The Victorian novelist awards happiness to those heroes and heroines who pursue the right goals. For the Victorian heroine, the acceptable goals were marriage and a quiet family life. When Thackeray's Becky Sharp sets out to rise from her low estate to higher society in Vanity Fair, the author compares her campaign to Napoleon's in her overreaching ambition and enjoyment of conquest for its own sake. The idea of family happiness was one of Tolstoy's own dreams and his stated theme for Anna Karenina. Family happiness is certainly the most important thing for Levin, whom Stiva characterizes as a "Dickensian gentleman" pursuing an "English style of happiness."
Seductive and Dangerous
When Anna opens her English novel, her inner desires are opened to us. Whatever Anna reads about she wants to do herself, but many things she might wish for could never be available to her as a woman of her time. Anna would never be allowed to give a speech in Parliament, she could not own an estate. She must imagine herself accompanying the novel's hero to his country mansion, just as she will later accompany Vronsky to his English style home. Trying to lose herself in the pages of her book, Anna becomes aware of her own desires. She realizes that remaining with Karenin will force her to live a falsehood, while following her desires will lead her to break with social conventions and mores.
As we turn the pages of Anna Karenina, we learn that the wives and mothers of Tolstoy's novel had problems in their lives that Victorian novelists often gloss over. Dolly would like to be a picture-perfect example of a lovely matron surrounded by darling children, yet her marriage is a lie—her husband routinely cheats on her, her children misbehave, finances are strained and she is broken down in health and in spirit. The happy ending of the typical Victorian novel with wedding bells and inheritances seemed to Tolstoy to break off the story just when it was becoming most interesting. The "English happiness" Anna reads about on the train represents the fantasies and desires of the major characters Dolly, Levin, Kitty, Anna, and even Vronsky. Just as French mores were seen as Napoleonic by Victorian British novelists, for Tolstoy the Victorian idyll of domesticity is depicted as a seductive and dangerous fiction.
What to Read Next
Take your pick from among these Victorian favorites: