In the novel Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, the Russian society in the late 19th century, particularly the nobility and aristocracy, is epitomized by their various social etiquettes and formalities that predominated the European continent during this time period. Perhaps the most intriguing theme perpetrated by Tolstoy during the entire novel is that of adultery and the moral and social contract a nobleman and noblewoman are bound to by the highly supercilious and elite aristocratic society. Adultery is committed by nearly every major character in the novel; including, of course, Anna herself, and the effects of this lewdly considered crime are evident in each of their marriages, families, and social relationships. But the changes in societal views and newly forming relationships don’t stop at “new” explosion of illegitimacy and adultery. Indeed, adultery and infidelity were a grandiose part of the European, in this case Russian, aristocracy, but the rise of capitalism and the putting-out in the mid 18th century and the Industrial Revolution of the early 19th century saw a tremendous change in marriage customs and attitudes towards children.
Hence, reflecting upon the relationships of the characters in Anna Karenina, one can attest that many of the notions of love and matrimony held by the modern world stem from this time period, although they were mostly applicable to just the elite and wealthy. However, there were some traditions which were radically different from what the modern world today acknowledges as “love marriages”; nevertheless, the bond of holy matrimony is a long and tedious process for the aristocracy, and it was challenged and broken often, although tiding with some opposition from either spouse for the most part. A young woman, especially a member of the nobility like Kitty Shtcherbatsky, was expected to marry at a fairly young age, just a few years after she emerged as a debutante in society. Her mother, Princess Shtcherbatsky, scorned at the new radical ideals of marriage in her day, which openly professed that “It’s the young people [who] have to marry; and not their parents; so we ought to leave the young people to arrange it as they choose” (Tolstoy 183). Princess Shtcherbatsky was determined to marry her daughter to Count Vronsky, a handsome and gallant young military officer, who was, at the time, being considered as a prospective suitor for Kitty, since he spent much of his time in Moscow taking Kitty to balls and dancing with her.
Vronsky was successful and wealthy, and came from a highly esteemed family in St. Petersburg; of course the Princess wanted him to be her future son- in- law. Although it seems incredulous as to why a family with such considerable wealth as the Shtcherbatskys would be greedy for money or fame, this was a fairly common attitude in Imperial Russia. In fact, most of the European nobility intermarried, since they expected their spouses and the spouses’ families’ to have equal or superior wealth and esteem than themselves, a custom which was soon to fade away, but which still permeates in traditional societies today. Tensions arose when Konstantin Levin, a farmer who lived in the countryside, and was mostly preoccupied with farm work and bear hunting, proposed to Kitty. Levin was considerably rich compared to the peasants who worked for his farm, and his brother Sergey Ivanovitch was a esteemed writer and philosopher renowned in Saint Petersburg, but lacked the charisma and social status of Vronsky.
Naturally, Princess Shtcherbatsky was contemptuous towards him, and when Anna rejected his proposal because she was still “in love” with Vronsky, she was grateful, as she did not want her daughter living in the countryside with a farmer. This noble disposition towards the peasantry and the working poor was shared by most of the nobles who were present in the popular Moscow and Saint Petersburg circles; some suggested that the peasants were to be granted more rights than before (they had recently done away with serfdom in Russia in the mid-19th century), while others argued that peasants, now completely devoid of a strict moral code due to their emancipation from their lords, were more resilient than ever. All in all, the Russian aristocracy didn’t care much about the peasants, and Princess Shtcherbatsky didn’t care much about Levin; no one did, except Kitty’s father. However, as it is always the case, Levin married Kitty when Vronsky left Kitty for Anna Karenina, who was, at the time, a married woman.
Anna Arkadyevitch Karenina was the wife of Alexey Alexandrovitch Karenin, an established senior statesman and one of the most respected members of the Saint Petersburg society. Evidently, when Anna was found eying and flirting with Vronsky constantly in Princess Betsy’s parties and dinners, Alexey sat her down and explained his thoughts on her affair, elucidating, in particular, the “exposition of religious significance of marriage… [and] certain rules of decorum which cannot be disregarded with impunity” (Tolstoy 279). Essentially, Karenin didn’t want to be repudiated by society because he had a cheating wife, and hence agreed to keep matters and secret, and to allow Vronsky’s visits, unless he didn’t see him in the house when he himself was present. Needless to say, this “open marriage” didn’t work, and Anna and Vronsky fled to Southern Europe, while Anna was still married to Karenin and had an eight-year-old boy named Seryozha. The significance of Seryozha as a character in the novel is profound, but relating his involvement with Anna and Alexey’s relationship, he was the only fiber that kept them bound to each other even when Anna moved back into Russia with Vronsky.
Seryozha represents the respect and admiration of the aristocratic parents, or all classes of parents in general, had developed over the course of the 18th and 19th century. Children were seen as a uniting bound between families, rather than sickly and imminent to death from childhood diseases that waged the continent during that time. Upon her return to Moscow, she was received perniciously by most of the pompous and well-to-do women in the Muscovite circles, and some incidents, such as the incident in Patti’s benefit, where Anna later reported that Madame Kartasova “said it was a disgrace to sit beside [her]” made her home-bound and refusing to step outside into society and parties (Tolstoy 498). She was deeply distraught with not being able to see her son, even though she had, by this time, already a baby with Vronsky as well. Even after the predicaments dealing with her child and Alexey Alexandrovitch, Vronsky had a difficult time convincing Anna about legalizing his child and divorcing her prior husband, infuriated by the fact that “…the law and all the conditions of our position are such that thousands of complications arise which she does not see and does not want to see” (Tolstoy 567).
However, some wives were forgiving and understanding when their husbands cheated on them with their housemaids. Stephan Arkadyevitch Oblonsky was a member of the liberal party, who asserted that “marriage is an institution quite out of date, and that it needs reconstruction” (Tolstoy 8). He was Anna Karenina’s brother, and his wife, Dolly Alexandrovna, was Kitty’s older sister. On hearing the news of his infidelity, Dolly was naturally upset, and couldn’t even bare to see her husband again. Here, the mutual agreement made by matrimony was challenged, much like it is today with most divorces and cheating spouses. But she eventually forgave him, no doubt an easy task, but still continued to have constant residual doubt on her decisions. Certainly, her decision was taken up by her considering the state of her children, someone were quite young, and her and Stephen’s social status. Unsurprisingly, she herself contemplates upon adultery “as is indeed not infrequent with women of unimpeachable virtue, weary of the monotony of respectable existence. At a distance she not only excuse illicit love, she positively envied it” (Tolstoy 562).
The tiers and customs relating to preliminary dating customs and marriages noted by Tolstoy were rigorous, and thoroughly bound to a judgmental society, who adored gossip and loved to scorn others and debase others for their own amusement. One could argue that the challenges face by Anna and Vronsky during their love affair, and perhaps Anna’s death itself, could be attributed to the restrictions they were placed under, where Anna was confounded as to whether to divorce Alexey Alexandrovitch and denounce society entirely, or to stay married and raise in child in wedlock, while simultaneously contemplating whether her own husband was cheating on her or not. Although they were many laws that protected her and her child, Anna faced many obstacles in her life, and was, for the most part, desperately unhappy. Dolly’s retribution, Kitty’s acceptance of Levin being the “good guy” as compared to the liar Vronsky, and Anna’s love and eventual hatred for Vronsky all symbolize the quandaries faced by the Russian aristocracy while trying to secure love, marriage, children, and well as maintaining social status. Undoubtedly, it would’ve been a frightening endeavor to try and achieve all these goals, and indeed, most of them failed in one or the other.