Stories about adultery are tricky things. Authors often like us to believe we should always follow our hearts, no matter who gets hurt along the way. Stories about adultery are rampant in film, where the lonely, abandoned, or bored wife meets a dashing, single, handsome man and conducts an affair with him — either over a period of a few days or over many years. For the most part, these stories follow a certain pattern of asking the audience to accept and root for the affair, in turn dismissing the spouse. I was therefore surprised to discover that Anna Karenina was different. The “love story” is more a social commentary about the unfair standards of the time, as well as an exploration of other characters within the ill-lead couple’s lives. It is not a tale with a happy ending, because as we learn throughout the course of the story, persistent sin and the resulting guilt often leads to self-condemnation and death.
Throughout the story, I could not help reflecting on the unfairness of Russian Victorian society, which allowed to men to behave as they wished without fear of social recriminations or admonishments, but condemned women for the same ill-behavior. Serial adulterers were expected to earn their wives’ forgiveness, but the same was not extended to a wandering wife. Vronsky can go about society as he pleases and he is welcomed, even patted on the back for his endeavors, while Anna is ostracized and plighted with accusations of immoral behavior. I was reading up on the author and discovered that this criticism likely spurred from his frustration at his mother’s persist ant and repeat encouragements to have “an affair with a married woman.” She believed his life would be incomplete and passionless without it, presumably because married women are so bored with their husbands that they become better secret lovers.
It is indeed a trend that becomes apparent in literature from the Victorian era, a sort of double-standard that reveals the extreme sexism that still exists to this day. Our society labels philandering men as “playboys,” a very fun, flirtatious word that slips off the tongue like butter and has a positive connotation to it. Playboy! Oh, they will grow out of it, it’s just a stage… womanizer has a less positive reaction (unless you happen to love the Britney Spears song) but is basically what it amounts to. On the other hand, isn’t it interesting that there are no positive words to describe loose women? Even the word “loose” implies something offensive. Think about it. Loose. Slut. Whore. Skank. There’s no way to dress it up. Not that I approve of immoral behavior, but how is it fair that men get to be playboys and women get to be whores?
Furthermore, I have run into an increasing trend in fan groups that alarms me — a desire for strong female characters to have the same carefree sexual lives as the men. Some audiences are not happy unless their leading lady has a lot of lovers, as if that somehow makes her more impressive or liberated. (A byproduct of the feminist movement that seems to have missed the mark entirely, perhaps?) Clearly, the author of the book agreed with me. Immorality is never encouraged, but the least a corrupt, falsely pious society can do is hold men and women to the same standards.
Platonic & Passionate Love
This is where movies try and manipulate us. First they establish a boring and/or passionless husband, and then make us understand that the wife needs passion in order to be happy, so that we can justify their behavior. Anna is much the same way — her older, more settled, and preoccupied-with-political-work husband has about as much energy as dead battery. (Unless you really tick him off, and then you’d be surprised!) Then comes along the Count, with his enthusiasm and hand-springs, willing to scream his undying love for her outside her husband’s window. (No, he really isn’t very smart. For awhile there, I was hoping… er… thinking Alexei might shoot him, but fortunately, he was a better man than that.) Naturally, she would fall in love/lust with him, because he makes her feel young and desirable, he loves to waltz her around the room, and being with him is a dangerous secret that fills her with enthusiasm.
What Anna fails to realize and that is hidden in the book for a time is that her husband is not dismissive or uncaring of her, in fact he loves her very deeply, which is why he is so wounded and angry about her betrayal of him. I have never seen a divorce that was not brimming with hatred, because it stems from pain. Having truly loved someone and been betrayed by them transforms those passionate emotions into hatred. The amount of hatred Alexei radiates in her direction for half of the story implies that he does indeed love her, but his love is something she cannot understand, because it is nothing like hers. Anna is a woman of outward passion, of exhilaration and moments of black despair. Alexei has been trained to restrain his emotions, to never lose his focus, to be logical and methodical. His love is expressed through how well he takes care of her, for how well he provides for them, for his desire to keep her safe in society and guard her reputation (and admittedly, his own).
There is a wonderful book called The Five Love Languages, which explores what makes you feel the most loved, and how you show love to others. It is a tremendous resource and allows us to understand one another better. Anna’s love language was clearly Physical Touch, while her husband’s was more likely Acts of Service. No wonder they could not understand one another!
Religion & Forgiveness
Tolstoy experienced a reawakening when he was older that caused him to return to his religious roots, much like two of the characters in his story — Alexei is so profoundly altered through genuinely forgiving Anna that his life changes forever, and another character named Levin discovers by the conclusion of the novel that he desires to devote his life to God, because it makes him happy to act in His service. (Interestingly, it’s possible that Levin’s own transition came through the compassion and forgiveness of the woman he loved, who was willing to overlook his past indiscretions and marry him in spite of all former sins.)
The change that comes over both of them is profound, but more fully explored in this adaptation through Alexei. In one scene he confides to a tear-stricken and frightened Anna that he “hates her,” and intends to take her son away from her out of revenge, not because he cares for the boy. (In the novel, and another adaptation, he adds that his hatred for her has also made him hate their son.) But when she lies near death after the birth of her illegitimate daughter, she begs his forgiveness and he extends it to her. From then on, he is not cruel or malicious, and refuses to divorce her because he believes Vronsky will abandon her and then she will be destitute. (Plus, divorce is a no-no in his newly rediscovered faith.) Whether or not one agrees with Alexei’s decisions, it is impossible not to respect him as a man of tremendous change.
It is also important to contrast this focus on true forgiveness and faith against the “religious” practices of the adulterous upper class, who attend church on weekends and cavort the rest of the week with their lovers.
There are other themes, such as the repercussions of past decisions, the consequences of our choices, guilt driven through insecurity and abandonment, and the loss of hope, but to address them all would take far too much time. Suffice to say that in spite of this film’s inadequacies and occasionally immoral scenes, I was surprised to discover a more than adequate amount of redeeming value in the presence of its subtler nuances.