Nothing exists to hinder an individual’s pursuit of happiness besides the shackles built from the expectations of others. Societal norms become ironclad laws, and those who do not accept these constraints often find themselves lost, ostracized, and abandoned by their peers. Society’s current obsession with social media, as well as the U.S. election of a president whose rhetoric propagates the marginalization of minorities, have created a constant need to conform to an accepted persona of the in-crowd and secure validation from others. These restrictions have weighed down individuals since social groups were formed. In Leo Tolstoy’s novel of literary realism Anna Karenina, Alexei Vronsky and Anna Karenina attempt to escape the social climate of late 1800’s Russia to carry out a love not accepted by the public. Although Anna’s beauty and grace seem to put her above her deprecating society, the skewed judgements and sexist expectations of her peers influence almost all aspects of her life and eventually lead to the loss of her social standing and the demise of her affair with Vronsky. By demonstrating the impossibility of sustaining a relationship simply through love, Anna Karenina highlights the inescapable implications of social class on an individual’s life and happiness.
Society imposes its expectations on both Anna and Vronsky’s lives and relationships, although these effects possess a double standard based on gender. In her article on the unrealized inner desires of characters in Anna Karenina, “Keeping Secrets in Anna Karenina,” Mary Ann Mefi states that “from the start, Anna and her brother Stiva Oblonsky are associated with a tendency to let the outer world mold them in a way which prohibits the inner life from flowing into consciousness and becoming their main motivator” (Mefi). These two characters, are influenced greatly by their societies. Instead of living for their own desires, they primarily take cues from the people around them. Tolstoy uses Oblonsky as a satirical example of this influence as he “adhered firmly to the view of the majority” (Tolstoy 19) on all subjects, and he changed his opinions whenever the majority changed, without any conscious thought. Although Oblonsky has an affair, he is not ostracized for his actions, as affairs do not go against the accepted status quo for men. This concept of a difference in treatment based on gender is apparent throughout the novel. Oblonsky’s peers view him in the same dignified position before and after the affair as he sustains his friends, job, and marriage. Vronsky, who is also a sociable individual, does not receive any judgement for his affair at its conception. Upon learning of Vronsky’s relationship, other men admire him for “the exalted position of Karenin, and the consequent publicity of their connection in society” (Tolstoy 162). He is idolized for his affair as he took the wife of a man high-seated in society, Alexey Karenin. In this scenario, Anna Karenina is a coveted object. It is of no consequence that an affair is considered immoral as it puts him above others in his society.
Though her lover is revered for his affair, Anna becomes the subject of public scrutiny for her parallel actions. After news of Anna’s affair spreads, “The greater number of the young women, who envied Anna and had long been weary of hearing her called virtuous, rejoiced at the fulfillment of their predictions, and were only waiting for a decisive turn in public opinion to fall upon her with all the weight of their scorn” (Tolstoy 162). Anna’s position in society does not depend on the substance of her character as her peers are willing to change their view of her when some form of gossip gives them the opportunity to (Roberts). Social reputations are fabricated concepts that rely on the way others view an individual, not necessarily the way the individual behaves. Anna is treated as worthless and despicable for loving someone, which exhibits the hypocrisy of society in its treatment of men and women for the same actions.
Societal pressures also influence Anna’s relationship with her husband, Alexey. Upon learning of her affair, Alexey states that he would ignore it “so long as [his] name is not disgraced… and that only in the event of your compromising me I shall be obliged to take steps to secure my honor” (Tolstoy 297). Alexey would rather have a troubled marriage than admit to Anna’s affair as his social standing is more important to him than the basis of his relationship. As Henry Pickford states in The Tolstoy Studies Journal, Alexey is not concerned that Anna is cheating on him as he is not married for happiness but because it is perceived necessary by the society he resides in (Pickford). Thus, Anna cannot be with the person she loves and is forced to sustain a public image that she herself no longer wants. Due to the pressures placed upon them by society, Anna and Alexey must lead lives of either falsehood or persecution.
