Double Standards, Marriage, and Vulnerability in Anna Karenina

I read Anna Karenina (1873–1877) by Leo Tolstoy several years ago.  It is number 31 on the BBC book list.  I spent many glorious afternoons sprawled on the couch with this large book resting on my stomach while my children napped and sunlight streamed through the windows.  Nap time was reading time for me.  But they don’t nap anymore, so I sneak reading into my life in smaller increments.

Because I read this one so long ago, this post won’t be as detailed as I would like, and I must admit that I’m basing my thoughts on the 2011 movie with Keira Knightly and Jude Law, which I recently watched. Please forgive me for mashing the novel and the movie together in this post. (The quotes I use are from the movie, although I suspect they were taken right from the novel.) I’ll try to distinguish between them as best as I can.

two anna karenina

One of the overarching questions the novel asks is this: is it ever morally acceptable to commit adultery?  Now, I’m one for thinking about issues as complex, not in black-and-white terms, and I don’t have the answer to this one, although I’m inclined to say “no.” However, Tolstoy makes an interesting case for situations that might justify it, especially given the juxtaposition of Anna and her brother.

Her brother cheats on his wife, and his wife, although angry and wanting to leave the marriage, stays for the economic security and the promise that he won’t do it again.  Yet he later explains to Constantine that women dry up and get old and that men stay vigorous, so men have to search out newer conquests.  In the end, we see that he is again cheating and his wife is again unhappy.

Anna’s situation is her affair with Count Vronsky.  Her husband is a old, boring, and largely ignores her.  This doesn’t justify her actions, but she falls in love with a younger, handsomer, and more fun man.  The affair is joyful until it isn’t.  She gets pregnant, has the baby as Karenin’s wife, but she cannot deny her love for Vronsky.  Her husband is willing to forgive, but she must follow her heart and she leaves him for Vronsky.  This leads to disgrace and unhappiness.  She is damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t.

Both of the situations lead to unhappiness, but the novel prominently displays the unhappiness of women.  Perhaps rather than asking about the morality of an affair, Tolstoy is highlighting the economic difficulty women faced when laws dictated their status as property.  The brother’s wife cannot leave her cheating husband or she’ll be destitute.  Anna cannot leave her husband or she’ll be disgraced and penniless with a bastard child.  In these situations, the sex of the adulterers is reversed, but men are advantaged in both situations.  Vronsky can move on to another lover and even get married, despite having fathered a child with married Anna.  Karenin can put away his wife, keep the children, and find a new one (although I suspect his heart may have been broken), and Anna’s brother can keep his wife with the threat of her destitution and lack of seeing the children while continuing to carry on extramarital affairs.  These difficult situations seem to stem from the erroneous ideology that women are objects and men are people.

When Anna’s brother talks with Constantine about women being stale rolls and his need for a fresh one, Constantine replies, “I’m talking about love.  You’re talking about appetite.” This characterizes the beautiful courtship and marriage that then ensues between Constantine and Kitty.  She is attracted to Vronsky, but he rejects her for Anna, and her heart is broken.  But she realizes that Constantine is a constant and true companion and she learns to love him.  This marriage is the one in which we see how love should work; it distinguishes between love and lust.  Constantine also says, “An impure love is not love.” He reminds us that sensual desire, greed, and gluttony are the misuses of something sacred.

In some ways, Karenin displays this.  He knows Anna is behaving improperly, but when somebody mentions it to him, he says, “My wife is beyond reproach.  She is, after all, my wife.” I’m not sure if this is meant to convey his ownership of her, or if it conveys his trust and belief in her.  I found it moving.  However, once he realizes that she is pregnant and how much she is willing to rebel against him, he says, “I thank God the curse of love is lifted from me.”  It is a curse, for love is blind and can cause us hurt if we don’t protect ourselves. But vulnerability is what makes us human, and one must become vulnerable to love.

The film uses black-and-white costuming to contrast Anna and Kitty at the ball.  Anna wears white after she leaves her husband and appears in public.  It is a scandalous event, one in which a woman declares, “I’d call on her if she’d broken the law, but she broke the rules.”  I was struck by this, and I haven’t yet made sense of all of the implications of this statement, but it reminded me of the age-old fact that women tend to police other women.  The woman says this to Vronsky, who is just as guilty, but the rules only apply to women, not to men.  Is it okay to break a law but not to break cultural rules?

