Tolstoy's Perspective On Women's Rights As Depicted In Anna Karenina

1171 words - 5 pages

"Vengeance is mine; I will repay," states the darkly foretelling epigraph of Leo Tolstoy's famous novel Anna Karenina. Throughout the work, the author seems torn between feminist and misogynist sympathies, leading one to wonder if the above quote is directed at the adulterous Anna--the only character in the novel who pays for her transgressions with her life. At first, Tolstoy seems to sympathize with Anna, contrasting her situation with that of her brother Stiva, who has also committed adultery but received no social chastisement. But by the end of the novel it's almost as though the author feels he has allowed Anna to get away with too much, and must teach the reader a lesson about such behavior from a woman. Anna's last mention in the novel that bears her name comes nearly 50 pages before its conclusion, when Countess Vronsky calls her "mean and low" (917).

When we first meet Anna, Tolstoy describes his heroine as quite loving and maternal. She has come to console her sister-in-law Dolly Oblonskaya, who has just learned that her husband is having an affair with their French governess. Dolly is impressed by the fact that Anna not only remembers the names of all her nieces and nephews, "but remembered the years and even the months of their births, their characters, and what illnesses they had had" (79). The aim of Anna's visit is to reconcile Dolly and Stiva, an effort in which Anna's deep concern for family is revealed. So far, Anna's personality seems like that of an ideal 19th century Russian wife. However, as soon as she meets Count Vronksy at a ball, a mean streak seems to develop in her.

At the ball, hosted by Dolly's family the Scherbatskys, Anna and Vronsky dance together several times. Kitty Scherbatsky, Dolly's younger sister and object of the count's affection heretofore, can't help but notice that both he and Anna seem enthralled with one another. "Everything about her was enchanting," muses Kitty, "but there was something terrible and cruel in her charm" (97). Anna has not yet strayed from her marriage, but apparently the mere thought of it is enough to transform her from loving and attentive to cruel and heartless.

Naturally, Anna and Vronsky begin to have an affair, which Alexis Karenin, Anna's husband, discovers. "Our lives are bound together not by men but by God. This bond can only be broken by a crime, and that kind of crime brings its punishment," he warns her (173), in an allusion back to the novel's epigraph and a foreshadowing of Anna's eventual fate. They agree to live together as though nothing were wrong in order to keep up appearances, but after a time Anna demands divorce and Karenin consents on the grounds that Anna give up all rights to their son Serezha. She cannot bring herself to do this, and they live as before for a time until Anna gives birth to a daughter fathered by Vronsky. The birth is a difficult one, and Anna is convinced she will die in labor. She does in fact live, but...

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