Anna Karenina starts on a kind note: a loveless arranged marriage between a young woman named Anna and her much, much older husband starts crumbling because Anna falls in love with a young man. So yes, love between people of the same age, condemnation of arranged marriages, and all that. However, divorces were very tricky to obtain in Russia at that time. Basically, you could only get one under extreme circumstances like for example, your spouse has been missing for years or he’s been sent to Siberia as a criminal, etc. And while adultery indeed was one of those rare legal grounds for divorce, there was a catch: the spouse who would admit to adultery could never remarry. Them’s the rules. Anyway, after Anna leaves her husband for her lover, her husband does not want to take the blame for adultery he didn’t commit, and Anna doesn’t want it because then she wouldn’t be able to marry her lover. Dilemma at its best. All writers collectively swoon.
Now, how does Tolstoy solve this dilemma? Easily. He labels Anna a bad mother because she doesn’t know where one of her daughter’s toys is because all good mothers know the whereabouts of every single of their kids’ toys at all times. He also paints her in really dark colors. Not only she is an adulteress, but she also takes contraceptives, so we all should just stone her. Finally, he has her friends abandon her and her young lover fall out of love with her, after which he has poor Anna throw herself under a train.
And if that’s not bad enough, there is another story going parallel to Anna’s. An aristocratic woman with five or so kids discovers that her husband cheated on her, but she forgives him, never takes contraceptives even though her health is compromised by so many pregnancies, and finally allows her husband to fritter away her money because that’s what a good woman does. Well, Tolstoy lets her live. The end.
P.S. An argument can be made that Tolstoy was a realist and that’s why he showed Anna’s lover fall out of love with her and so on. And yes, it’s true—love is flitting and friends can betray you—but Tolstoy didn’t do just that. He also demonized Anna so that readers wouldn’t pity her or root for her. Which was just really low on Tolstoy’s part, especially since Tolstoy himself cheated on his wife repeatedly.