Anna appropriately wears red in the film when she throws herself under the train.  Yes, she did.  I can’t imagine that I spoiled this for anybody because we all knew that, right? It is a tragic ending, one that played out in real life all too often, I suspect, in years gone by.  The film does a nice job of foreshadowing this demise.

I have complicated feelings about this book/film.  I loved reading it, although I can’t remember much about it other than that I had finally found Tolstoy’s work gripping. (I’ve tried to read War and Peace three times with no luck.)  I enjoyed the film as well, and I found it true to the book as much as I remember the book.  However, I don’t know exactly what to make of the themes.  I suspect such a problem is what makes this book a classic, that is it full of the truths of life and ideas beyond my ability to gather and interpret fully in one or two sittings.


54 thoughts on “Double Standards, Marriage, and Vulnerability in Anna Karenina

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  1. This has been on my “to read” list for a while. Sadly, the themes are still as relevant today as they were back then. Not sure I want to read about women who are trapped.

    1. Right? They are still relevant! What a great observation. It is a difficult one to read because of that theme of being trapped, and it doesn’t end happily, but still a must read. I hope you decide to give it a try.

  2. I haven’t seen this movie yet. I think it’s coming up on my Netflix list! I think that Tolstoy’s message was more about the treatment of such women by society in his time than about adultery. He clearly depicts Karenin as a cold and self-righteous person who would be difficult to live with. Although Vronsky sort of gave me the creeps, I think one of Tolstoy’s messages is about the helplessness of woman in that society. She had at that time virtually no choice but to marry someone. What if she chose the wrong man? Then she had only the choice between staying with him as best she can or leaving him and being abandoned by all her friends (and not being able to make new ones, either). Constantine and Kitty are supposed to be his idea of the perfect marriage (note that his own was far from perfect–his poor wife), but in the book, at least, I found them to be utterly boring.

    1. Absolutely. I’m glad you got that out of the story as well. He really was commenting on the treatment of women. Too bad his own marriage wasn’t a good one!

  3. I read this recently, and I enjoyed the story concerning Anna, Vronsky and Karenin, but I did have a bit of a problem with Constantine. Even though he’s supposed to be the “good” husband, he was far from perfect himself – I think there was a line towards the beginning of the book where he complains that he finds an impure woman disgusting, or something to that effect. Later he begins to broaden his views, but I still found him to be judgemental and patronising to women in general. Perhaps that’s just an effect of my modern sensibilities – I might be asking too much for him to come up to the kind of liberal standard we expect now – or perhaps it’s deliberate on Tolstoy’s part, I’m not sure. Either way, I found him a dislikeable hero. He reminded me a little bit of Angel Clare from Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and we all know how that ended!

    1. Oh my goodness! Yes, we all know how Angel Clare was, the jerk! I wish I remembered more about Constantine from the book. I don’t remember him being as likeable as he was in the film, which I guess matches up with what you are saying. I will review Tess soon! 🙂 Love that book!

  4. Try some of Tolstoy’s short stories! (It’s been a long time since I’ve read *any* Tolstoy, and I don’t know if I’ll ever attempt Anna Karenina or War and Peace again either.) Also, I would recommend watching The Last Station if you haven’t already…great movie about Tolstoy.

    1. Thank you for the suggestions! I really want to see that movie. I did read a short story by him in college … I forget what it was. Oh yes, “The Death of Ivan Ilych.” I hated it then, but I would probably get more out of it now if I revisited it!

  5. I wonder if these themes and questions will ever NOT be relevant. We can only hope… I just read Madame Bovary, which has similar themes, although very different characters.

    1. I know. We can only hope that things will change to where these themes aren’t so much a part of our lives. Madame Bovary is a good comparison to this one. I really liked that book too, and it asks many of the same questions.

      1. Another one that explores similar themes – that I actually like more than either Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary – is Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. I feel like Lily Bart is a more sympathetic character than either Anna (who is a bit self-indulgent) and Emma (who is a lot self-indulgent). If you’ve not read it, I highly recommend it.

