But again, in Russia, the cultural context was different. Marriages were normally arranged by matchmakers, and simply assumed future fidelity. When western literature infiltrated the country it had to conform to these norms. Although amorous intrigue became a routine, it always represented light-hearted, pre-marital play culminating in legal marriage and wedded happiness. The European theme of some external, passionate, self-obstructing love held no interest for the Russians.
That Renegade Tolstoy
Why, then, Anna Karenina? The answer lies partly in the foreign influences working on Russian society, and partly in the conscious views and subconscious fears of her author. Tolstoy felt impelled to write a novel on a subject virtually new to Russian literature—the link between the sexual emancipation of women and the degeneration of family values. Anna and Vronsky are both morally disadvantaged by being brought up without good family structures. At the start of their affair, Anna experiences not ecstasy but degradation, while Vronsky feels like a murderer. Yet, overwhelmed by passion, Anna makes such a huge investment in their love that it "outweighs every good including life itself." Tolstoy does not spare Anna a single emotion that adultery brings in its wake: lust, possessiveness, insecurity, anger and self-destructive despair follow each other in compelling succession.
Yet family structures were for Tolstoy not merely social glue but a means of containing the horror of rampant sexuality that obsessed him because of his own sexual urges. Despising the lust he felt for his own wife, with whom he fathered 13 children, he created a heroine so enchanting she tempted him beyond his own powers of resistance.
What to Read Next
Take your pick from among these favorite novels of adultery: