"Watching the Race," Illustration by Orest Verejsky
(9) The Steeplechase
One of the most famous scenes in the novel, the steeplechase scene is the climax of the early part of Anna Karenina. Tolstoy shows how this episode brings about vast changes in the fortunes and the mindset of three major characters: Vronsky, Anna, and Karenin. He also draws a direct parallel between Vronsky's mare, Frou-Frou, and Anna, and he suggests that upon the occasion of her first sexual infidelity with Vronsky, Anna sustains a kind of figurative broken back that parallels the broken back of the mare in the race.
Anna does not die immediately of her "broken back," but she must limp through the rest of the novel until the psychological burden of adultery finally kills her. The events of the steeplechase also place a psychological burden on the two male characters, the two Alekseis. Karenin never entirely recovers from his wife's open confession of her love for Vronsky and her hatred for him (this confession comes immediately after the race and under the influence of her emotional state after Vronsky falls and the horse breaks a leg--p. 225). Something dies inside him at this point. As for Vronsky, "For the first time in his life he knew the bitterest sort of misfortune, misfortune beyond remedy, misfortune that he himself was to blame for. . . . . . . The memory of that race remained long in his heart, the cruelest, most bitter memory of his life" (212).
The death of the mare, therefore, is also a kind of symbolic death of the three main characters, none of whom ever recovers completely from the events of that day. By paralleling the death of the mare to the fall of Anna (her first sexual act with Vronsky--compare pp. 158-59 with 211), Tolstoy implies that Vronsky has twice committed a kind of murder, has made two fatal mistakes. The same details are used in the two scenes:
(1) Vronsky standing over the female (mare or woman), described as "pale, his lower jaw trembling" (2) Anna (p. 223) described as "fluttering like a caged bird" at the moment when Vronsky takes his fall in the race, and Frou-Frou, after the fall, lying on the ground and "fluttering at his feet like a shot bird" (211).
Adultery, implies Tolstoy, is a kind of murder, or a murder-suicide, or a double suicide. Illicit sex and death are boon companions. But note the oxymoron in the description of Anna's feelings in the sexual scene: "she could not put into words her sense of shame, of rapture, and of horror at this stepping into a new life, and she did not want to speak of it, to vulgarize this feeling by inappropriate words" (159). Here Tolstoy writes of her experience as something exalted, a rite of passage. Passion is rapturous and exalted for Anna, but also fatal.
It is interesting that a dead horse becomes a prominent symbol for the destruction of a human being, in what the authors see as a human being's losing contact with God, in two great Russian religious novels of the nineteenth century: Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, and Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment.