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The book begins with a crisis at home.Anna's brother Stiva has been caught cheating on his wife,Dolly.Anna manages to convince Dolly to forgive him.Quickly,Anna is understood as a generous person,interested only in benevolence.She is married to the high-ranking,upper class Karenin.Their marriage seems stable and united from the start.
Shortly,though,Anna meets and falls in love with the dashing Count Vronsky.She tries hard to escape his stares,to avoid meeting him,but he is persistent and she is smitten.They have an affair that rips at the threads of their social lives when Anna becomes pregnant.She must,obviously,tell Karenin the news.He demands that his social pride and honor be preserved throughout the whole matter,and he and Anna pretend nothing is happening.He fears the ridicule of society far more than the destruction of his own marriage.Yet Anna cannot let go of Vronsky--she continues to see him quite often.Karenin discovers the extent of the affair when he sees Vronsky leaving his house,and helooks into divorce.Anna,meanwhile,runs off with Vronsky.
After having Vronsky's baby,Anna becomes seriously ill.Karenin thinks she is going to die,so he forgives her for everything she did.Anna swears that is all she wants out of her remaining life.Yet Anna recovers and forgets quickly about Karenin,once again taking up her torrid affair with the count.While Anna was sick and Karenin was present at her side,Vronsky was humiliated by what he had done.He tried to commit suicide by shooting himself,but he,like Anna,did not die.Now he and Anna leave for Italy.Karenin refuses a divorce with Anna,in order that he might deepen her guilt.
Anna's life becomes terrible.Her friends abandon her,ashamed of her behavior.She cannot go out in public with Vronsky,to the theater or the opera,because they would be subjecting themselves to the rumor mill.Vronsky,however,goes out without Anna; he is free to do so.Anna becomes horribly insecure,thinking that Vronsky goes out so much because he is in love with someone else.He is only in love with Anna,however,and the two fight often because of the unspoken tension that exists between them.
Anna is in a tough position.She isn't Vronsky's wife,but she is more than just his mistress.She depends entirely on him for internal peace and love.But what she finally realizes is that no one has the power to satisfy her emotional desires,not Vronsky nor anyone else.She has woven a complex web for herself,one she feels she can only escape by killing herself.This is what she does,jumping in front of a train.She reconsiders briefly before the train hits her,but has no time to dodge.
Running side by side with Anna's story is Levin's,one that mimics the life and interests of the novelist himself.Levin,a landowner and country man,comes to the city to propose to Kitty,a pretty young lady who is mesmerized instead by Vronsky.She rejects Levin's proposal and keeps her eye on the count.Vronsky,however,is smitten with Anna.
Levin is crushed.He goes home to the country and immerses himself totally in his relationship with the land.He writes a book about farming practices in Russia,revealing his belief that landowners should split the land with their peasants so the peasants have an incentive to work harder.This is a controversial plan as Russia becomes more industrialized.
Kitty,too,is crushed by Vronsky's disinterest.She becomes ill,and her family take her to a spa in Germany,where she recovers and realizes that she has truly loved Levin all along.The meet again shortly,and Kitty accepts Levin's second proposal.They marry happily and have a boy named Mitya.
Kitty is a huge force in Levin's life,helping him to come to grips with his lifelong struggle with faith and religion.She also helps Levin cope with the death of his brother Nicholas.In Tolstoy's eyes,the two have the ideal marriage and love.
Though Anna and Levin's plotlines connect at times,Tolstoy dares only the briefest encounter betwen the two,near the end of the book.Levin is temporarily swept into Anna's world,proving to Tolstoy how dangerous a character like Anna is to Levin's (and his own) world.
As Anna and Levin's stories are contrasted,Tolstoy makes a thematic case,through Levin,for pre-industrial societies as the major source of happiness,wealth and sustenance.He advocates the idea of caring for the land as if it were the wealth of the world,and he labels the land as the only mutual association which can bind societies and families together.Tolstoy shows us the valuable role of rural society in preserving the family.Through Anna,Tolstoy associates city life with vice.That Anna is a creature of the social,urban world makes her character revolve less around virtue,and more around romance,sex,and societal affirmation.