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.