Tolstoy’s novel teaches that sexual freedom actually enslaves women.
By Carmel RICHARDSON
Under our senseless conditions, the life of a good woman is a perpetual struggle against self; it is only fair that woman should bear her share of the ills she has brought upon man. — Rousseau, Emile
As we ride feminism’s third wave to new lows of late-stage capitalism, we’re often at a loss for what cures, if any, remain. What word of sanity can bring us back from the breach of normalizing pedophilia, for example, when the slope everyone swore wasn’t slippery has indeed led to the prophesied transgender craze and the celebration of every manner of sexual perversion?
While there may be other ways to #slowthespread of post-modern sexual mores, I would submit that a rather effective one is by picking up an old friend of 145 years: Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. The story of an adulterous 19th-century Russian noblewoman is more than just a juicy plot to sink your teeth into and escape our malaise (though it can be good for that, too). Tolstoy’s novel presents a potent lesson in the enslaving nature of sexual freedom that is uncannily applicable today.
For its multitude of colorful characters, each with at least one patronymic you’ll likely mispronounce, the story of Anna Karenina is relatively simple. Woman (Anna) cheats on husband with young military officer (Count Vronsky), and suffers consequences (social stigma, separation from her son, despair). But of course, in a novel of nearly 1,000 pages—depending on your translation—there’s a whole lot more to the story than that. The reader watches as Anna, a brilliant socialite with a respected husband and a smart young son, falls from grace: she nearly dies in childbirth of her illegitimate daughter; is cast out of all polite society; is isolated from her son, family, and friends; drives herself mad imagining her paramour is in love with other women; and, ultimately, commits suicide. Through all this, Anna refuses to repent her decision to be unfaithful. If there’s one idea Tolstoy wants you to come away with, it’s that affairs have consequences.
Yet it’s more than that. Anna leaves her husband for Vronsky in search of sexual freedom, autonomy, as Tolstoy later reveals through the adulteress’ own lips, when she projects her own guilt onto her lover: “Yes, there was in him the triumph of successful vanity. Of course there was love too; but the greater part was pride in his success.” Caught in all the trademark traps of jealousy, she sees her own faults in everyone but herself.
What Anna seeks in her extra-marital affair is power—confidence that she can still conquer men, though her husband Karenin has ceased to bend to her wiles. Her lust for control is far greater than her lust for Vronsky himself. This is no sin of Tolstoy’s invention, of course, but the curse of Genesis 3, and though Anna, for a little while, seems to circumvent it, her increasingly hysterical attempts to control Vronsky through emotional abuse only work to drive him away, as he seeks to rule over her. Yet her proto-feminist quest for equality has nothing to do with equal treatment, and everything to do with power—power over men.
(No, Tolstoy didn’t hate women. On the contrary, his treatment of the fairer sex is more than fair.)
Perhaps you are thinking a story of a woman cheating on her husband is far too tame to speak to our current culture. After all, compared to the shows Netflix et al. write in 2021, this whole affair is so heteronormative. Except, in its ends, adultery is not so different from other perversions. Tolstoy knew this, though he may not have foreseen the 21st century, because human nature over time and place is not that different after all. It is the ego which seeks gratification, which demands—craves, even—the acceptance of the society that condemns it. Yet as his title character can attest, no amount of acceptance is enough to secure the happiness of the one who lives in sin. The wheels churn incessantly.
Though she only has one affair of the body, Tolstoy shows Anna dabbling in countless little affairs of the heart as she attempts to will her wishes into reality. Though, not without irony, Anna is haunted by the thought that Vronsky is unfaithful to her, she thrills in flirting with every man she can get her hands on—even the honest farmer, Levin, whose wife Kitty once received Vronsky’s attentions. Anna delights in flexing her good looks and charisma on every unwitting male, making a game of how easily she can make them fall in love with her.