  6. I haven’t read AK, but the study of the double standard women suffer in society always reminds me of “Tess of the d’Urbevilles” – a study of the particular thought-models of the time period they live in. In that respect, I found sympathy for Angel Claire, because it’s well worth looking at how men also get sucked up into the entire moral illogic of standards/expectations in regard to women’s sexuality.
    Claire struggled with it, and couldn’t bring himself to think outside the box of what surrounding society had deemed ‘right.’
    Women get the worst of it because they bear children – the evidence of sex. If men had just as much chance of getting pregnant … think how different the ‘rules’ would be!

    1. Oh yes, the rules would certainly change! Good point about Angel Clare. He’s caught in the societal mores as much as Tess is. Ooh, now I can’t wait to post my review on that one. I’ve been sitting on it for a while now. Thanks for the motivation.

  7. I read Anna Karenina last year and absolutely loved it. I haven’t seen the movie yet. I actually liked Constantine’s (in the book, it’s spelled Konstantin, I think) story more than Anna’s, because I could relate more. I still have flashbacks to “being” in the fields with him, working through his complex feelings about love, faith, and death.

    As for Anna’s story, the most powerful part of it for me was the divide that grew between her and Vronksy because of her jealousy and doubt of him (which was, of course, based on the fact that if he left her, she would be homeless and even more outcast from society). It reminds me that love requires trust to keep it healthy and strong.

    1. I am sure I spelled Constantine incorrectly! Thanks for pointing that out. Oops. And yes, Anna’s jealousy isn’t necessarily love, but fear. It really is a tragic story. Thanks for the comment!

      1. I didn’t mean to be corrective, necessarily; I’m one of those people who learns names based on their spellings, and just cannot associate the person (or in this case, character) with any other name spelling. One time I had a friend whose name was Kristi, but for several weeks after I met her, I thought it was spelled Christy. When I found out the real spelling, I was really boggled; it felt like I had to meet her all over again as a completely new friend!

        1. Oh, no worries! I am that way too. I’m a very visual learner, which is why I usually check spellings, especially if I watched a movie. I missed it on this one, and I was glad for you to say something.

  8. Emily: While the overlying film of the novel is the complexity of adultery within nineteenth century society, the deeper magnitude of Anna Karenina is the circular foundation that is centrally focused on the relationships between the mother and the child. Simply put, it is the growth of children struggling towards and against their nurtured identity, mirrored within their parents and their own children – the portraits of Anna. The next time you get to read it, I would heavily focus on specifics of the many child-parent relationships and how the characters see themselves within this context and how that relates to how they view and relate to their partner(s). It is a grand piece of literature and it is wonderful that you took the time to review it. The Maude translation is arguably the best.

    1. Yes, I really liked the film. I think it was very true to the book, as far as I can remember, and I liked that it was all set as if on a stage.

      1. For some reason, the movie was lacking and it may have been the stage concept. I had high expectations with the cast, which may have been part of the reason. Maybe I need to give it another chance and watch it when I am less tired. After dinner, we sometimes need less thinking movies that are no more than ninety minutes.

        1. That’s true. I sometimes hesitate to start a long movie too late at night. It might just not have been your thing, and that’s okay. I loved that it reminded me of the book so much.

  9. I don’t think women in the book always suffer an injustice.
    For example,Betsy,is well known as a very promiscuous lady and she herself has an affair with another man.Besides Oblonsky is always ”indecent” with her,knowing that she likes such thing,although she acts otherwise (I think that scene was when Oblonsky leaves Karenin’s home after trying to convince him to grant Anna the divorce). Yet everybody attends Betsy’s parties,as if they know nothing about her.

    There’s also Vronsky’s own mother,a respected lady who has a very promiscuous past,but who will never cross certain boundaries!

    Anna on the other hand is ignored and despised because she lived her passion in daylight and has left her husband and child. It doesn’t matter if everybody is aware of her affair,but she should have kept it undercover and not let everybody see that she is totally assuming her affair with Vronsky. This idea is further reinforced when,after she is humiliated at the theater,she tells Vronsky that many women there had done worse than she; she doesn’t see that all women have stayed with their husbands and lived their passion with other men unassumingly.

