The large themes in Anna Karenina -- love, passion, guilt, marriage, family, hypocrisy, the search for spiritual and moral understanding -- are recurrent themes in many of the great works of world literature. What other novels or plays came to mind as you watched the film? Identify one work you know well that shares a theme with Tolstoy's work and compare it with Anna Karenina. Create a two-column chart headed by the title and author of each work. Then record answers to the following:
Women's roles/women's rights
Distribute copies of The Woman Question. Now discuss the status of women in 19th-century Russia using Anna as a case study. What does Anna's daily life consist of? What opportunities and experiences are open to her? How are her choices limited by the culture and laws of her time? How much is Anna's fate in the novel a consequence of the position of women in 19th-century Russia?
Follow-up: Imagine a version of the Anna story set in 21st-century America. Would the plot follow the same course? Why or why not? Write the summary "teaser" that would appear on the inside jacket of the newly published Anna Karenina 2001.
The challenge of marriage
The plot lines in Anna Karenina follow the course of three marriages: one falling apart (Anna and Karenin), another being built (Levin and Kitty), and the third carrying on through a series of problems (Dolly and Stiva). Readers of Tolstoy's popular serial novel were challenged to think about the way marriages were made and conducted in their society.
Although marriage remains an important theme in our contemporary literature, most of us are more likely to be exposed to discussions about marriage through television and other media. Take Tolstoy's couples out of his novel and drop them into the context of a modern, American-style talk show. (You might want to distribute copies of The Woman Question as background.)
The ideal of family
As outlined in Tolstoy's Struggle and Tolstoy: Life as Russian History, Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina at a time when he was searching to understand the basis of a good and moral life amidst the pressures and hypocrisy of contemporary society. In his novel, he explores the idea that devotion to family and family love can lead us toward a moral life. How do the characters he created demonstrate this notion? Try this exercise:
Anna has presented a problem for both readers and critics since the publication of Tolstoy's novel. The heroine is a vital, appealing woman who abandons her husband and child to pursue her passion for another man. How are readers meant to react? Does Anna's history offer a lesson in the perils of adultery or does her example instruct us in the importance of compassion and forgiveness?
The value of art
Throughout his adult life, Leo Tolstoy struggled to understand the basis for morality, human nature, and human conduct. Each of his novels is an expression of his thinking at the time of writing, an attempt to use the art of the novel to pose the difficult questions we all struggle with and to offer tentative answers to them. By the end of his life, Tolstoy himself rejected art as a means of deepening moral understanding. What do you think? Using the film version of Anna Karenina as a starting point, make an argument for or against the power of the literary arts (fiction, drama, film) to help us understand how to live. What did you take away from Anna Karenina? How have other works you have read or seen influenced your own understanding and behavior?
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