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Lessons in Wifery from Anna Karenina

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The Unequal Marriage by Vasili PukirevLeo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina famously begins, “Happy families are all alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Tolstoy weaves together the storyline of one happy family and one unhappy family through the protagonists Constantine Levine and Anna Karenina. Through Levine (and his eventual wife Kitty) and Anna, Tolstoy shows us what love can add to—and take away from—an ordinary, human life. And through both Kitty and Anna, we see how each choice a woman makes leads to her eventual happiness or downfall.

Anna’s Choices Lead to Tragedy

Anna Karenina stands out from other young, married women in St. Petersburg society for her beauty and virtue. Her marriage isn’t a perfect one, but she is satisfied with her husband and delighted by her young son. At least until she meets the dashing man she thought was courting her sister-in-law. When she entertains her attraction to Vronsky, her world begins to fall apart.

A relationship cannot make Anna satisfied with herself.

Before Adam and I started dating, I thought I was waiting for a man to complete me. I, like many married and marriage-minded women, thought a relationship would make me more satisfied with myself. Even though Adam makes me feel more like myself, our happy marriage doesn’t change who I am. Instead of waiting for a man to make us feel good about ourselves, we need to learn to love what we can’t change about ourselves and improve what we can.

“[Anna] was especially struck by the feeling of dissatisfaction with herself that came over her when she met [Vronsky].”

Anna doesn’t make up her mind about Vronsky as quickly as he makes up his mind about her. Vronsky brings her into circles where infidelity and deception are the norm. As a woman noted for her goodness, Anna had rarely visited those with questionable virtue. When she becomes a regular here the “modern” ideas about marriage slowly become normal to her.

Associating with friends with loose morals, Anna forgets her own principles.

There is a reason co-workers of smokers are more likely to become smokers. And why having obese friends is one of the strongest predictors of who will become obese. When we spend time around people who do things we object to, their habits will gradually become normal to us. Real friendship should make us better, not encourage us to do something we think is wrong.

“She avoided her moral friends and went into grand society.”

Anna’s husband notices her flirtation with Anna. He wants to tell her how much he loves and needs her, but instead simply warns her that he behavior will have consequences. For her part, Anna wants her husband to say that he cares about her. When he doesn’t, he comes across as cold and unfeeling.

Hiding their positive feelings ruins the Karenin’s marriage.

Some marriages work without open conversation about emotions, but, when push comes to shove, husbands and wives need to know they are loved, needed, and respected. Talking about our positive feelings is the most direct way to share with our partners, but thoughtful gestures, physical affection, and recognition of achievements can express the same positive emotions.

“[After she told Karenin about Vronsky], she was both afraid of his speaking and eager for it. But he was silent.”

Eventually Anna leaves her husband for Vronsky, setting in motion the events that lead to her dramatic suicide near the end of the novel. Anna ultimately realizes that the lover she idolizes is not the same man as the one who stands in front of her. She has made a life around who Vronsky could be, not who he is. Was he worth giving up her honor and her son?

It is dangerous for Anna to idealize her lover.

When Adam and I lived continents apart, I was always surprised how different he seemed when we met in person. It isn’t that I didn’t enjoy spending time with him, but the “Adam” in my imagination was a little bit different from the one I met at the airport. The impulse to see our partners through rose-colored glass actually strengthens marriages, but any long-term relationship requires a frank evaluation of our partners’ strengths and weaknesses.

“She was doing what she always did when she saw [Vronsky]—comparing the image of him in her imagination (incomparably superior, and impossible in reality) with him as he was.”

In a fit of jealous madness, Anna throws herself under a moving train. She has lost everything that mattered to her—her home, her virtue, her position in society, and, most importantly, her son. An unstable relationship with a man who has no ties to her is not enough to make life worth living.

Kitty’s Choices Lead to a Happy Marriage

The other half of the novel, interwoven with the Anna’s story, is the courtship, marriage, and homemaking of Constantine Levin to his beloved wife Kitty. Levin longs for Kitty and plans to propose marriage to her. Kitty loves Levin, too, but falls under the spell of a handsomer, more debonaire man. When she considers her choices, Kitty doesn’t take heed of the way she feels around both men.

Her beau makes her feel false, but Levin makes Kitty feel more like herself.

When we’re trying to find a partner for life, we have to let him see who we really are. Not only will pretense lead to disappointment later, but, when we pretend to be someone we aren’t, we have to live with the nagging sense that we’re doing something false.

“When she thought of the past she dwelt with contentment and tenderness on the memories of her relations with Levin… There was something disquieting mixed in with her thoughts of Vronsky… as though there were something fraudulent there—not in him, he was very simple and good-hearted—but in herself.”

When she refuses Levin’s hand and almost immediately regrets it. She realizes that she hasn’t listened to what her heart told her.

Kitty learns the importance of knowing what she wants.

Charging ahead into the future without an idea what we’ll find there often leads us to foolish decisions. Kitty pushes away her feelings and pretends she desires a life she doesn’t.

“Oh my God, she thought, surely I don’t have to tell him [I won’t marry him] myself? And what can I tell him? Can I tell him I don’t love him? That would be a lie?”

Mortified by her choice and longing for her lost happiness, Kitty begins to pine away. Her family takes her to a spa to recover her health. There she meets a religious girl who has devoted her life to caring for the sick. Kitty tries to follow her example, but finds that she doesn’t find happiness in the course she has chosen.

Kitty cannot change her vocation.

We’ve all tried to force ourselves into a mold we just don’t fit. But each woman is called to her own work, her own course, and her own happiness. No matter how hard we try, we cannot be happy when we aren’t true to ourselves.

“The only way I can live is according to my heart.”

When Kitty returns from the spa, she and Levin meet and reconcile. The couple marries and embarks on a rapturous honeymoon. During the three short months they travel together, Levin and Kitty discover that marriage is—for better and for worse—not what they expected.

Marriage is different than Kitty imagined it would be—and that’s okay.

Many of our rosy dreams of marriage slowly dim and fade. Couples will fight. We will make mistakes. Husbands are more difficult to live with twenty-four hours a day. Even though those illusions die away, we can keep the love and devotion we hoped to share with our husbands for a lifetime.

“Levin had been married [to Kitty] for three months. He was happy, but not at all in the same way as he had expected. At every step he found himself disillusioned in his former dreams while also discovering new, unexpected enchantments.”

After a few months of marriage, Kitty becomes pregnant. Her busyness about the house confuses and annoys Levin because he doesn’t understand that Kitty is learning the skill she will need for the rest of her life.

Kitty must balance her life as wife, mother, and mistress of the house.

Keeping up with the responsibilities of home and family is more difficult than it looks. Children are quite a distraction so most women must actively work to keep their marriages strong.

“[Kitty] was preparing for that period of activity that was bound to arrive for her, when she would be simultaneously her husband’s wife and mistress of a house, and bear, nurse, and bring up their children.”

Although they never stop facing their share of challenges, Kitty and Levin find happiness in their marriage and the family they begin together. They make each other better day by day and never stop loving each other.

Anna Karenina is one of the greatest novels ever written. Pick up a copy today.

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