After continuing their affair, the constraints of their public images become so prominent in their lives that Anna and Vronsky attempt – unsuccessfully – to elude their hyper-critical social class by escaping to Italy. Despite being in a country completely separated from Russia, Anna and Vronsky only associate with Russian people and quickly become repulsed by their surroundings: “The palazzo suddenly seemed so obtrusively old and dirty, the spots on the curtains, the cracks in the floors, the broken plaster on the cornices became so disagreeably obvious… that they had to make some change” (Tolstoy 444). Anna and Vronsky’s escape cannot last as the Italian environment is not satisfactory to them due to their excessive russian social conditioning. In no setting are they able to find happiness; thus they are never able to liberate themselves from the influence of their social circles. Tolstoy uses imagery in this setting to further emphasize these cultural pressures. While in Italy, Anna and Vronsky encounter a Russian painter and, upon seeing the skill in his portraits, request a painting of Anna. After the painting is finished, Vronsky is surprised the painter could have captured Anna’s signature beauty: ‘One needs to know and love her as I have loved her to discover the very sweetest expression of her soul’” (Tolstoy 442). However, the narrator explains, “it was only from this portrait that Vronsky had himself learned this sweetest expression of her soul. But the expression was so true that he, and others too, fancied they had long known it” (Tolstoy 442). This painting, as well as the social perspective that Anna is viewed from, creates an unattainable idea of beauty that does not exist. Although Vronsky feels as though he has long known this idea of her, his discovery of this “characteristic beauty” (Tolstoy 442) comes about simply because it is placed in front of him. Although beginning positively, in which their glamorous reputations precede them, this critical eye on Anna and Vronsky eventually becomes a negative perspective. The continuous impact on them proves the harmful and far-reaching influences of the culture surrounding them.
Juxtaposed to this failing relationship is a successful couple: Levin and Kitty. They remain independent from exterior influences and focus solely on each other. In a commentary on Tolstoy’s writing style, S.E. Shevitch states that Levin and Kitty’s relationship is able to last as society does not have an impact on the two. Throughout his life and throughout their relationship, Levin has remained unaffiliated with meaningless social and political problems (Shevitch). Conversely, Anna and Vronksy openly disobey their society, yet are also dependant on it. Their lifelong elite statuses have made them unable to escape the limelight, even when it is highly critical of them. Thus, Tolstoy provides a contrasting couple to emphasize the negative effect of society on a person’s mental well-being. Levin and Kitty’s relationship succeeds because Levin has always separated himself from political debates and social circles and never became dependent on their approval. The comparison of these two relationships throughout the novel emphasizes the way in which society influences how individuals act in carrying out their own desires and in relations with others. The inescapable effects of Anna and Vronsky’s refusal to obey societal rules torments their everyday lives when they return to Russia. Anna is willing to abandon her social standing for love by breaking social norms in “not having obtained a divorce, but having absolutely declined all idea of one” (Tolstoy 403). However, Anna and Vronsky’s love cannot last as the societal implications of this choice never stops affecting their relationship. In 1800’s Russia, social stigma was so powerful that without validation love could not prevail no matter the strength. Anna and Vronsky’s affair was doomed to fail as the heavy weight of society dictated most of their choices and feelings. After Anna momentarily refuses to see Vronsky, he exclaims, “‘This is how people go mad… and how they shoot themselves…to escape humiliation’” (Tolstoy 387). Although his peers were previously envious of him, they now see him as a failure as his relationship is no longer enjoyable. Luckily, Vronsky survives the injury, yet his actions attest to his belief that death is the only way to escape society’s judgemental eye. Anna faces a similar feeling of humiliation when she attends a play with a friend after returning to the city. She is disgraced by her peers simply for being in attendance and consequently laments to Vronsky, “Hideous! As long as I live I shall never forget it. She said it was a disgrace to sit beside me” (Tolstoy 507). According to Henry Pickford, characters in Anna Karenina often face a battle between their internal desires and their external actions which results in negative psychological impacts on them. These “external roles, ruts, duties, and customs devoid of intentional meaning” (Pickford) can threaten a person’s free will and ability to have independence in their own desires. The Russian upper class is merciless in their adherence to these social norms. Consequently, Anna’s unending experience of disparagement due to her inability to find a belonging in society severely strains her mental state and her relationship with Vronsky. These burdens lead to her final act of life to be in defiance of the society that destroyed her happiness.
