Political Philosophy

Marriage & Manliness in Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”

December 14, 2022

Scott Yenor

Washington Fellow

This essay was originally published by The Imaginative Conservative on December 12, 2022.

Marriage for Tolstoy’s heroic men is not the be-all and end-all of a life well lived. Romantic love compromises marriage, to the detriment of both women and men. The well-married are good at the prosaic love of family life, not just falling in love. They find romance and fulfillment in joyfully executing the necessities of a household.

“In order for a book to be good,” writes Leo Tolstoy in his notebooks, “one must love its main basic idea, as in Anna Karenina I love the idea of a family.” Throughout the novel, Tolstoy presents heroes of family life, but also its losers and villains. Anna herself is the chief villain, throwing away a good enough marriage to Karenin, in the vain search for a forbidden love with Count Vronsky. Vronsky, at first very much a playboy, rises some to the challenge of being Anna’s mate, but ultimately cannot accommodate Anna’s demanding Romantic love. She ends up going crazy and then throwing herself under a train. He enlists in the army hoping to die on the front lines. They are done in not by society’s oppression, but by their own false and tumultuous idea of Romantic love.

The Anna-Vronsky affair contrasts with the marriage between Kitty and Levin, consummated at the novel’s midway point. Their marriage combines a Jane Austen-like story about falling in love with a down-to-earth glimpse of what marriage and family life are after the rice has blown away. Kitty and Levin are heroes of family life: Kitty overcomes her vanity to beautify a home, manage a household competently, and comfort Levin’s dying brother, while Levin overcomes his Romantic vision of conflict-free life to realize how hard it is to maintain a family’s self-respect. They learn to deal with jealousies and reconcilable differences throughout the rest of the novel.

While headliners like Anna-Vronsky and Kitty-Levin capture readers’ attention, Tolstoy masterfully uses minor characters to deepen our understanding of family life. No character is more important in this respect than Vronsky’s friend Serpukhovskoy, who appears only three times in the novel. Serpukhovskoy was Vronsky’s playmate as a youngster and his classmate in the academy. Unlike Vronsky, however, he has risen, at an extraordinarily young age, to the position of general in the military. He is now on the cusp of becoming a man of state, looking to transform Russia from a noble feudal society to a noble, patriotic modern society. He sees Vronsky as a potential ally in this effort.

Serpukhovskoy meets Vronsky at an opportune time. Vronsky has impregnated Anna, but Karenin has not yet sought to divorce Anna—everything could be turned back. Anna’s demonic jealousy has reared its head to Vronsky, and she is beginning to be exhausting to him. At the same time, Vronsky is envious of Serpukhovskoy’s success and wants to defend his tumultuous relation with Anna. In fact, prior to the conversation, Vronsky “made up his mind that he was happy in his love, and having sacrificed his ambitions for it” (Part 3, Chapter 21).[1]

Serpukhovskoy tries to convince Vronsky otherwise. He alone has the moral authority and stature to discourage Vronsky from throwing his life at a forbidden, all-consuming love with Anna. (Vronsky’s mother, who approves of court affairs generally, thinks Vronsky has taken his time with Anna too far. Vronsky’s broker, also a rake, also has his worries.) Serpukhovskoy is ambitious and conscious of his competence in matters of state. “In my hands,” he tells Vronsky, “power of any kind, if I ever possess it, will be used in a better way than in the hands of many whom I know.” Vronsky disclaims that a life of ambition alone would be worth it or that he wants power at the present time.

Vronsky claims to speak for balance, but Serpukhovskoy will have none of it. Vronsky is wasting his best talents on whiskey, woman, and gambling. Vronsky will not, Serpukhovskoy contends, “remain satisfied” in his love “for long.” From here Serpukhovskoy unleashes a torrent of wisdom about how manly ambition relates to married life and women. Exclamation marks pepper his tirade. While many in the story counsel Anna away from her adultery, only Serpukhovskoy really has the stature to counsel Vronsky away from it. Vronsky respects Serpukhovskoy. Serpukhovskoy has Vronsky’s best interests at heart.

For ambitious men, marriage provides the best perch from which to achieve one’s ambition. Insecure women are consuming and demanding, so it is “difficult to love a woman and do anything else.” To achieve one’s ambitions and “to love in comfort and unhampered, the only way it so marry!” For Serpukhovskoy, marriage is like carrying a back pack.  “If you had to carry a load and use your hands at the same time, it would be possible only if the load were strapped on your back: and that is marriage.” Carrying a load with your hands is akin to having a mistress. When she belongs to another, it is like stealing a load from another and running with it in the open. That is what Vronsky is doing—and it will take up his time and energy.

Carrying the load on your back reflects a prosaic love, built around necessities and common life. Handling life’s necessities and building a family with a good woman is the ground for living well. With an orderly household, one can accomplish great things. Aim for good-enough and you can, in a sense, have it all. Life dedicated to Romantic love delivers instability and distraction. Marital love provides a solid basis for achieving even greater things outside the family. Certainly the book as a whole reflects this teaching.

Vronsky affects to relish the beauty of disordered, demanding women. He says that Serpukhovskoy has “never loved.” Serpukhovskoy could care less about this claim. He is seeking “independent men” of ability and stature to undertake serious reforms in Russia. Men who are independent of public opinion and not easily swayed by the careless whispers of high society.

Serpukhovskoy asks for carte blanche to pursue promotions and positions of responsibility for his friend Vronsky. Vronsky demurs. Perhaps next time. He goes home to Anna, who is agitated about having told off her husband. They exchange the clichés of Romantic love: Vronsky will “devote [his] life to [Anna’s] happiness.” For Anna, “There is only one single thing in the world for me: your love!” As Vronsky exchanges these sweet nothings with Anna, his conversation with Serpukhovskoy—and his regrets about sacrificing the public side of his nature—flash through his mind.

Vronsky’s commitment to Romantic love for Anna ruins his life—and hers. The Karenins, estranged already, separate shortly after Vronsky visits Anna at the Karenin home. This sends Karenin into seeking a divorce, which he seeks until Anna nearly dies in childbirth in Book 4. Karenin’s noble care for Anna and Anna and Vronsky’s child as she recovers temporarily  reconciles Anna to Karenin. Vronsky tries suicide—thinking “Ambition? Serpukhovksy?” as he pulls the trigger, but survives the gunshot to his chest.

Thinking his relation with Anna over, Vronsky then actually gives Serpukhovskoy carte blanche and gets a commission in Tashkent, an important post. But after Anna recovers, they run off to Italy to live as artists and pseudo-intellectuals. From that point on, all of Vronsky’s projects end up being vanity projects, designed to impress Anna while filling the ambitious hole in his soul. Never satisfied, they move from place to place as their Romantic love burns out. Both end up dead.

Throughout the book, Tolstoy presents heroes of family life—Vronsky’s sister-in-law, Varya, who nurses him to health after his suicide attempt; Dolly, Kitty’s sister, who is married to Anna’s catty brother; Lvov, the diplomat, whose lovely family so impresses Levin. These glimpses of marital heroism complement the overall impression of Tolstoy’s most pro-family book. The well-married are good at the prosaic love of family life, not just falling in love. They find romance and fulfillment in joyfully executing the necessities of a household.

Romantic love compromises marriage, to the detriment of both women and men. Marriage for Tolstoy’s heroic men is not the be-all and end-all of a life well lived. It is a private nurturance for public men or ambitious men as in the case of Serpukhovskoy. It is ground philosophic contentment in the case of Levin.

[1] All references are to Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, Translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude (New York: Everyman’s Library, 1992).