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The Heart and Soul of Anna Karenina: A Study of the Six Most Significant Lines in the Novel

An in-depth look into six of the most powerful and resonating pieces of dialogue in Tolstoy's classic.


Anna Karenina is one of the most celebrated pieces of literature to have ever existed, and rightly so. First published in 1873 in the form of periodical installments by Russian author Leo Tolstoy, it tackles a wide variety of issues, the most prominent of them being adultery and its drastic repercussions, but also dives into other themes such as the significance of public office, religion, and pacifist philosophy.

The story takes place in 1970s Imperial Russia and magnificently contrasts the lives of the two main protagonists- the titular character Anna and rural landowner Konstantin Levin. The two personalities are incredibly similar in word and feeling, and yet make incredibly different choices in life (in part due to different choices being available to them in the first place), leading to different outcomes for both of them.

Today, we take a walk through some of the most hauntingly thought-provoking lines from Tolstoy’s first official novel and the underlying ideas behind them. Major spoilers ahead, so look out!

1. ‘Love. The reason I dislike that word is that it means too much for me, far more than you can understand.’

These lines were spoken by Anna in an attempt to rebuff the advances of Count Vronsky, the man destined to be her lover a few months in the future.

Vronsky and Anna met at a train station in Moscow, and the former was infatuated at first glance, following her all the way back to Petersburg, finding excuses to meet her and talk to her every chance he got.

Anna, amused at first, gradually found herself more attracted to Vronsky, a handsome and wealthy military official, a significant change from her supposedly plain husband, the bureaucrat Alexey Alexandrovitch Karenin.

The reason this line holds special significance is because of Anna’s nature; she’s a fiercely passionate woman with an extraordinary zeal for life. Upon a second reading of the novel, it could be interpreted as foreshadowing- Anna warning Vronsky not to make light of the word ‘love,’ for to Anna, it was a matter of extraordinary weight.

2.‘If you look for perfection, you’ll never be content.’

This quote could easily be glossed over at first reading, considering it was uttered by a comparatively minor character, one who hardly made two or three appearances throughout the book. Ironically, however, the words ring true for most of the characters in the novel at that point of time – Anna, struggling with guilt and overcome with jealousy; Levin, striving to find a purpose in life and being suicidal in spite of having a fulfilled marriage; and Vronsky, anxious to assert his dominance over Anna as an independent man (only adding fuel to her jealousy, mind you).

Anna was in a particularly vulnerable position right then; she was almost convinced that Vronsky didn’t love her anymore; she was pining for her son Seryozha and was trying to indulge herself in superficial activities such as writing children’s books and educating a commoner girl. Vronsky, on the other hand, felt that it was impossible to stay cooped up in the house with Anna and longed to be outside and meet the high society in Moscow. Neither realized the love and, at the same time, dissatisfaction they felt for each other, and each tried to fill the void with external stimuli, at last wondering where things went wrong.

3. 'All is over,’ she said; ‘I have nothing but you. Remember that.’

Another clever piece of foreshadowing by Tolstoy, these words were spoken by Anna to Vronsky at the beginning of their love affair, when Anna completely resigned herself to her lover.  Right then, and maybe all the while since that moment, Anna’s dependence on Vronsky magnified every moment, whereas Vronsky’s passion diminished, replaced by a more comfortable, mellow affection when up until then, he had been the one doing the chasing.

This reversal of positions eventually led to the – again, spoilers – tragic end of their relationship as we know it. At the end, when Anna, ostracized by society, clung to Vronsky and was solely dependent on his love, he grew increasingly agitated and confused at her unreasonable demands and constant accusations that he was in love with someone else – when he still loved her the same amount he did the first time he had lain eyes on her, if not more. The only difference was, this time, it was a different kind of love. Sadly, sometimes love is not enough, and when Anna realized that Vronsky did not understand her any longer, that she had given up everything, or a man who refused to acknowledge his responsibility towards her, that love was slowly replaced with spite, culminating in a series of unfortunate events.

4.‘If it is true that there as many minds as there are heads, then there are also as many kinds of love as there are hearts.’

Again, these lines were spoken by Anna as a casual response to a question by one of her fashionable friends. Tolstoy brings this quote to life much later when Anna is nearing death after the birth of her second child, and she asks for her husband. Not Vronsky, but her husband, Karenin. When he approaches her bed, she looks at him with eyes full of love and speaks of all that she had wanted to say to him. She exalts him for his magnanimity and implores him to forgive her and Vronsky, accepting that he is a far better man than she or her lover could ever hope to be.

Karenin, in a newfound Christian feeling of inner peace, forgives the two of them, and Anna speaks of the duality in her heart; in a deathly pale voice, she asserts that she is still the same Anna who loved and respected him but that there was another woman inside her who loved Vronsky and tried to hate Karenin. Now that she was dying, she had returned to her true self. 

