"Sexual desire is the most absorbing of all desires. This desire is never satisfied, and the more it is indulged, the more it grows." — Count Leo Tolstoy, from A Calendar of Wisdom
Anna Karenina is steeped in infidelity from its first page—the Oblonsky family struggle to overcome Stiva's selfish act of marital betrayal provides a powerful framework for everything that follows. Yet it is Stiva's sister Anna's grand passion for the dashing Count Vronsky that gives readers the deepest and most realized exploration of adultery and sexuality the novel has to offer. As we progress through Part Two, the lovers' magnetic personalities grow exponentially as their love affair goes from an all-consuming idea to a fully realized reflection of sexual desire, expression and treachery.
Though this is a Victorian novel, written during a period of extreme sexual repression throughout the polite European and American societies, Tolstoy's novel has a surprising level of frankness and plenty of "fiery" language: "her look, the touch of her hand, burned through him," (p. 141) "she rested her eyes on him, filled with love," (p. 140) "he covered her face and shoulders with kisses. She held his hand and did not move,...that which for Anna had been an impossible, horrible, but all the more enchanting dream of happiness—that desire had been satisfied." (p. 149) With these few passages, Vronsky and Anna become two of the most sexually potent and romantically realized characters in all of 19th-century literature. And in making them so, their creator Tolstoy opens the door on a hugely interesting debate that rages throughout the rest of the novel and on into today: Is what Anna does wrong? Should she be pitied, scorned or congratulated? What is her life worth once she indulges her deepest and most base urges?
Tolstoy also sets up the Anna/Vronsky union in contrast to other, more frivolous adultery—Stiva's affair, Betsy's liaisons, other generalized commentary. Even Vronsky's mother has been known to take lovers. In the circles they run in, it's acceptable to have affairs as long as they don't become too entangled (like a marriage). Vronsky, in having captured the heart of a powerful man's wife, becomes something of a local hero: "the majority of the young men envied him precisely for what was most difficult in his love." (p. 173) Anna, long thought to be beyond scorn by society—the pretty, successful wife—becomes a pariah almost from the start: "the majority of young women...waited for the turnabout of public opinion to be confirmed before they fell upon her with the full weight of their scorn. They were already preparing the lumps of mud they would fling at her when the time came." (p. 174) Mere moments after the consummation of Anna and Vronsky's affair, the age-old double standard begins coloring the way we think of it.
Skip ahead to Part Three Plot Point: Reform Abounds
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