It is a sad thing when love is not reciprocated.

This is the fate of the husbands in Anna Karenina and The Forsyte Saga. Each book is similar but reaches different conclusions about marriage, adultery, and society’s evils based on the worldview of their authors. In each story, a man marries a woman out of convenience and love, but she has no spark of attraction to him and engages in an extramarital affair with devastating consequences. The husbands, Alexei Karenin and Soames Forsyte, react with indignation and rage. Each are emotionally distant but confounded as to what drives their wife to be unfaithful; they have provided everything she could ever need, other than the passion she seeks.

Neither Count Vronsky nor Phil Bossiny have any moral scruples about seducing another man’s wife, demolishing her husband’s reputation, or taking advantage of their position of authority. Vronsky is single minded in his pursuit of Anna but Bossiny is even more abusive, having established trust with Soames and then extracting his hatred of him out on Soames’ financial state. Alexei is more forgiving of Vronsky than Soames is of Bossany—Alexei merely ignores him and then offers him forgiveness at the request of his wife, while Soames seeks to ruin him with a lawsuit.

Irene cares nothing for Soames’ reputation and flaunts her affection for Bossany in public, like Anna does with Count Vronsky. Both deny their husbands’ marital rights and move into separate rooms, drawing the attention of the servants. Each are bored with their practical, hard-working husbands because there is no romantic spark… yet chose to marry them in the first place—neither was forced into it and had other options. For financial gain, they married men they did not love and are miserable as a result. Neither Alexei nor Soames are bad husbands at first, but their wives chose not to put any effort into the marriage and have no morals they live by.

One has to wonder how much John Galsworthy was influenced by Leo Tolstoy in his characters, but while the novels are similar in the plight of these women, their lovers, and their unhappy husbands, the underlining messages are far different. Anna Karenina is about how a marriage cannot succeed without fidelity, family, and faith. Anna abandons and destroys her family and suffers because of it; her destructive choices are contrasted with by Kitty and Levin, whose moral choices, acceptance, and devotion to one another enables them to begin a family and brings them closer to God. In Alexei we find a man who at first is cruel but through forgiveness becomes an honorable man.

The message of The Forsyte Saga is individual happiness; emotional attachment overrules all restrictions and barriers and nothing should stand in its way. It advocates the pursuit of pleasure at the expense of other people. We see this in Jocelain abandoning his wife and daughter to live with a governess; he is depicted as the sincere, generous and charming member of the family, making us emphasize with his plight and distracting us from the wife he has left behind. His daughter June loses her fiancée to Irene, breaking her heart and destroying Soames at the same time, but Irene later goes on to marry Jocelain in spite of how it might make June feel. Irene is an ambiguous character, at times cruel and at others empathetic, but her actions are all vindicated in the name of love. Her indiscretions are all ultimately forgiven, while Soames is vilified (in some cases, accordingly, as a “man of property” who takes what he wants).

In my opinion, love is fleeting unless it is built on a substantial foundation. Emotions that govern the head can lead to terrible consequences and everyone involved pays a price. Whatever the authors intended, it is safe to say that pursuing passion should never be undertaken at the direct suffering of others.