Plot Points and Themes in Anna Karenina
"To step aside from accepted traditions and customs requires a serious effort, but any understanding of new things always requires such a step." — Count Leo Tolstoy, from A Calendar of Wisdom
Many contemporary readers picking up Anna Karenina for the first time ask a very logical question after the consummation of Anna and Vronsky's affair: Why don't Anna and Karenin simply divorce? It would seem to solve many of the messiest issues for the three lovers in this triangle. Though that may seem to "solve" the problem, when thinking it through, the truth is that divorce in Tolstoy's Russia produced another set of complications potentially more devastating. All legal issues aside, Karenin and Anna feel the sacredness of their union in their own ways. This is part of the reason for Anna's extreme guilt and Karenin's extreme confusion.
One important distinction that colors Anna's predicament from even the early stages of the novel is the differing weight of the genders in Russian society. Though it may seem at times that Anna, out of the sheer force of her personality, wields as much power as Karenin or Vronsky, it is actually not the case. The selfhood afforded Anna is second-class from the start. She is another man's property, and belongs to Karenin in a way that no woman belongs to her husband in this day and age.
In addition, the laws of marriage and divorce were much more complex in the 19th century. For example, Karenin learns that the permissible grounds for divorce were "physical defect in husband or wife; five years absence without news; adultery of husband or wife." (p. 368) As it turns out however, the most common way couples divorced was by claiming "adultery by mutual consent." Basically this means that Karenin, in the public eye and in the eyes of God, would claim to have had an affair as well and be labeled an adulterer right along with Anna. For all his desire to be split from his wife and leave the pains of his marriage behind him, this is not a step he is remotely willing to take. Were he to try and prove that Anna was the only adulterous one, he would need proof from eyewitnesses—and all he has are passionate letters. Essentially, there is no such thing as a "no fault" divorce—and even in cases as egregious as Anna's conduct is in her society, it is nearly impossible to divorce her.
Skip ahead to Part Five Plot Point: Love Rushes In
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