Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Karenin's Dignity

Given that adultery and divorce were taboo subjects at the time, it’s not surprising that Society treats Anna coldly. At the same time, it’s obvious that it’s not the affair itself that is problematic, but the public display of the same. Society, especially men, could tolerate infidelity, since it was a widespread activity anyway, provided affairs did not overstep the limits of propriety. Anna is especially attacked by women. The most poignant example is the lady who insults her at the opera, after Anna has made her relationship with Vronsky public. But from the start her own sex is against her:

The majority of young women, who envied Anna and had long been weary of her virtues praised, were pleased at what they guessed, and only waited to be sure that public opinion had turned before throwing the whole weight of their scorn at her. They already prepared lumps of mud to pelt her with in due time. Most of the older people and of those highly-placed regretted this impending social scandal.

Anna Karenina is as much about adultery as it is about social appearances. Tolstoy uses adultery as an opening into a society that is rigidly ruled by a system that uniformizes thoughts and personalities. We get this idea from the first pages when Oblonsky, a character who has cheated on his wife, reads the morning paper:

   Oblonsky subscribed to and read a Liberal paper – not an extreme Liberal paper but one that expressed the opinions of the majority. And although neither science, art, nor politics specially interested him, he firmly held to the opinions of the majority and of his paper on those subjects, changing his views when the majority changed theirs, - or rather, not changing them – they changed imperceptibly of their own accord.
   Oblonsky’s tendency and opinions were not his by deliberate choice: they came of themselves, just as he did not choose the fashion of his hats or coats but wore those of the current style. Living in a certain social set, and having a desire, such as generally developed with maturity, for some kind of mental activity, he was obliged to hold views, just as he was obliged to have a hat. If he had a reason for preferring Liberalism to the Conservatism of many in his set, it was not that he considered Liberalism more reasonable, but because it suited his manner of life better.

In the novel’s second book, Karenin, Anna’s husband, when confronted with the evidence that he’s being cheated on, echoes these ideas:

Karenin did not see anything peculiar or improper in his wife’s conversing animatedly with Vronsky at a separate table, but he noticed that others in the drawing-room considered it peculiar and improper, therefore he also considered it improper, and decided to speak to his wife about it.

Karenin, surprisingly, doesn’t mind that Anna have an affair provided that she doesn’t tarnish his image and good name in society, where it’s highly respected. She can cheat him so long as she does it with discretion. It’s only when Anna and Vronsky start making their relationship more and more public that Karenin is forced to take a firmer stand against them. With Karenin’s preoccupation with image and honour it’s easy to consider him a cold and ruthless villain, especially when compared with the more romantic Vronsky. Vronsky’s problem is that he really loves Anna and doesn’t just want to have a dirty, seedy affair with her, he wants to be lawfully married to her and walk with her in broad daylight, as husband and wife. Vronsky is against the entire system of falseness on which vulgar love affairs are based:

He felt all the torment of his and her position, all the difficulties they were surrounded by in consequence of their station in life, which exposed them to the eyes of the whole world, obliged them to hide their love, to lie and deceive, and again to lie and deceive, to scheme and constantly think about others while the passion that bound them was so strong that they both forgot everything but their love.

Vronsky wants to live an honest life, and he and Anna end up despising and hating Karenin for what they see as weakness and lack of moral fiber. Anna even tells herself she could respect him more if he’d try to kill her or duel with Vronsky for her. This is a rare occasion in the novel when Anna slips into the caricature that is Emma Bovary. Emma’s concept of romantic love comes from reading too many romances, where characters give in to crimes of passion. Vronsky’s the one who’s prone to killing himself for love, and he nearly does it once. Karenin, who is cold but not insensitive, doesn’t have the personality for that sort of display, but that doesn’t mean the affair leaves him indifferent. It affects him where it matters the most to him: his ability to work. Unable to concentrate, he seeks solutions. He does contemplate a duel with Vronsky, only to push the thought away because it strikes him as too absurd. His second alternative is a divorce, which he also resists because it’s an embarrassing solution for a man of his social position. But it’s even remarkable that he seriously contemplates it. This was quite ahead of its time. As late as 1920, John Galsworthy was still showing his protagonist, Soames Forsyte, indecisive about getting a divorce from his wife, Irene.

Karenin is always thinking of his image, his dignity and honour. And he has reasons to be worried; as Anna’s infidelities continue, Karenin’s career in civil service stalls. It’s easy to condemn Karenin for ruthlessness, but in a society where appearances are everything, it’s not an easy thing to lose his dignity. I’m not sure in what novel by French writer Albert Cossery I once read that dignity is a worthless thing invented to make poor people think they possess something valuable. Cossery’s characters, incidentally, tend to be thieves, drug addicts, prostitutes and liars, therefore people with little use for dignity. But the sentiment I think is true. Dignity is everything we have when we have nothing else, and Karenin doesn’t have a lot more besides it: his wife doesn’t love him, his child doesn’t love him; he has few friends; like others around him, he thinks only insofar as his thoughts don’t contradict the Tsar’s decrees. He has devoted his life to obedience, zeal, propriety, not even for self-gain, for he’s not an arriviste, but because he genuinely gets satisfaction from being a serious, rigorous working man and because he wants to serve Russia, and since his career ends because of the scandal, even that is taken away from him.

I don’t know if he deserves pity, but I cannot judge Karenin too harshly.


  1. Though I have not yet read Anna Karenina, based upon your and other descriptions that I have read it seems to be a work of complex and multi faceted characters. People who other writers would have been tempted to demonize and lionize portrayed as flawed but real Human Beings. I have been reading a bit of DH Lawrence lately and find that he also portrays people like this.Like your description of Karenin, Lawrence paints terribly flawed people who are sometimes sympathetic and always understandable. I find that this is one ingredient that makes book extraordinary.

    October 18, 2012 5:59 AM

    1. I've only read Lawrence's Women in Love, and that was a great novel! The ending was heartbreaking; the way he describes Gerald's death in the snow is one of my favourite passages from English literature.