Superficially, novels of adultery are easily defined, being based on an act defined as sexual relations between two people, at least one of them already married. Adultery is rarely regarded as trivial in most literature. Marriage, in some form, is a universal institution that unites the economic and the sexual in one relationship. Without it, a durable human community cannot exist. As a result, adultery is usually considered a grave offence, whether of a personal, social or religious nature. The plots of novels of adultery hinge on the effects on those immediately involved, and on their immediate circle.
However, that general description is subject to differences created by time period and nationality, as genre is strongly affected by aspects of national cultural identity. The very existence of Anna Karenina should come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the Russian literary tradition, given that it was so atypical for its own country at the time it was written.
A Russian Spin on Romance
The rise of the novel form was a western European phenomenon. The uniqueness of its form lay in its fusion of realism and sentiment. In England, and subsequently in America, novelists concentrated their attention on the pre-marital chase and stopped at the brink of the happy-ever-after. In France, where arranged marriages were so much the norm that society tolerated discreet infidelities, the novel of adultery was well established and generally accepted, so long as the mistress remained powerless. If it looked as though a leading lady might upset a property settlement, readers could be certain she'd be eliminated by the novel's end. Novels in which the adulterous woman was punished or destroyed became a staple of western European literature.
In Russia things were different. The late-arriving Russian novel developed out of western European tales of romance, which crossed the national borders only in the last quarter of the 18th century in defiance of the strict censorship exercised by church and state. They were only read by the two percent of the nation who were literate, but for Russia's aristocracy they held much greater appeal than church-approved moral parables. The romance tales caused a momentous change in public sensibilities, yet the resulting Russian novel did not become a carbon copy of the European model. The sub-genre of the novel of adultery was hardly able to put down any roots at all in the black earth of Mother Russia. Anna Karenina was virtually a one-off.
The Evolution of the Love Affair
To understand why Anna Karenina was so unique, readers must know a little about the development of Anna Karenina's European antecedents. While the existence of passionate extra-marital love is timeless, the concept was linked to the rise of the intense cult of romantic passion, which seems to have been a byproduct of the Crusades. Young men left at home in French castles expressed exaggerated devotion to their Lady in romantic love-lyrics learnt from the troubadours, whose theme was perpetually unsatisfied love. Pouring out an adoration that existed by definition outside marriage, they cultivated a passion that languished after desire for its own sake. Both church and society ensured that such dangerous, life-opposing values were suppressed, but during the 19th century they reappeared in the novel, with the figure of the adulteress incarnating the overt, social threat to regular marriage. A less obvious aspect of her danger was Anna's link with passion and death.