Anna Karenina is a novel that offers an intimate portrait of the life of the nobility of Russia. The novel is about a woman named Anna Karenina who engages in an affair with Count Vronsky after becoming dissatisfied with her loveless marriage. As the novel progresses, her husband discovers the affair, which leads to her abandoning him and her son for Vronsky, but also engendering her complete ostracism from society. Running parallel to this story is the tale of Levin, a landowner from the country, who craves a more authentic life for himself. He imagines his life will somehow be different married or if he gave up his privileges as a noble and became a peasant or when he has a child. He asks for Kitty Shcherbatsky’s hand in marriage, but is at first rejected because she has design on Vronsky. However, Vronsky rejects her to begin his affair with Anna and she eventually marries Levin whose existential crisis lasts until the very end of the novel. Other stories run parallel and intersect these two main threads of the plot, such as the prodigal and absurd Stephan Arkadyich whose own affair and consequent marriage problems serves as a kind of glue between the two main story threads, being the brother of Anna and the brother-in-law and best friend of Levin.
One of the most impressive qualities of Tolstoy’s work is that he manages to be even-handed with his characters. A lesser novelist, even one that would still be considered good by most literary standards, would be tempted to portray the various characters involved in these situations of adultery in such a negative way that we choose a side. However, as celebrated literary critic Lionel Trilling notes by comparing Tolstoy to Homer, “[l]ike Homer, he scarcely permits us to choose between antagonists—just as we dare not give all our sympathy either to Hector or to Achilles, nor, in their great scene, either to Achilles or to Priam, so we cannot say, as between Anna and Alexei Karenin, or between Anna and Vronsky, who is right and who is wrong.” You cannot read this novel and identify clear villains, let alone antagonists. It would be all too easy to portray Anna in such a way that we condemn her for ungratefulness and selfishness or to portray Alexei Karenin as a cold and heartless man. But after spending hundreds of pages with Anna viewing him in just this fashion, Anna switches tactics and can’t stop describing him as magnanimous, the very opposite of cold and heartless. The characters change; they change their minds, and yet they don’t. When Alexei Karenin switches to his magnanimous Christian self it is to maintain his superiority, which aligns with his earlier character. Likewise, when Anna’s affair with Vronsky goes sour towards the end, we understand his desire to act cold (as not to give into a petulant child) and frustration with Anna’s behavior, but we also understand her side of the quarrel (her isolation, her fear that Vronsky is losing interest in her and she will have nothing, and her feeling that Vronsky has sacrificed nothing while she has lost everything).
One central question at the heart of the novel is: what is happiness? Although she doesn’t love her husband, Anna is content with her life. Once she meets Vronsky, however, the sudden stir of violent passion contrasts with docile contentment. Her experience with this new stirrings of passion with Vronsky reveals how stale, dull, and disappointing her life truly is when at first the novel makes it sound like she leads an idealistic life. Even when they begin quarreling later in the novel, there is still passion on her side, a passion that turns poisonous and transforms into jealousy, but still a passion. Yet, there is never contentment for either Vronsky or Anna any longer. The novel explores different permutations of happiness and finds them all lacking. Alexei Karenin seems to believe happiness is serving one’s country, being an important government official, and rising on the political hierarchy. Levin has all sorts of dreams about what will make him happy, marrying Kitty, relinquishing his aristocratic privileges for the simple life of a peasant, writing a book that will revolutionize farming in Russia, having a child, etc. only to discover that the realities of all these things never match up with his grand conceptions of them. On a broader scale, all the nobility suffer from dissatisfaction. They live content and privileged lives, they are rich, have titles and important jobs, and yet they ultimately find something missing, even when they seemingly have everything. Even jolly and overindulgent characters like Stephan Arkady hint at a deeper dissatisfaction. His wife is dissatisfied with her husband’s affairs and squandering of their fortunes, while Stiva meditates later in the novel during a visit to St. Petersburg his frustration that there isn’t enough money to indulge even more. Even his initial affair that begins novel comes from dissatisfaction that his wife has lost her beauty and he needs to get his sexual pleasures somewhere. Both characters are dissatisfied for different reasons.
Surrounding all this dissatisfaction is society. Anna gives up society so she can be with Vronsky. She cannot both be accepted as a prominent member of society and be with Vronsky. While Vronsky discovers his vanity and sense of freedom won’t allow him to give up society completely for the sake of his love. Anna’s truthfulness is what irritates society. Many people have affairs, they just don’t admit it. Society is about putting on a social mask, acting a certain social role.
Anna kills herself when her ideal of love doesn’t match up with the reality of her situation. She comes to realize that Vronsky’s love is born from his vanity and pride. It is his pride that led him to seduce Anna and his pride that keeps him with her, despite the volatility of their relationship and their unhappiness together. When Levin gets married he, too, finds his marriage with Kitty doesn’t match up with his expectations of what marriage would be like. Tolstoy is trying to point out the difference between expectations and desires with reality. The parallel with Anna is important, especially at the end. Anna kills herself at the end of part seven, but then there is a Part Eight which focuses mostly on Levin’s story. By the end of the novel, Levin comes very close to committing suicide himself over deep existential question (who am I and why am I here?), but has an epiphany in which he recognizes that the true spirit of Christianity is goodness towards others. At first he believes this epiphany is a form of enlightenment that will forever change his relationship to other people and the way he views the world. However, he sees that this, too, doesn’t meet his expectations.
“I’ll get angry in the same way with the coachman Ivan, argue in the same way, speak my mind inappropriately, there will be the same wall between my soul’s holy of holies and other people, even my wife, I’ll accuse her in the same way of my own fear and then regret it, I’ll fail in the same to understand with my reason why I pray, and yet I will pray—but 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!” 
The epiphany doesn’t change him in the way he expected. His outward relations haven’t changed, but an introspective change has occurred as evidenced by his reaction to the fact that his epiphany hasn’t met his initial expectations. Before he would have been frustrated that reality failed to match the ideal, but now he has come to accept that things don’t always match up with one’s ideals; it’s this acceptance of the messiness of things that is the source of his new joy and spiritual growth. In a messy, complicated world, being good and living for the good of others is the one thing he can control in this world. My mother used to tell me and my siblings that we were put on this earth to help other people. Levin’s sentiments match very close to my mother’s words. This final sentiment demands to be compared with Anna’s final state of mind. Levin finds meaning in his existential crisis in the ability to do good for others (it’s not the joy his son can bring to him, but the joy Levin can bring to his son), whereas Anna gets caught up in her own selfish concerns, petty jealousies, and resentments before her suicide. She sees happiness as a thing others provide for her, and this is her mistake, and perhaps the ultimate reason for her unhappiness.
Trilling, Lionel. The Opposing Self (New York: Viking, 1955): pp. 66–75. Quoted as “Tolstoy’s Affection for His Characters” in Harold Bloom, ed. Leo Tolstoy, Bloom’s Major Novelists. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishing, 2001. (Updated 2007.) Bloom’s Literary Reference Online. Facts On File, Inc.