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Teacher's Guide [imagemap with 6 links]

After-Viewing Activities

Literary comparisons
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:

  • What is the theme?
  • How does each writer present the theme? (plot, scenes)
  • Who does the writer use to present it? (characters)
  • What commentary does each work offer on the theme?
  • Which work explores the theme more powerfully or fully?
Suggested comparisons:
  • Kate Chopin's The Awakening, Sophocles' Antigone, Henry James's Portrait of a Lady, Henrik Ibsen's The Doll House, or Maxine Kingston's Woman Warrior: the conflict between a woman's desire for greater self-actualization and what society allows.

  • Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment: guilt, the search for moral understanding, Levin versus Raskolnikov.

  • Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet: unreasoning passion, families, social obstacles to love.

  • Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence or Ethan Frome, or Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary: marriage as a social institution, forbidden love, social restrictions.

  • Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter: sin, guilt and retribution, hypocrisy and double standards, Hester versus Anna

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.)

  1. Select a pair of characters as guests: Anna and Karenin, Levin and Kitty, or Dolly and Stiva.

  2. Create a title for the show.

  3. Script the host's introductory remarks. Describe the marriage and the issues to be explored, and name the guests, including any outside experts, friends, or family who will appear on stage.

  4. Write the transcript of a short selection from the show.
    Ideas: a guest might tell an anecdote, share a moment of understanding (happy or unhappy) with the spouse, or take part in a question-and-answer session with an expert.

  5. Record what happens when a "surprise guest," Leo Tolstoy, comes on stage to meet the characters he created. What commentary will he offer on marriage? What does he think should be the connection between love and marriage? What will he say to the couple? When asked, what will Tolstoy say he believes the basis of marriage should be?

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:

  1. Name two characters who, in your view, make the best choices and show the soundest moral judgment.

  2. Then name the two characters who have the strongest sense of family and family love.

  3. Do your lists line up? If so, what connection do you see between the characters' attitudes toward family and their ability to make good choices?

  4. Now flip the question: Which two characters make the worst choices? Which two have the weakest understanding or experience of the value of family love? What relationship do you see here?

Passing judgment
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?

  1. Recall and record your own response to Anna as you watched the film. What did you think of her? Did you judge her, sympathize with her, feel conflicted about her actions? After writing about your reaction to Anna, reflect:

    • Why do you think Anna remains one of the most memorable characters in literature 130 years after the novel's publication?

    • Does Anna's story teach a clear-cut lesson in morality and human conduct? If so, what is it?

    • Is Anna better or worse than other flawed characters in the book? Compare her with her brother Stiva, her friend Betsy, her lover Vronsky, and her husband Karenin.

  2. Tolstoy scholar Boris Eikhenbaum observes that the characters in Anna Karenina are "distributed on a kind of moral ladder." Distribute index cards to students. Ask them to write the name of each major character on a card and arrange the cards on their desks up and down a "moral ladder." Have one student display cards on the board arranged in order. Invite others to step up and rearrange them, offering a rationale for their judgment. Work toward a class consensus.

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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