Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina follows the life of its tragic titular heroine as well as other main characters Alexei Vronsky and Konstantin Levin. The novel jumps between multiple points of view, gaining access to the inner lives of not only the main characters but also secondary characters such as Stiva Oblonsky, Kitty Scherbatsky, and Alexei Karenin. When Anna Karenina, married to Karenin, decides to embark on a passionate love affair with Vronsky, she risks her relationship with her son and her status in society for love and freedom. Meanwhile, Levin, struggling to organize a profitable and smoothly running farm, attempts to find meaning and purpose in his life, all while navigating his young romance with Kitty. The novel explores themes of passion versus duty, the pains and joys of family life, the complex inner lives of individuals, and the position of women in 19th-century Russian society.

The novel opens with Stiva’s marital infidelity coming to light. His wife is horrified, and his family is in danger of collapsing. Meanwhile, Levin’s marriage proposal to Kitty is rejected, humiliating him and sending him back to his country estate to work and hide. In the novel’s inciting incident, the beautiful and vivacious Anna Karenina arrives in town, helping to soothe her brother Stiva’s family troubles and stealing Vronsky’s attentions from Kitty, which marks the commencement of their fateful love affair. Anna is in her own unhappy marriage to the powerful and much older Karenin, and Vronsky represents an opportunity for love, passion, and experience that she’s never known. Karenin suspects there’s something inappropriate happening between them, but he prefers to pretend that all is well rather than venture into complicated territory. In the country, Levin licks his wounds and ponders how to create a more effective farming system.

In the novel’s rising action, Vronsky takes part in a harrowing horse race and gets into a dangerous accident, causing Anna’s nerves to reach their limit. She confesses her affair to her husband and that she is pregnant by Vronsky. Karenin reacts with a cold vengeance, crafting a solution that he knows will sufficiently punish Anna: their marriage will continue on, and Anna will play the role of the loyal wife. She will keep her affair with Vronsky secret, or Karenin will divorce her and take full custody of their son. Anna relents but soon breaks the rules of the agreement, prompting Karenin to seek out a divorce lawyer. Meanwhile, Kitty has gone abroad to recover from the depression of losing her chance of marriage with both Vronsky and Levin, and she meets a young woman who helps Kitty gain a sense of autonomy and purpose beyond marriage. She returns to Russia, where she and Levin meet, and his second proposal is met with happy acceptance. Anna falls terribly ill after giving birth to her daughter, and Karenin forgives both her and Vronsky on her deathbed, rescinding his threat of divorce. Kitty and Levin marry and move to the country together, beginning their new life, and Anna, once recovered from her illness, separates from Karenin and goes abroad with Vronsky, who has left his career in the military. The novel continues for some time, showing the highs and lows of both Anna and Levin’s new lives. Levin’s younger brother dies, and Kitty becomes pregnant. Anna and Vronsky enjoy blissful travels together, but Vronsky, despite his love for Anna, soon becomes bored and misses his ambitious professional life.

As the novel reaches its climax, Anna becomes increasingly paranoid and miserable. Karenin, under the influence of a manipulative woman, refuses to let Anna see her son or officially divorce her so that she can marry Vronsky. Vronsky often leaves Anna alone at his country estate to take part in the political scene in Moscow. His independence, and the rich life he has access to, make her own limitations all the more bitter. Unable to take part in society, as her affair has made her a social pariah, Anna worries that Vronsky will tire of her and eventually leave her for another woman. Despite their love for each other, Anna and Vronsky grow frustrated and struggle to communicate with or understand one another, and Anna’s insecurity continues to mount. Separated forever from her beloved son, and convinced that Vronsky will soon leave her, Anna succumbs to her depression and commits suicide by throwing herself under a train. In the novel’s falling action, Vronsky, heartbroken and ruined, volunteers to fight at the front in Serbia’s war with Turkey where he will likely die. Levin, now a father to an infant son, is mostly content living with the extended family that has gathered at his country estate. As the novel comes to a close, Levin has a spiritual revelation that leads him to Christianity. Levin is filled with a newfound sense of life purpose, and Anna Karenina ends on a surprisingly hopeful note, despite its titular character’s tragic death.