Anna Karenina is a sweeping novel that follows two Russian aristocrats: the beautiful Anna, who is unhappily married and soon embarks upon a whirlwind affair that leaves her reputation ruined, and Konstantin Levin, a wealthy landowner who falls in love with the daughter of a family friend. As Anna's life becomes more difficult, Levin's becomes happier, and they both ponder the unexpected power of love to shape one's life and views of the world. Levin, although content, still questions the idea of God, and strives for spirituality.
Anna Karenina is commonly thought to explore the themes of hypocrisy, jealousy, faith, fidelity, family, marriage, society, progress, carnal desire and passion, and the agrarian connection to land in contrast to the lifestyles of the city. Translator Rosemary Edmonds wrote that Tolstoy does not explicitly moralise in the book, but instead allows his themes to emerge naturally from the "vast panorama of Russian life." She also says one of the novel's key messages is that "no one may build their happiness on another's pain."
Levin is often considered a semi-autobiographical portrayal of Tolstoy's own beliefs, struggles, and life events. Tolstoy's first name is "Lev," and the Russian surname "Levin" means "of Lev." According to footnotes in the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation, the viewpoints Levin supports throughout the novel in his arguments match Tolstoy's outspoken views on the same issues. Moreover, according to W. Gareth Jones, Levin proposed to Kitty in the same way as Tolstoy to Sophia Behrs. Additionally, Levin's request that his fiancée read his diary as a way of disclosing his faults and previous sexual encounters parallels Tolstoy's own requests to his fiancée, Sophia Behrs.