Sunday, April 17, 2022

Anna Karenina and The Woman Question

Why does Tolstoy kill Anna Karenina?

The easy answer is that Anna’s suicide is the just punishment for her adultery and lack of maternal virtues. The clearest evidence of this hypothesis is the comparison with Kitty Shtcherbatskaya, the female half of the other major romantic relationship of the book. 

We meet Kitty in the midst of a girlish infatuation with Vronsky, expressing all the excitement with dancing one would expect of Kitty Bennet. Heartbroken that Vronsky chooses Anna over her, she falls into a depression, but eventually develops a strong love for Levin. Throughout the rest of the book, her love for Levin is never shaken, not when he confesses he isn't a virgin, nor when he confesses his lack of belief in God, nor when he tries to send her away as his brother is dying, nor when he develops an interest in Anna. Instead, Kitty is described as a considerate nurse, an adoring wife, a doting mother. She enjoys her pregnancy and the tasks of housekeeping. Our last scenes with her are ones of familial bliss: her delighting with her husband over their baby recognizing familiar faces. Kitty embodies the Victorian ideal of a woman, and ends the book in happiness and financial security.

Anna is contrasted with Kitty in nearly every sense. She is uninterested in housekeeping, repulsed by her husband, and unable to bond with the daughter she births. She carries out a scandalously public affair with Vronsky, then chooses to be with him rather than mother her son, then refuses to bear Vronsky more than one child. In our last scenes with Anna, we see her unable to find security in her love for Vronsky nor joy in her life, shunned by society, turning to suicide. She transgresses against social expectations of women and because she cannot deserve a happy ending, Tolstoy sentences her to death by train, a symbol of technology’s destabilizing effect on social hierarchies and gender roles.

I find this answer unsatisfying. For starters, Stepan Arkadyevitch carries out multiple hedonistic affairs with far less remorse than his sister Anna (“one does so little harm to anyone, and gives oneself so much pleasure”) with narrative impunity. Second, Anna is written to evoke empathy. After her “fall,” we discover extenuating circumstances – she was practically forced into a marriage with a much older man as a young girl by a manipulative aunt, her marriage was cold and loveless – it really feels like the reader is being asked “you were quick to judge her, but can you blame her?” Indeed within the narrative, Dolly, a woman who works hard to maintain her marriage and who loves and cares for her children, expresses understanding of Anna’s choice: “How is she to blame? She wants to live. God has put that in our hearts. Very likely I should have done the same.” But moreover, Anna Karenina explores the oppression of women to an extent that still feels a little radical today, suggesting a different answer to the question.

Does Anna die because the oppression of women in her society left her no alternative for happiness and fulfillment?

Having left a loveless marriage, Anna – uniquely Anna, and not her male lover – is shunned from society and snubbed by her former friends. Her life is genteel, lonely, and interminably boring. Attempting to fill her days with anything other than changing her gown, she turns to reading voraciously, tutoring children, and writing children’s stories. Her efforts are largely trivialized as “unnatural” “affectations”, or curious pastimes rather than truly impressive philanthropy like running entire schools. Anna’s dissatisfaction in employment is suggested to be generalizable to all women. At a dinner party, the education and employment of women is discussed:

“Woman desires to have rights, to be independent, educated. She is oppressed, humiliated by the consciousness of her disabilities.”
Anna feels precarious, relying on her lover Vronsky for support. She believes he will only love her if she remains beautiful, but confides to her sister-in-law Dolly her certainty that Vronsky will not love her while she is pregnant, despite his repeatedly stated desire for more children. Anna’s fears are justified: during her pregnancy, Vronsky remarks that “she was utterly unlike what she had been when he first saw her. Both morally and physically she had changed for the worse. She had broadened out all over.” Dolly is shocked to learn (after seven pregnancies) that she may have a choice over whether to become pregnant – control over her own childbearing was “the very thing she had been dreaming of” – and acknowledges Anna’s wisdom in refusing to bear more children, but that even remaining beautiful is no guarantee of Vronsky’s continued support:

“I,” she thought, “did not keep my attraction for Stiva; he left me for others, and the first woman for whom he betrayed me did not keep him by being always pretty and lively. He deserted her and took another.”

