Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina is a novel about a married woman's adulterous affair with another man, Count Vronsky – resulting in society ostracizing them. This teacher's guide includes background information on author Leo Tolstoy, a summary of the novel, and discussion questions.
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1) Discuss the role of religion in this book. How do Levin and Anna's husband Karenina manifest different and similar attitudes with respect to religion? When Karenina forgives Anna following her near-death experience, do you think he is sincere?

2) To what extent do you think Vronsky is in love with Anna? When she doubts his love in the latter part of the book, do you think she is right to do so? Is it in her imagination or is he culpable? After her suicide and his breakdown, is Vronsky's love for her deeper, truer?

3) Tolstoy writes: "The struggle for existence and hate are the only things that hold men together." Is this true with respect to this novel? How does Karenina's hatred of Anna and their son affect him? Compare and contrast Anna and Levin's search for meaning: Levin's that ends in a kind of spiritual grace and Anna's that culminates in death.

4) Just prior to her suicide, Anna thinks: "We are all created in order to suffer.... But when you see the truth, what are you to do?" Given the fates of the various characters, do you feel this is Tolstoy's philosophical outlook? Do you view this book as pessimistic overall? Does Levin's enlightenment at the end balance out Anna's tragedy?

5) In the scene where Levin's wife Kitty is giving birth, Tolstoy writes of Levin: "He only knew and felt that what was happening was similar to what had happened a year ago at the deathbed in a provincial hotel of his brother Nikolai. Only that had been sorrow, and this was joy. But that sorrow and this joy were equally beyond the usual plane of existence: they were like openings through which something sublime became something visible." Discuss what Tolstoy means by this in the context of the novel.

6) In his own life, Tolstoy came to mistrust the intellect. How is this similar to the way Levin conducts his search for happiness and meaning?

7) After Anna tells Karenina about her affair with Vronsky, she thinks to herself that clarity and truth are more important than the inevitable suffering they will cause. Discuss how this theme is enacted in the book with respect to Anna. How does Dolly and Stiva Oblonsky's relationship illustrate this theme? What about the scene where Levin gives Kitty his personal diaries to read? Is the pain this causes her outweighed by Levin's attempt at honesty?

8) Anna says of Karenina that he is "nothing but ambition, nothing but the desire to get on – that is all there is in his soul...and as for those lofty ideals of his, his passion for culture, religion, they are only so many tools for advancement." Do you think this is true of Karenina? Is he sympathetic at all?

9) The opening sentence of the novel is one of the most famous in literature: "All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion." Is Tolstoy being ironic here? Do you consider Dolly and Oblonsky happy despite his marital betrayals? Or are they in a state of blissful repudiation?

10) During the steeplechase scene when Anna refers to herself as "a bad woman, a wicked woman," do you think she truly believes this? Do you think Anna is a bad, wicked woman?

OTHER WORKS by Leo Tolstoy

* Available from Penguin Classics

Childhood, Boyhood, Youth
Translated by Rosemary Edmonds

These sketches, a mixture of fact and fiction, provide an expressive self-portrait of the young Tolstoy and hints of the man and writer he would become.

A Confession and Other Religious Writings
Translated by Jane Kentish

Tolstoy's passionate and iconoclastic writings – on issues of faith, immortality, freedom, violence, and morality – reflect his intellectual search for truth and a religion firmly grounded in reality. The selection includes "My Confession," "Religion and Morality," "What is Religion, and Of What Does Its Essence Consist?" and "The Law of Love and the Law of Violence."

The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories
Translated by Rosemary Edmonds

"The Death of Ivan Ilyich" is a magnificent story of a spiritual awakening; "The Cossacks" tells of a disenchanted nobleman who finds happiness amid the simple people of the Caucasus; "Happily Ever After" traces the maturing of romantic love into "family attachment."

How Much Land Does a Man Need? and Other Stories
Edited and Introduced by A. N. Wilson

These short works, ranging from Tolstoy's earliest tales to the brilliant title story, are rich in the insights and passion that characterize all of his explorations in love, war, courage, and civilization.

The Kreutzer Sonata and Other Stories
Translated and Introduced by David McDuff

These four tales – the title story plus "The Devil," "The Forged Coupon," and "After the Ball" – embody the moral, religious, and existential themes of Tolstoy's final creative period.

Master and Man and Other Stories
Translated by Paul Foote

Written in the 1890s, both "Master and Man" and "Father Sergius" are preoccupied with material desires – for the flesh in one instance, and for money in the other; in "Hadji Murat," Tolstoy offers a precisely written and memorable portrait of a treacherous soldier.

Translated by Vera Traill

In this story of a fallen man and an emphatically non-Christian "resurrection," Tolstoy writes a compelling tale of the underworld and turns a highly critical eye on the law, the penal system, and the church.

The Sebastopol Sketches
Translated by David McDuff

These three short stories stem from Tolstoy's military experience during the Crimean War: "Sebastopol in December," "Sebastopol in May," and "Sebastopol in August 1855."

War and Peace
Translated by Rosemary Edmonds

This epic presents a complete tableau of Russian society during the great Napoleonic Wars, from 1805 to 1815.

Penguin Classics wishes to thank and credit the following writers and books for information used in creating this Reading Group Guide:

Patricia Chute, Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana, His Life and Work in the Charmed World of His Estate, New York, HarperCollins, 1991.
Leo Tolstoy, Tolstoy's Diaries, Volume 1, 1847-1894, edited and translated by R.F. Christian, New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1985.
A.N. Wilson, Tolstoy, New York, Ballantine Books, 1988.

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