. With this

realization she ponders how her personal fulfillment will never be obtained and

is for that reason that she commits suicide by throwing herself under a train

after her final disgust with Vronsky.

Although Anna has realized the error of her “all for love” ideals, she

fails to grow from the epiphany. She realizes that she will never find

satisfaction in her affair with Vronsky. In fact, her affair even makes her

doubt that love, whether it leads to satisfaction or not, is possible. It is

her love for Vronsky that has driven her to hate the love that she so much

desired. She has not grown to hate Vronsky but rather the love that she has for

Vronsky. Anna’s response to this epiphany draws the distinction between her and

Levin. Both Anna and Levin have reached that same conclusion about the

fulfillment that they can derive from love. However, Anna fails to react in a

productive manner. Levin is able to begin with his epiphany and grow to a

higher sense of understanding of where one can derive personal fulfillment.

Another of the major characters that fails to realize and respond the

faults of their thinking is Count Vronsky. As stated earlier, the initial

characterization of Vronsky sets forth for the reader the limits of the actions

and thinking of Vronsky. One learns from his initial characterization that

Vronsky is also concerned with a search for personal satisfaction. Like Anna,

Vronsky feels that this satisfaction derives from physical pleasures. For

Vronsky, these pleasures include such things as politics, horse racing and women.

However, just as he is doomed to fail at the horse races, his entire sense of

self-satisfaction is doomed to fail also. Vronsky depends on the everyday

pleasures of life to give him satisfaction with no concern as to what the final

end of his satisfaction may be. Because he has no sense of the effect of his

desires, for his pleasure is entirely self motivated, his affair with Anna is

doomed to fail before it begins. It is his desire for self satisfaction only

that limits his response to others. Although Anna sees the relationship as a

way of fulfillment through love, Vronsky’s capacity in the relationship is only

a sense of self-satisfaction. Because he lacks any sense of love a fulfillment

he will never be able to love Anna in a way that will provide her any


It is that sense of Vronsky’s character that makes him one of the most

limited characters in the novel. Both Anna and Levin are able to respond to the

events with a sense of realization of the errors of their original thinking.

Vronsky never realizes that there is a flaw in his thinking. In Levin, Anna

and Vronsky, the reader is presented with the realities of each of the

characters search for meaning in their life. The manner in which each of the

characters search is both alike and different at the same time contributes to

the readers sense of realism about the novel. In three characters, Tolstoy

gives one a range of human behaviors in response to the same situation. It is

this contrast of the three characters that allows Tolstoy to take full command

of the life novel. He achieves a sense of real life in all of his characters.

Although the reader may wish to, and can , draw distinctions in

Tolstoy’s characters such as a major or minor character that is either flat or

round, the central focus of the character should be the contribution that they

make to the reality of the novel. Although one can classify each of the

characters in Anna Karenina as a major, minor, flat or round character, Tolstoy

presents each of his characters, whether they be major minor flat or round, so

as to convey a sense of reality and lifelikeness in his novel.

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