Paired with the thrill of the forbidden—the fomes peccati—this cocktail of emotion and ego leads the two lovers to do what was unthinkable in Russian society at the time: live out their infidelity publicly, rather than behind closed doors. This is Anna’s greatest attempt at control. Believing too much in her ability to bend people to herself, she hopes to change society rather than admit her wrongdoing. So, too, with our sexual activists, who demand we accept their version of reality, despite all of biology, and morality, and human nature, which say otherwise.
Eventually, Anna’s lust for control takes control of her, in her suicide. She intends the act as revenge on Vronsky, for not loving her as she thinks he must—by which she means he must never correct her faults, never go against her will (in the final case, Anna rages against him for proposing they leave Moscow on a Tuesday rather than a Monday), and never—ever—keeping anything from her. But her surrender to self-destruction is telling. It is Anna, not Vronsky, who ultimately breaks under the pressure of the affair. She fails to control both men and herself, and at the last has less freedom than she ever did when living with her husband, Karenin. Her suicide, trapped under a moving train, is a grotesque but unmistakable symbol of her ultimate slavish condition.
As Rousseau writes in his Emile, the damage is worse for the unfaithful wife than the unfaithful husband, because she robs both her husband and her children of her good faith. Rousseau writes:
No doubt every breach of faith is wrong, and every faithless husband, who robs his wife of the sole reward of the stern duties of her sex, is cruel and unjust; but the faithless wife is worse, she destroys the family and breaks the bonds of nature; when she gives her husband children who are not his own, she is false both to him and to them, her crime is not infidelity but treason. … Thus it is not enough that a wife should be faithful; her husband, along with his friends and neighbors, must believe in her fidelity; she must be modest, devoted, retiring; she should have the witness not only of a good conscience, but of a good reputation.
The Anna Karenina affair is an ego-trip for both parties, but it is undoubtedly worse for Anna. Vronsky can still go into society, after all, while Anna is condemned in all polite circles. While Anna goes mad with jealousy, Vronsky goes to clubs, the theatre, and elections. While retaining her reputation may have preserved Anna, Tolstoy seems to think that a “coming out” is inevitable, since Anna at first was content to consort with Vronsky while living with Karenin. The truth will always come to light, and often is pushed into the light by the very ones who should most want to hide it.
For the feminist of today, Tolstoy’s message is probably exactly what she doesn’t want to hear: sexual freedom enslaves females. Most poignantly, it enslaves women to their bodies—quite the opposite of what the abortion clinics claim. Anna seeks sexual freedom, but what she gets is exactly the opposite. Near the end of the novel, Anna confesses to her sister-in-law, Dolly, that she is not only unhappy, but feels trapped. Her means of control—her physical attraction and charisma—while terrifyingly powerful on a fresh victim, eventually wear out in steering Vronsky. Outside vows of marriage, she knows her only hope to hold him is her flesh, and that only while there is no one younger and prettier.
Later on, meditating in solitude on that look—which expressed [Vronsky’s] right to freedom—she, as usual, came only to a consciousness of her own humiliation. ‘He has a right to go when and where he pleases. Not only to go away, but to leave me. He has every right and I have none at all.’ … She could not do anything, could not in any way change her relation to him. Just as heretofore, she could hold him only by means of her love and attractiveness; and just as heretofore, only by occupations by day and morphia by night could she stifle the terrible thought of what would happen if he ceased to love her.
Her suicide, in her own words, is an escape—from the misery in which she ensnared herself and the one thing left to her, her beauty, which is no longer useful.
“Why not put out the candle, if there is nothing more to look at?” she thinks to herself.
Anna’s hamartia, her fatal flaw, is not her belief that women should be free, nor even her desire for freedom, but her belief that she will find greater freedom without her marriage than within it.
Near the end of the novel, Anna’s friends notice her new habit of screwing up her eyes whenever the conversation turns to her affair, as though blurring her vision not to see the truth that repeatedly confronts her. So, too, can the modern reader squint up his eyes to avoid the truth Tolstoy presents, and the consequences of sexual sin, which are catastrophic. But for the honest, there is an entreaty to fidelity—the highest chord played throughout Tolstoy’s masterful work—and it’s one worth tuning into again and again.