Pregnancy is repeatedly associated with “hideousness” and described as “intolerable,” while motherhood is described as unrewarding, futile, imprisonment. Dolly remarks:

Why, even if we suppose the greatest good luck, that the children don’t die, and I bring them up somehow. At the very best they’ll simply be decent people. That’s all I can hope for. And to gain simply that—what agonies, what toil!... One’s whole life ruined!
Dolly asks a “handsome” young peasant woman if she has any children. The woman responds,

“I had a girl baby, but God set me free; I buried her last Lent.”
“Well, did you grieve very much for her?” asked Darya Alexandrovna.
“Why grieve? The old man has grandchildren enough as it is. It was only a trouble.”
Anna decries her lack of legal and economic independence, her social standing and her reproductive choices: “what wife, what slave can be so utterly a slave as I, in my position?"

The flaw in this interpretation – that Anna’s options in life are so miserable, so akin to slavery that her suicide is seen in some way as understandable – however, is again the veneration of Kitty’s patient maternalism that I remarked on earlier. Further, Anna’s suicidal impulses are foiled against those of Levin, the other primary protagonist of the novel. Rather than Kitty expressing anything but delight in her new motherhood, it is Levin who has an identity crisis upon the birth of their child. In his search to understand the meaning of life, he tries to rationalize his purpose, poring over philosophy texts. He finally discovers that life cannot be understood through reason, but that meaning can only be derived through faith in God. He finds peace and happiness in his life.

So is this then the answer? That Anna dies because she has no faith in God? This theory also feels lackluster: Anna doesn’t dwell on faith, and never rejects God.

Is there perhaps no answer to the question? Tolstoy (rather smugly) writes in a letter to Nikolai Strakhov:

If I were to try say in words everything that I intended to express in [Anna Karenina], I would have to write the same novel I wrote from the beginning.
Clearly, Tolstoy intended to convey some meaning. Perhaps the answer is a muddled combination of all the above: Anna, as a woman in a decaying socioeconomic class, suffers from oppression but makes choices that are understandable – not alienly evil. If a woman can simply find happiness in her husband, in motherhood, in faith, she could have an enjoyable, rewarding life, Tolstoy seems to suggest.

Indeed this status quo-affirming tangle of an answer to the Woman Question is mirrored in Tolstoy’s examination of class. A landowner, Levin is displeased that he must exploit his workers to maximize his own profit, and tries to invent a sort of profit-sharing scheme in which he may incentivize peasants to work hard while he maintains his nobility: “living in good style – that’s the proper thing for noblemen.” His communist brother points out the flaws in Levin’s scheme, that rather than truly trying to address capital’s oppression of the labourer, he is attempting something out of an egotistical desire to be original. Even Levin’s philandering brother-in-law calls Levin’s attempt to define some ethical sort of capitalism “sophistry”, and suggests that Levin give away his estate if he considers his earning a hundred times that of his peasants "unfair." After a dozen chapters devoted to the ethics of capitalism and the oppression of the peasants, Levin’s ultimate solution to the challenges at hand is to be an ethical capitalist so that he may pass on his estate to his son.

He knew he must hire laborers as cheaply as possible; but to hire men under bond, paying them in advance at less than the current rate of wages, was what he must not do, even though it was very profitable. (...) Felling timber must be punished as severely as possible, but he could not exact forfeits for cattle being driven onto his fields; and though it annoyed the keeper and made the peasants not afraid to graze their cattle on his land, he could not keep their cattle as a punishment. To Pyotr, who was paying a money-lender ten per cent. a month, he must lend a sum of money to set him free. But he could not let off peasants who did not pay their rent, nor let them fall into arrears.
Tolstoy has, I think, a sharp sense for the many problems in his society, which was rapidly undergoing change as the serf system was abolished and Russia began to industrialize. But he seems unable to look beyond his patriarchal, aristocratic perspective. The conclusion of all these fantastically written dialogues and beautiful inner workings of the characters' minds thus feels rather empty, the questions raised going unanswered.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting insight into a very complex novel. I think the real tragedy of the story is that all of the main characters, including Anna, are good people. They're principled and well-groomed in a christian culture. Even as Anna starts making bad choices she doesn't really abandon her faith. She actually holds onto it, at least on some level. One of the lessons I take from it is that at times when temptation is strong it's necessary to find strength in God. Yes, we should flee temptation and resist it, but in the process we also need to seek strength in God because we're not strong enough in ourselves to stay true to principle. We need help from Him. I