Marriage and masculinity in Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” ~ An imaginative conservative


For Tolstoy’s heroic men, marriage is not the end and end of a well-lived life. Romantic love compromises marriage, to the detriment of both men and women. Well-married people are good at the prosaic love of family life, not just at falling in love. They find romance and fulfillment in the joyous fulfillment of household needs.

“For a book to be good,” writes Leo Tolstoy in his notebooks, “one must love its main basic idea, as in Anna Karenina I like the idea of ​​family.” Throughout the novel, Tolstoy presents the heroes of family life, but also its losers and villains. Anna herself is the main villain, who rejects a good enough marriage with Karenina, in a vain search for forbidden love with Count Vronsky. Vronsky, at first very much a playboy, is challenged by some to be Anna’s mate, but ultimately cannot accept Anna’s demanding romantic love. In the end, she went crazy and then threw herself under the train. He enlists in the army hoping to die on the front line. It was not society’s oppression that finished them off, but their own false and tumultuous idea of ​​romantic love.

The Anna-Vronsky affair contrasts with the marriage between Kitty and Levin, consummated midway through the novel. Their marriage combines a Jane Austen-like tale of falling in love with a down-to-earth insight into what marriage and family life is like after the rice has blown. Kitty and Levin are the heroes of family life: Kitty overcomes her vanity to beautify the home, manage the household competently, and comfort Levin’s dying brother, while Levin overcomes his romantic vision of a conflict-free life as it is difficult to maintain an independent family. respect. Through the rest of the novel, they learn to deal with jealousy and reconcile differences.

While title characters such as Anna-Vronsky and Kitty-Levin grab the reader’s attention, Tolstoy masterfully uses secondary characters to deepen our understanding of family life. No character is more important in this respect than Vronsky’s friend Serpukhovskaya, who appears only three times in the novel. Serpukhovskoy was Vronsky’s playmate as a young man and his colleague at the academy. However, unlike Vronsky, he rose to the position of general in the army at an extremely young age. Now he is on the verge of becoming a statesman, who wants to transform Russia from a noble feudal society into a noble, patriotic modern society. He sees Vronsky as a potential ally in this effort.

Serpukhovskoy meets Vronsky at an opportune moment. Vronsky got Anna pregnant, but Karenin didn’t ask for a divorce from Anna yet – everything could come back. Anna’s demonic jealousy reared its head in Vronsky and she began to wear him down. At the same time, Vronsky is envious of Serpuhovsky’s success and wants to defend his stormy relationship with Anna. In fact, before the conversation, Vronsky “decided that he was happy in his love and that he had sacrificed his ambitions for her” (Part 3, Chapter 21).[*]

Serpuhovski tries to convince Vronsky otherwise. He alone has the moral authority and reputation to discourage Vronsky from throwing his life away on a forbidden, all-consuming love with Anna. (Vronsky’s mother, who generally approves of court affairs, thinks that Vronsky has been spending too much time with Anna. Vronsky’s broker, also a rake, also has his concerns.) Serpuhovsky is ambitious and aware of his competence in matters of state. “In my hands,” he tells Vronsky, “power of any kind, if I ever possess it, will be used in a better way than in the hands of many I know.” Vronsky renounces that a life full of ambition alone would be worth it or that he wants power in the present time.

Vronsky claims to speak for balance, but Serpuhovskoy will have none of it. Vronsky spends his greatest talents on whiskey, women and gambling. According to Serpuhovski, Vronsky will not “remain satisfied” in his love for long. From here, Serpukhovskoy unleashes a flood of wisdom on how male ambitions relate to married life and women. Exclamation points spice up his tirade. While many in the story advise Anna against her adultery, only Serpukhovskoy really has the reputation of advising Vronsky against it. Vronsky respects Serpukhovskaya. Serpukhovska has Vronsky’s best interests at heart.

For ambitious men, marriage is the best opportunity to achieve their ambitions. Insecure women are exhausting and demanding, so “it’s hard to love a woman and do anything else.” Realize your ambitions and “love in comfort and unrestrained, that’s the only way to get married!” For Serpukhovskoy, marriage is like carrying a backpack. “If you had to carry a load and use your hands at the same time, it would only be possible if the load were strapped to your back: and that is marriage.” Carrying a load with your hands is similar to having a mistress. When it belongs to another, it is like stealing another’s burden and running with it into the open. This is what Vronsky is doing—and it will take up his time and energy.

Carrying a load on your back reflects a prosaic love, built around needs and ordinary life. Solving life’s needs and building a family with a good wife is the basis for a good life. Great things can be achieved with a tidy household. Aim for good enough and you can, in a way, have it all. A life devoted to romantic love brings instability and distraction. Marital love provides a solid foundation for achieving even greater things outside of the family. Certainly the book as a whole reflects this teaching.

Vronsky enjoys the beauty of unsettled, demanding women. He says that Serp “never loved”. Serpukhovskoy would not care for this claim. He is looking for “independent people” capable and reputable to undertake serious reforms in Russia. Men who are independent of public opinion and not easily swayed by the carefree whispers of high society.

Serpukhovskoy asks carte blanche to seek promotions and responsible positions for his friend Vronsky. Vronsky objected. Maybe next time. He goes home to Anna, who is upset because she told her husband. They exchange clichés of romantic love: Vronsky will “dedicate himself [his] life until [Anna’s] happiness.” To Anna, “There is only one thing in the world for me: your love!” As Vronsky exchanges these sweet words with Anna, his conversation with Serpukhovskoy—and his regret at sacrificing the public side of his nature—flashes through his mind.

Vronsky’s commitment to romantic love for Anna destroys his life – and hers. The Karennins, already estranged, part ways shortly after Vronsky visits Anna at the Karennins’ home. This sends Karenin seeking a divorce, which he pursues until Anna nearly dies in childbirth in Book 4. Karenin’s noble concern for Anna and Anna and Vronsky’s child as it recovers temporarily reconciles Anna with Karenin. Vronsky attempts suicide – thinking: “Ambition? Serpuhovsky?” as he pulls the trigger, but survives a shot to his chest.

Thinking about his relationship with Anna, Vronsky actually tells Serpuhovska carte blanche and receives a commission in Tashkent, an important place. But after Anna recovers, they flee to Italy to live as artists and pseudo-intellectuals. From that moment on, all of Vronsky’s projects end up being vanity projects, designed to impress Anna while filling the ambitious hole in his soul. Never satisfied, they move from place to place as their romantic love burns out. Both end up dead.

Throughout the book, Tolstoy presents the heroes of family life – Vronsky’s sister-in-law, Varya, who takes care of him after his suicide attempt; Dolly, Kitty’s sister, married to Ann’s feline husband; Levov, a diplomat, whose lovely family impresses Levin so much. These glimpses of marital heroism complement the overall feel of Tolstoy’s most family-oriented book. Well-married people are good at the prosaic love of family life, not just at falling in love. They find romance and fulfillment in the joyous fulfillment of household needs.

Romantic love compromises marriage, to the detriment of both men and women. For Tolstoy’s heroic men, marriage is not the end and end of a well-lived life. It is private care for public people or ambitious people as in the case of Serpukhovskoy. This is the fundamental philosophical satisfaction in the case of Levin.

Scott Yenor’s Recovery of Family Life: Exposing the Limits of Modern Ideologies was recently published in paperback by Baylor University Press.

[*] All references are to Tolstoy, Anna KareninaTranslated by Louise and Aylmer Maude (New York: Everyman’s Library, 1992).

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The featured image is “Anna Karenina” (1899) by Levin and Kitty and is in the public domain, thanks to Wikimedia Commons.

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