Tolstoy and His Family, at the time of Writing of "Anna Karenina"
(from A.N. Wilson, Tolstoy (N.Y., 1988)
(12) Marriage and Family--1
The main theme of "Anna Karenina" is marriage and family. In Part 4, Ch. 10 there is a discussion of the place of woman in society and the importance of education for women. This conversation took place in tsarist Russia nearly 150 years ago, but we can easily imagine it having taken place somewhere in the Western world last night. All of the same viewpoints, liberal and conservative and reactionary, are there. In a way it is disconcerting to realize that exactly the same sentences come out of people's mouths so many years later. But the human animal is sometimes agonizingly slow to change. Especially when matters concern such deeply visceral issues as sex.
The feminist movement in the West has, apparently, laid certain issues to rest by the year 2015. But not really. People are still asking, "Is a woman's place in the home or not? Should a woman devote herself primarily to family and children? In the middle of the discussion is a familiar reactionary voice, that of old Prince Shcherbatsky (Kitty's and Dolly's father), making crude jokes: "If men and women are equal, why can't I get a job as a wet nurse?" (409).
The "woman question" (zhenskij vopros, the term used in Tolstoy's time) is not really that different in 2015 than it was in Russia of the 1870s. Take, for example, Kitty's situation as an unmarried woman after Vronsky has abandoned her. She goes abroad to recover her health and self esteem. As the novel reads, "what she was now so painfully seeking" was "interest in life, a dignity in life--apart from the worldly relations of girls with men, which so revolted her, and appeared to her now as a shameful hawking about of goods in search of a purchaser" (228).
This has been one of the primary aims of the Western feminist movement since the 1970s--to allow women to find some other purpose in life, to escape the situation of being a side of beef, hawked in a fresh-air market. "Women can do without men," say the most radical of feminist leaders. "They can find happiness, for example, in their careers." But this is an extremist position. Most women prefer not to live their lives without men, family, children, even if they have a career.
This is demonstrated when Kitty abroad attempts to become a kind of "sister of mercy," an altruist like her new-found friend Varenka. Tolstoy usually frowns on altruism as something basically alien to the human personality. As soon as Kitty tries to play a role that does not suit her, she runs into trouble. The problem, once again, rises directly as a result of her feminine physical attractiveness.
The invalid husband in the family she has befriended becomes so attracted to her that the whole experiment must be dropped. And later in the novel we find that pure altruism, devoting one's life to doing good, is not enough even for the selfless Varenka. She too has hopes of marriage and family, to Lyovin's half-brother, Sergey Koznyshev.
Tolstoy understands well the problems of women in his society, especially the double standard as relates to women and men. After Kitty rejects Lyovin's first proposal he has things to fall back on: his interests in a wide variety of intellectual topics, his interests in agriculture, his daily preoccupations with running his estate. Kitty has nothing to fall back on after she loses Vronsky. Such was the situation of women in her society. She ends up doing something that modern feminists may frown upon. She goes back to embracing the traditional values of family and children. She finds happiness in marriage to Lyovin.
In short, Tolstoy would be (often is) viewed by Western liberals today as a horrible reactionary. He shares the views of Lyovin and Dolly "that a girl who did not marry should find a woman's duties in a family. . . . no family can get on without women to help. . . . in every family, poor or rich, there are and must be nurses, either relations or hired" (417). But, I repeat, in the Russia of Tolstoy's time, there was not much else for a woman to do.
In "Anna Karenina" Tolstoy does not treat broadly the situation in which a young woman, even one with some education, has no money. This is, however, Dostoevsky's theme, which he explored over and over again (for the first time in his first novel, "Poor People"). A woman with no means of support in Russia of that time had some very poor choices: (1) Marry a man who could support her, even a man she may despise (2) Take a job as a governess, often not a good choice either, because it was a common thing for the men of the house to use the hired help, including governesses, sexually (3) become a prostitute.