Vronsky and Frou-Frou Before the Race
Illustration by Orest Verejsky
(10) Vronsky the Rider
Why does Vronsky, an expert horseman who has the lead in the race and is apparently in total control of his mount and of himself, make the fatal mistake--the slight shift in the saddle that leads to the fall and the horse's broken back? I think that here the main point is that, for the first time in his life, Vronsky is not in control of himself. In the 20-25 pages leading up to the race (p. 190-212) Tolstoy has been preparing the reader for the mistake by showing the psychological pressures on Vronsky. Showing the way each little new pressure point encroaches on his psychological poise.
(1) Vronsky receives a letter from his mother and and note from his brother, both of him disapprove of his affair with Anna and wish to talk to him about it (190). This arouses in Vronsky a feeling of anger and hatred, "a feeling he had rarely known before" (195).
(2) Anna suddenly announces that she is pregnant (199), but on his way to the race "All that was painful in his relations with Anna. . . . had slipped out of his mind" (203). But not out of his subconscious.
(3) His brother initiates a conversation with him before the race (205). He wants to discuss the affair, but Vronsky stops him, his face turns pale and his lower jaw trembles, "which happened rarely with him."
(4) Someone remarks in Vronsky's presence, "Oh, there's Karenin. He's looking for his wife" (206). Vronsky ignores this remark, but it surely affects him subconsciously.
In other words, Vronsky is unaware that he should not be riding today; he is too distracted to concentrate on the race. Subconsciously he is a nervous wreck. All of the pressures and suppressed emotions lead to the fatal mistake.
(11) Vantage Points
The steeplechase is described uniquely in that all sorts of vantage points are taken into account. Almost all of the main characters in this scene are looking, consciously or subconsciously, in several different directions at once:
While watching the race, intent on Vronsky and his mount, Anna is also aware of her husband's eyes on her.
PRINCESS BETSY (AND PROBABLY MANY OTHERS)
She watches the race, but also (curiously and gleefully) watches the family drama of Anna and Karenin. She watches Anna's emotional reaction to the fall of Vronsky and Karenin's reaction to Anna's reaction.
While thinking that his mind is totally on the race, he is, at least in his subconscious, aware of Anna's and Karenin's presence in the crowd. Aware of the big unresolved problem of the love triangle, now even more complicated by Anna's pregnancy. Looking not only at the race track, but also (figuratively) in other directions.
He is not interested in the race, barely watches it at all. But he watches Anna's reaction to the fall, and then he sees his society's gleeful reaction to that reaction and becomes intent only on shielding himself and Anna from the Schadenfreude.
A telling detail:
Before the race begins an acquaintance of Karenin, a general, asks him jokingly why he is not racing. "My race is a harder one," replies Karenin. This is the sort of semi-jocular bantering that people engage in all the time, and it has no particular meaning for the two men. But for the reader of the book it has significance. The despicable Betsy and plenty of other society ladies are more interested in observing Karenin's hapless "race" than the one taking place at the hippodrome.