Skip to content

Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Chekhov’s Annas, and Anna Karenina in Film

Fall 2017 (Semester One)

Click here to register

Mikhail Vrubel’s Illustration to “Anna Karenina” (1887)

Course Description:
Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is truly a masterpiece, and his heroine perhaps the most vital and intensely romantic woman in Western literature. Tolstoy is, above all, a stern moralist, profoundly concerned with the values of late 19th century Russian society as he struggles to discover what constitutes the good life and to understand why there is such a difference between the way we live and the way we ought to live. Our class will examine historical, social, philosophical, and literary concerns in Russia and Western Europe at the time: the women’s question; gender roles; dysfunction in the family; social hypocrisy and constriction of individual self-expression and fulfillment; the impact of the railroad, industrialization, and urbanization; the role of agriculture; the peasants in post-emancipation Russia; and especially, the role of the family on the path to human happiness. Together we will explore how the theme that had deeply concerned Tolstoy — the function of moral responsibility – encompasses the whole action of Anna Karenina.

Our discussions will include a close look at the simplicity and lucidity of Tolstoy’s writing. One of the devices he uses is the repetition of some details that characterize a particular person best. Tolstoy is a master of contrasts: we will compare not just episodes from Anna Karenina, but the formal life in St. Petersburg versus the more relaxed lifestyle in Moscow, as well life in the countryside versus city life. The central alternating contrast, of course, is the love story of Anna and Vronsky with that of Kitty and Levin.

“The Lady with a Little Dog” Illustration by Kukryniksy, 1940s

Two short stories about Annas – “The Lady with a Little Dog” and “Anna on the Neck” – are considered Chekhov’s riposte to Anna Karenina. Comparing the stories and the novel, the students will study the universality and symbolism of Tolstoy’s Anna, as well as the differences between Chekhov’s realism and Tolstoy’s.

I will draw upon my Russian background to share some of the pleasures and intricacies of the original Russian versions of Anna Karenina and Chekhov’s stories that are inevitably lost in translation. We will look closely, for example, at the semantics and pronunciation of the Russian names (frequently anglicized, jarring the Russian text) and their diminutives, which Tolstoy used with great care, to discover that they may have different meanings and connotations.

Scavenger Hunt:

Anna by Sokolov 1946

Anna (by Sokolov – 1946)

In a letter to a critic who failed to discern the novel’s architecture, Tolstoy wrote, “I’m proud of the architecture—the arches have been built in such a way that it is impossible to discover the keystone. That is what I most of all wished to achieve. The structural connection is not the plot or the relationship of the characters (friendship), but an inner link.” This link connects the opposing situations of Anna’s tragic experience with marriage and the relatively happy one of Kitty and Levin. The whole novel can be viewed as a labyrinth of linkages. The students will discern some of Tolstoy’s links using a sort of textual scavenger-hunt exercise, finding in the text, and connecting, particular images, themes, events, and literary devices. The students will be assigned particular items, and they will look for multiple examples of these items as they read the novel. During the last couple of discussions, the students will present their treasure finds, searching for possible patterns, links, and the overall design of the novel.

Film Adaptations:
Anna Karenina on-screen will become our special discussion topic and we will explore a variety of film adaptations of the novel, which could be considered a favorite in cinematography with over 20 adaptations. Paradoxically, a certain fatal sign is inscribed in the first Lumiere’s train, which became a symbol in motion for cinema, as well as for Tolstoy’s novel. Each student will watch a different Anna Karenina adaptation (see the list below), and during the last class, we will talk about the art of film adaptations: what are their goals, and how do they interpret Tolstoy’s story? Two wonderful adaptations of Chekhov’s stories will be included in our analysis as well.

Registration Information: Registration opens on April 20. Please specify the day and time of the online class that will work for your student. It will be scheduled by August 15 based on the majority of the students’ availability. Click here to register.

Level: College-level

Class Format: The class will meet once a week for 11 weeks for an hour and a half. The first class will be the week of September 18. The last meeting will be the week of December 4 (no class on Thanksgiving week). Classes will consist of a 15 to 20-minute lecture by the teacher, students’ presentations, and group discussion. The combination of lecture, presentations, and discussion is a format that should prepare teens for the college environment. Weekly short paragraphs will be due 2 hours before each class. The students will need to work on their final paper in December, and all the revisions should be finished no later than December 18.

Age/Maturity Level: 15+. We are going to read adult, college-level fiction. Russian fiction may contain sexual themes and episodes of disturbing violence not appropriate for younger readers. At least one film adaptation is R-rated. I feel strongly against having very young children present and want the teens to feel that our discussions are a place where they can express the most difficult and controversial ideas openly.

Course Requirements/Amount of Outside Work: This is a college-level class, and as such it has a corresponding workload and expectations. The reading will be considerable – up to 150 pages per week. Students are expected to read the assigned selections in advance of each weekly session and be prepared to discuss actively what they have read. In addition, the workload will include weekly supplemental reading (essays, criticism, history, poetry, and philosophy); watching films; weekly short written assignments; and one or two PowerPoint presentations on a relevant, individually researched topic. Students will also be expected to write and revise one analytical paper (5 to 9 pages long in the MLA format). The teacher will be available for individual consultations through e-mail and Skype calls. I highly recommend Reading and Writing about Literature: A Portable Guide by Janet E. Garner, which is a very good resource.

Prerequisites: Honors-level high school English classes or AP English Composition or Literature are prerequisites. Students are expected to have experience writing essays. While I will encourage students to develop their ideas and style and to improve their skills in writing about literature, the course is intended neither to be an introduction to English composition nor to literary analysis.  In the past, students with significant experience in analyzing literature and writing about it have been the most successful in these classes.

Evaluations and Transcripts: Written evaluations will be provided via email for all writing assignments and presentations. I will be evaluating papers, participation, and presentations with in-depth comments. At the end of each semester, students will receive grades on the final paper and an end-of-the-course grade. Detailed course descriptions and student evaluations will be sent to the students; these can also be sent to colleges/universities upon request. Although the class is not officially accredited, the grades and evaluations have been appreciated by colleges and universities and are quite useful to former students in the college application process.

Grading for Each Semester
Final Paper: 30%

Reflection Paragraphs: 25%

Class Discussion: 30%

Presentations: 15%

Estimated Cost: $289 per semester. You can sign up to take both semesters or take either the fall or winter semester separately. There will be 15% discount for the siblings taking the class. Payment is due before the first session. Payment will be accepted through PayPal. Both credit card payments and cash transfers are accepted at It is not necessary to have a Paypal account to pay with a credit card via 90% of class fees are refundable if a student withdraws before the official start of the semester. 50% of class fees are refundable during the first two sessions of the semester. After the second session, no refunds are given for any reason.

You may decide to buy the books we are going to read. Most of the books can be easily found in the public libraries or in used bookstores.

Number of Students: Minimum 8 students, maximum 16 students.

Technical Requirements: All students must have a PC or Macintosh with internet access and a supported browser to participate in courses. High-speed internet is strongly recommended. A microphone or headset is required for participation in live webinars. Headsets are strongly encouraged to reduce echo.

Syllabus Fall/Winter 2017

Class 1 Week of Sept 18 Anna Karenina, Part 1, Chapters 1 through 21, pp. 3 – 89
Class 2 Week of Sept 25 Anna Karenina, end of Part 1; Part 2, Chapters 1 through 11, pp. 89 – 172
Class 3 Week of Oct 2 Anna Karenina, end of Part 2, pp. 172 – 270
Class 4 Week of Oct 9 Anna Karenina, Part 3, pp. 271 – 403
Class 5 Week of Oct 16 Anna Karenina, Part 4, pp. 404 – 496
Class 6 Week of Oct 23 Anna Karenina, Part 5, pp. 497 – 624
Class 7 Week of Oct 30 Anna Karenina, Part 6, pp. 625 – 758
Class 8 Week of Nov 6 Anna Karenina, Part 7, pp. 759 – 868
Class 9 Week of Nov 13 Anna Karenina, Part 8, pp. 869 – 923
Class 10 Week of Nov 27 Chekhov’s “Anna on the Neck” and “Lady with a Little Dog”
Class 11 Week of Dec 4 Anna Karenina in Film: Discussion of Film Adaptations
No Class Week of Dec 11 The first draft of the essay is due

Text List (Required):
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy translated by Constance Garnett; revised by Leonard J. Kent and Nina Berberova, The Modern Library Classics, 2000 (ISBN: 0-679-78330-X).

Chekhov stories are available here:

Anna Karenina Film Adaptations:
Anna Karenina. Dir. Vladimir Gardin. Perf. Maria Germanova, Vladimir Shaternikov, Russkaia Zolotaia Seria, 1914

Love. Dir. Edmind Goulding. Perf. Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, and Brandon Hurst, MGM, 1927

Anna Karenina. Dir. Clarence Brown. Perf. Greta Garbo, Frederic March, and Basil Rathbone. MGM. 1935

Anna Karenina. Dir. Julien Duvivier. Perf. Vivien Leigh, Kieron Moore, and Ralph Richardson. London Film; Twentieth Century Fox, 1948

Anna Karenina. Dir. Rudolph Cartier. Perf. Claire Bloom, Sean Connery, and Marius Goring. BBC, 1961 (TV series)

Anna Karenina. Dir. Alexander Zarkhi. Perf. Tatiana Samoilova, Nikolai Gritzenko, and Vasily Lanovoy. Mosfilm, 1967

Anna Karenina. Dir. Margarita Pilikhina. Perf. Maya Plisetskaya, Alexander Godunov, and the Bolshoi Ballet, 1974 (ballet)

Anna Karenina. Dir. Simon Langton. Perf. Jacqueline Bisset, Christopher Reeve, and Paul Scofield. Colgems; Rastar, 1985 (TV series)

Hannah and Her Sisters. Dir. Woody Allen. Perf. Mia Farrow, Dianne Wiest, and Michael Caine. MGM, 1986

Anna Karenina. Dir Bernard Rose. Perf. Sophie Marceau, Sean Bean, Alfred Molina, and James Fox. Icon Entertainment Intl.; Warner Brothers, 1997

Anna Karenina. Dir Joe Wright. Perf. Keira Knightley, Jude Law. Focus Features, 2012

Film Adaptations of Chekhov’s Stories:
Anyuta: A Ballet. Dir. Alexander Belinsky. Perf. Ekaterina Maximova and Vladimir Vasiliev. Vai DVD, 1982 (ballet)

The Lady with the Little Dog. Dir. Iosif Heifits. Perf. Iya Savvina and Alexei Batalov. Ruscico, 1960. (with English subtitles)

Further Recommendations (Optional)
Biographies and Books about Tolstoy:

Tolstoy: A Russian Life by Rosamund Bartlett, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011

Tolstoy by Henri Troyat, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1967

Tolstoy by A. N. Wilson, Fawcett Columbine, New York, 1988

Song Without Words: The Photographs & Diaries of Countess Sophia Tolstoy by Leah Bendavid-Val, National Geographic, 2007

Gorky’s Tolstoy and Other Reminiscences by Maxim Gorky, Yale University Press, 2008

The Liberation of Tolstoy: A Tale of Two Writers by Ivan Bunin, Northwestern University Press, 2001

Other Recommendations on Tolstoy and Anna Karenina:
Lectures on Russian Literature: Chekhov, Dostoevski, Gogol, Gorki, Tolstoy, Turgenev by Vladimir Nabokov, Harcourt Brace & Co, 1981

Understanding Tolstoy by Andrew D. Kaufman, The Ohio State University Press, 2011

Tolstoy by Pietro Citati, Schoken, 1986

Leo Tolstoy: Resident and Stranger by Richard Gustafson, Princeton University Press, 1986

Tolstoy’s Major Fiction by Edward Wasiolek, University of Chicago Press, 1978

Eikhenbaum on Tolstoi: The Young Tolstoi, Tolstoi in the 60s and Tolstoi in the 70s by Boris Eikhenbaum, Ardis, 2003

Anna Karenina in Our Time: Seeing More Wisely by Gary Saul Morson, Yale University Press, 2007

Books about Chekhov and Collections of His Letters:
Anton Chekhov: A Life by Donald Rayfield, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, 2000 (the most recent biography – very clumsy style)

Chekhov: Scenes from a Life by Rosamund Bartlett, Simon & Schuster, 2004 (Chekhov’s biography that focuses on the places he lived or visited – very good)

Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free by V. S. Pritchett, Vintage, 1989 (short and well-written)

A New Life of Anton Chekhov by Ronald Hingley, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1976

Anton Chekhov: A Life in Letters edited by Rosamund Bartlett, Penguin Books, New York, 2004 (the largest collection of letters)

Anton Chekhov’s Life and Thought: Selected Letters and Commentary edited and annotated by Simon Karlinsky, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, 1973 (the comments to each letter are superb)

Dear Writer, Dear Actress: The Love Letters of Anton Chekhov edited and translated by Jean Benedetti, The Ecco Press, Hopewell, 1996

On Russian History, Culture and Literature:
The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture by James H. Billington, Vintage Books, 1970

Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia by Orlando Figes, Metropolitan Books, 2002

The Magical Chorus: A History of Russian Culture from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn by Solomon Volkov, Knopf, 2008

Land of the Firebird by Suzanne Massie, Heart Tree Press, 1980

A History of Russian Thought from the Enlightenment to Marxism by Andrzei Walicki, Stanford University Press, 1979

Russian Thinkers by Isaiah Berlin, Penguins Books, 1978

Life on the Russian Country Estate: A Social and Cultural History by Priscilla Roosevelt, Yale University Press, 1995

A History of Russian Literature: From Its Beginning to 1900 by D. S. Mirsky, Northwestern University Press, 1999

Lectures on Russian Literature: Chekhov, Dostoevski, Gogol, Gorki, Tolstoy, Turgenev by Vladimir Nabokov, Harcourt Brace & Co, 1981

A Window on Russia by Edmund Wilson, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1972

The Russian’s World: Life and Language by Genevra Gerhart, Slavica Pub, 3rd edition,

Restless Empire: A Historical Atlas of Russia by Ian Barnes, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2015

Common Places: Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia by Svetlana Boym, Harvard University Press, Massachusetts, 1994 (The book has good information on “poshlost” and some Soviet realities such as “communal apartments,” which will help for reading 20th century authors)

Onion Sea Logo 100