After fights with her lover progressively worsen due to incessant humiliation from the public eye, Anna resolves to kill herself: “I will…escape from everyone and from myself” (Tolstoy 706). By committing suicide on railroad tracks, Anna exhibits the harsh effects of her constant struggle to live out her own desires in the face of a judgemental community. Henry Pickford explains the symbolism of railroad tracks as a metaphor throughout the novel for the rigidity of societal expectations. Railroad tracks, just like social rules, offer a specific path that must be followed and cannot be left (Pickford). An individual’s free will is almost impossible in Russia’s elite class as each decision must abide to a preset form of rules. The characters bound to this track are never able to escape it. Specifically for Anna, these expectations of her social class influence the choices she makes for much of her life. When she finally decides to follow her own desires, the judgments of her peers for not sticking to the “rails” results in the deterioration of herself and her mental health. Anna sees the only escape from these rules, which impose themselves in all facets of her life, as death. In a fitting ending to her constrained life, Anna eventually commits suicide on a railroad track, symbolic of the suppression she endlessly endured.
The disturbed lives of the characters in Anna Karenina demonstrate that most individuals must either conform to society’s rules and live a life of fabrication or reject them in exchange for social exile or even death. Dismissing cultural norms requires an extreme disregard for the opinions of others that few are able to achieve. These ideas of societal expectations are commonplace today with endless examples of their impact in the stories of self-conscious teens, oppressed citizens, and ostracized minorities. Yet, now more than ever, these pressures are truly inescapable. Due to individuals’ limitless connections through technology, critical opinions are consistently broadcasted in the palm of a person’s hand, making us inseparable from their harmful influence.
Melfi, Mary Ann. “Keeping Secrets in Anna Karenina.” Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, vol. 25, no. 1-2, 2004, p. 70+. Literature Resource Center, libraries.state.ma.us/login?gwurl=http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LitRC&sw=w&u=mlin_s_sharonhs&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CA114049422&it=r&asid=447d05f74407ce4eead78e759d8dee27. Accessed 2 Feb. 2017.
Pickford, Henry W. “Of Rules and Rails: on a Motif in Tolstoy and Wittgenstein.” Tolstoy Studies Journal, vol. 22, 2010, p. 39+. Literature Resource Center, libraries.state.ma.us/login?gwurl=http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LitRC&sw=w&u=mlin_s_sharonhs&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CA272167843&it=r&asid=b60c736d6d9490cac43f5ac22793009c. Accessed 2 Feb. 2017.
Roberts, Lee. “The Asian Threat in Europe: Topical Connections Between the Serial Novels Anna Karenina and Effi Briest.” The Comparatist, vol. 35, 2011, p. 85+. libraries.state.ma.us/login?gwurl=http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LitRC&sw=w&u=mlin_s_sharonhs&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CA258599254&it=r&asid=8398f04c6425013b0fc9e2c6c2e1fe35. Accessed 2 Feb. 2017
Shevitch, S. E. “Russian Novels and Novelists of the Day.” Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, edited by Dennis Poupard, vol. 17, Gale, 1985. Literature Resource Center, libraries.state.ma.us/login?gwurl=http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LitRC&sw=w&u=mlin_s_sharonhs&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CH1420020525&it=r&asid=f013954289279a09cbc40166f43696bc. Accessed 1 Feb 2017.
Tolstoy, Leo, and Constance Garnett. Anna Karenina. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003. Print.