After having read a few different works by Tolstoy, I have come to the conclusion that his main goal is to accurately depict what goes through a person's mind in various situations.

One of the most vivid memories I have from reading Anna Karenina is the fact that when Anna throws herself under the train, she has an immediate change of heart (i.e. she doesn't want to die), but there's no time for her to change her decision and the train kills her.

That always struck me as both 1) non-obvious and 2) making a lot of sense. And my reaction seemed to be confirmed when I read a 2003 New Yorker article on people who attempt suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge that says "Survivors often regret their decision in midair, if not before.", and "“I instantly realized that everything in my life that I’d thought was unfixable was totally fixable—except for having just jumped.”"

How did Tolstoy know or predict that Anna would immediately regret her decision? Had he spoken with people who had attempted suicide?

Here's the relevant paragraph:

She tried to fling herself below the wheels of the first carriage as it reached her; but the red bag which she tried to drop out of her hand delayed her, and she was too late; she missed the moment. She had to wait for the next carriage. A feeling such as she had known when about to take the first plunge in bathing came upon her, and she crossed herself. That familiar gesture brought back into her soul a whole series of girlish and childish memories, and suddenly the darkness that had covered everything for her was torn apart, and life rose up before her for an instant with all its bright past joys. But she did not take her eyes from the wheels of the second carriage. And exactly at the moment when the space between the wheels came opposite her, she dropped the red bag, and drawing her head back into her shoulders, fell on her hands under the carriage, and lightly, as though she would rise again at once, dropped on to her knees. And at the same instant she was terror-stricken at what she was doing. “Where am I? What am I doing? What for?” She tried to get up, to drop backwards; but something huge and merciless struck her on the head and rolled her on her back. “Lord, forgive me all!” she said, feeling it impossible to struggle. A peasant muttering something was working at the iron above her. And the light by which she had read the book filled with troubles, falsehoods, sorrow, and evil, flared up more brightly than ever before, lighted up for her all that had been in darkness, flickered, began to grow dim, and was quenched forever.

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    This is a weird question: you're effectively asking how did the writer know what his characters were going to do? Answer: The writer made it up. Or, Tolstoy didn't know it until he came up with the idea and wrote it into the novel. Perhaps you could edit your question to ask instead why he gave Anna a change of heart. I very much doubt it was due to research on attempted suicides, but it's a good question in terms of how the reader is meant to react. Commented Mar 20, 2019 at 1:39
  • @Chappo Thanks for the feedback! I understand what you're saying, and I'm open to changing the title, but I feel like the title "Why did Tolstoy have Anna have a change of heart?" is also ambiguous, because it could be interpreted as implying that Tolstoy included that detail to evoke a particular reaction in the reader (as you seem to suggest yourself) rather than to simply depict what goes through a person's mind in such a situation, which I think is the more likely explanation. I think I'll change it to "How did Tolstoy know that someone would regret...". Commented Mar 20, 2019 at 2:31
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    I think your core premise - that Tolstoy was aware of what attempted suicides think - is wrong. In fact, even the suicide data itself is unreliable, since it is only based on failed attempts. Your question is akin to asking how Douglas Adams knew that the last thoughts of the bowl of petunias were 'Oh no, not again.' You're asking how when you should be asking why. Commented Mar 20, 2019 at 2:46
  • @Chappo Thanks for continuing to engage with me on this. My experience has been that 1) different writers can write for very different reasons, and 2) Tolstoy's goal in his works is to accurately depict what goes through a person's mind in various real-life situations. I haven't read HHGTTG but I suspect it's not comparable because I suspect Douglas Adams' goal was not to try to accurately depict reality. Also, I don't mean to imply that Tolstoy was certain of what goes through a person's mind when they're committing suicide; he may have been merely inferring/predicting it. Commented Mar 20, 2019 at 3:45
  • I wonder to what extent Tolstoy’s own faith pushed him into giving Anna the benefit of redemption (via her change of heart and final prayer for forgiveness) rather than leaving her soul condemned to eternal Hell for taking her own life. Commented Mar 20, 2019 at 6:19

2 Answers 2


I believe that there is no reliable answer to your question. He could make this up, or he could hear it from someone or read about it somewhere, we will never know.

Tolstoy's wife Sofia Andreevna writes this in her memoirs (my translation from Russian):

We have a neighbor, about 50, not rich and poorly educated - N. A. Bibikov. His dead wife's remote relative, a young woman about 35, lived in his house, did housework and was his lover. Bibikov employed a governess for his son and niece - beautiful Geman woman, he fell in love and proposed to her. And his former lover, whose name was Anna Stepanovna, went from the house to Tula, supposedly to visit her mother, and from there having just a fardel (with extra clothes) she returned to the nearby train station - Yasenki, and jumped on the rails, under a freight train. Her body was dissected then. Lev Nikolaevich saw her, with bare skull, naked and ripped up in the barracks of Yasenki. It made a horrible impression on him which sunk deep into his soul.

That's all we know about the real world's inspiration for Anna's suicide.

But suicide is the more vast theme in the novel. Vronsky attempts to kill himself by shooting. Levin hides the rope from himself so as not to hang himself. There are different attitudes to this act in the novel.


In short: Suicide is bad, kids, don't do it.

That's basically all there is to it.

Long answer: You need to get into the morality of the time and place when the novel was written and ask yourself what the position of Anna in that world and the world of the book would be.

For love (somebody would say lust) Anna had broken all the rules of morality in society, she and Vronsky sacrificed everything for it. In a way, she had ruined her own life and the life of her husband by that infidelity. Vronsky had ruined his own life and Anna's too. In a way, they are like Adam and Eve tasting forbidden fruit. Tolstoy couldn't publish a book with that romance ending happily in that time period. He would have been attacked by the Orthodox church and other authorities for promoting obscenity and corrupting the innocent. So, what's the way to end the story of a lifetime of bad decisions? Another, the last bad decision somebody could ever make. Suicide.

Compare the love and lives of Levin and Anna. Levin was very wild in his youth but he asked his Kitty for forgiveness, he laid his cards and past deeds and thoughts bare in front of her and is reborn in her love as a good husband and home owner, a good man. Anna never asked for forgiveness. She kept running from her mistakes, never daring to look back and ran into her grave that way. Only moments before dying, she got clarity to see them, but it was too late. So, kids, don't let that happen to you. Be like Levin, be like Kitty, don't be like Anna and Vronsky.

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