    I adored the book and sympathized with Anna,but her downfall springs not from her affair,but rather from the challenging and unconventional manner she handles it.Had she done as every women did,she would have been perhaps happier.

    1. Very nice! That shows how nuanced the book is, which I’ve forgotten, and how the movie doesn’t cover those issues at all. Thanks for adding in the more detailed information from the book that I had forgotten.

  10. I read Anna Karenina years ago too, and recalled it again when I saw the movie. I really didn’t find any of the characters sympathetic – each one represented something that Tolstoy wanted to say about society at that time. That’s not a criticism, though. Lately I read Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace by Kate Summerscale which was about the same issues in Victorian England.

  11. Fascinating post. I get the sense that society’s judgement of Anna is more because she had the audacity to openly reject established norms i.e. marriage. It is one thing to conduct a discrete affair whilst still abiding by society’s rules it is another to flaunt and go against them. Perhaps that is what the quote about visiting Anna is alluding to?

    1. I think you’re right. I guess when we hide it or try not to ruffle established norms, others are more willing to “accept” or overlook it.

  12. What was fascinating to me about AK was the theme you touched on – that Anna broke not just the law, but the rules of society. I actually saw this as the main theme of the novel. Her friends tell her over and over again to go ahead and have the affair, but keep it private. I remember one of her friends also has affairs all the time, but stays with her husband to keep up appearances. Karenin himself also tells her to keep sleeping with Vronsky if she wants, as long as she doesn’t make it public. The sin that Anna ends up being condemned for wasn’t adultery, but the fact that she went public with it and left her husband, bringing shame to him. The novel exposes how women are expected to protect men’s “honor”.

    One thing I loved about the movie version was all of the visual clues to Anna’s inner turmoil. For example, she wears a veil several times throughout the movie. At first, the veil is pretty and flowery and translucent. By the end of the movie, her veil has harsh geometric lines that really obscure her face. I also loved that all of the city scenes take place literally on a stage, while all of the country scenes are portrayed truly happening in the country. That was a great way to capture the fakeness of everyone in the city and the purity of Levin who lived in the country.

    1. You describe perfectly the symbolism and imagery of the movie. I didn’t notice the veil, but I did notice other things like that and I thought they helped add to the emotion of the story. Thanks for elaborating on the theme of laws versus rules and public versus private. I can see a connection between expected gender roles as well, that women are expected to maintain and be in the private sphere while men dominate the public one. It makes sense that other and all customs would adhere to this arrangement.

  13. Oh my goodness, but I loved Anna Karenina. The book, I mean. I also enjoyed the movie, but found the Constantine and Kitty subplot more engaging than the main story, which wasn’t the case with the novel.
    After reading through some of the comments, it occurs to me that Anna was punished because she chose to be honest instead of deceptive. Had she conducted her affair in private, then presented a separate face to the world, she could have gotten away with it. But she insisted on being explicit with her desire, and was subsequently punished. Whether it’s adultery, drug use, differing sexualities, or other “taboo” practices, it’s usually easier both for the individual *and* for the society to hid behind a veneer of respectability. I suspect that this is an issue not just in aristocratic Russia, but across all societies at all points in time. By making her affair public, Anna indicted not only herself, but also the society in which she lived.

    1. In that case, I admire her even more. I’m a fan of honesty and being open about one’s actions. I don’t think hiding who we really are is healthy, and I think we should own up to our mistakes, although I’m not sure Anna felt she was making a mistake. Anyway, good thought!

  14. Thank you for sharing your experience and thoughts about classical drama of Anna Karenina. Growing as a Soviet Union kid, I’ve read all books of Lev Tolstoy. Everybody did. But in fact we have to face a lot of challenges to really understand the underlining issues…
    “Don’t you know that you’re all my life to me? But I know no peace, and I can’t give it to you; all myself – and love…yes. I can’t think of you and myself apart. You and I are one to me. And I see no chance before us of peace for me or for you. I see a chance of despair, of wretchedness…or I see a chance of bliss, what bliss!… Can it be there’s no chance of it?” Vronsky murmured with his lips; but Anna heard.

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