All this while, Vronsky was overcome with grief and shame; he had hated Karenin, but upon receiving his forgiveness, suddenly felt small and unworthy. He tried to kill himself but failed. And with this failure, the cycle began anew, with Anna ultimately moving out of Karenin’s house.

Fundamentally, the weak point in the Karenins’ marriage could be linked back to Anna’s free spirit and Karenin’s indulgence in his work. Anna loved and yearned for Karenin, but not in the same way she loved and yearned for Vronsky. It is said that death brings out one’s true self, whereas life allows us the luxury of disillusioning ourselves. If this line ever applied to anyone’s situation, it would have to be Anna Karenina’s.

5.‘Respect was invented to cover the empty place where love should be.’

A disturbing line, to be sure. Anna, who had by now lost all her previous eagerness and fiery zest for life, was now merely a shell of her former self, a jealous, paranoid bundle of nerves. What’s most disturbing is not the intention of the speaker but the metaphysical aspect of it – the very reason why Anna had grown tired of her first marriage was now threatening to disrupt the peace in her present relationship.

Anna and Karenin had not married out of love or even courtship. Karenin had seemingly put Anna in a compromising position by mistake and was forced to marry her out of a sense of duty. From the very beginning, there had been no passion, only cool mutual respect, which had eventually become suffocating to Anna. Even the love that later developed between them was one of necessity – the kind of way one would love someone living with them for the past ten years. And then Vronsky appeared and transformed Anna’s life.

But of course, the honeymoon phase never lasts forever, and Tolstoy lays down the dangers of love – especially the love built on unrelenting passion – and argues for a stronger foundation, one of marriage and family, both of which Anna was hesitant about when it came to Vronsky. She became a neglectful mother to her second child, eternally jealous of Vronsky whenever he went out in the city.

 At last, when she attempted a final reconciliation between them by moving to the countryside, and Vronsky suggested that he had to meet with his mother one last time, a chain broke loose. Anna was finally convinced that Vronsky prioritized just about everything else above her and consequently did not love her anymore (whether she was right in believing so is an entirely different story). He was staying with her only out of a sense of duty, no better than when she was staying with Karenin.

To Anna, everything had come full circle; her final retribution for having abandoned her husband and children, for having ‘sinned,’ and life, which had previously been so colourful to her, suddenly seemed bleak and dreary.

6. 'My life now, my whole life, regardless of all that may happen to me, every minute of it, is not only not meaningless, as it was before, but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which it is in my power to put into it!'

Where all the above lines have centered on Anna and her struggles, here we take a look at the closing words of Tolstoy’s masterpiece, mused to himself by Levin, who was at the beginning of the book depressed and suicidal, and by the end arguably the happiest man in Russia.

Levin is a curious fellow. Like Anna, he is passionate, self-centered, and dislikes public service. Unlike Anna, he is awkward, socially anxious, and perpetually scowling. When he tried to court Kitty Shcherbatskaya and was rejected in favour of Vronsky, it was a direct hit to his already low self-esteem, and he tried to drown himself in the agricultural work on his farm, working among the labourers. He aimed to write a book on reforming Russian agriculture and rejected many mainstream schools of thought for which he clashed with prominent writers and thinkers in the city. As a result of not being able to articulate his thoughts properly, he almost always ended up losing whatever debate or argument he might have been engaged in.

It is no secret at this point that Levin was meant to be Tolstoy’s self-insert in the novel, though, unlike amateur self-inserts, Tolstoy still managed to give him a personality and make him a strong character in his own right.

 Anna and Levin’s journeys are opposite in many ways, both are high-society people, but Anna actively engages in city life, while Levin remains secluded in the country. Anna begins the story in a position of respect and vague happiness and ends up wretched and unhappy, while Levin begins with a bleak, agnostic perspective of life, but as the book progresses, he finds himself drawing nearer to the service of the people. He gets married, has a son, and deals with the deaths of his loved ones. His habits are decidedly unhealthy at first but then, encouraged by his friends and family; he gets the pieces of his life back together. At last, Levin finds solace in God and becomes who he now believes he was always meant to be – a family man, a husband, a father, and a landowner, and has faith in something better, more powerful than himself.

Parting Note

An interesting point to take notice of here is that Anna and Levin’s journeys cannot solely be chalked up to their individual choices – society had a big role to play in shaping their lives. The most obvious comparison is the mistakes they make – Anna makes the mistake (if it can be called that) of falling in love with Vronsky and is shunned from society as a result. Levin makes several mistakes, maybe not as drastic, but many nonetheless, before he finally turns to religion. And most of all, Anna’s brother Stiva Oblonsky, who had a string of multiple lovers out of home, still enjoyed the company of society and was never called out on his actions. Tolstoy makes a thought-provoking social commentary on family, religion, and the status of women in Imperial Russia in Anna Karenina, and if you haven’t read the book yet, I apologize for the barrage of spoilers above (though I did warn you beforehand, so it’s really on you) and urge you to pick up a copy and start the first chance you get – it’s bound to be an interesting read!









#literary analysis#tolstoy