In Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy's novel of conflicted romances, Vronsky, Karenin, and Anna tries to break free from the social atmosphere of the 1800's Russia to attain a love that is not accepted by the public. Things considered “normal” by society turn into a way of life, and those who do not accept these rules often find themselves lost, excluded, and even abandoned by their peers. This immense pressure can affect a person’s thoughts and actions tremendously as they feel forced to act with the societal norms. Although the beauty and grace of Anna seem to place her above her detesting society, her peers' skewed judgments and sexist expectations influence nearly every aspect of her life, ultimately leading to the loss of her social standing and the demise of her affair with Vronsky. The society also imposes an effect on the marriage between Karenin and Anna. With their marriage growing apart due to Anna’s affair, their high social standings are only hanging by a thread. It would be humiliating if society found out that they have a failing marriage. Thus, Anna is unable to be with the person she loves and has to uphold a public image that she herself no longer wants. Due to the pressures placed upon them by society, Anna and Karenin must lead their lives of either falsehood or persecution. By demonstrating the impossibility of maintaining a relationship simply by love, Anna Karenina emphasizes the unavoidable implications of social class on the life and happiness of an individual.
Society foists its opinions and expectations on both the lives and relationships of Vronsky and Anna. In the article “Keeping Secrets in Anna Karenina,” Mary Ann Mefi expresses that “from the start, Anna and her brother Stiva Oblonsky are associated with a tendency to let the outer world mold them in a way which prohibits the inner life from flowing into consciousness and becoming their main motivator” (Mefi). These two characters are greatly influenced by their societies. Instead of living for their own desires, their actions are primarily shaped by the people around them. Tolstoy uses Oblonsky as an example of this influence as he “adhered firmly to the view of the majority” (Tolstoy 19) on all subjects, and his opinions went along with the public view. In spite of the fact that Oblonsky had an affair, he is not shunned by his actions, as affairs with men do not go against the accepted status quo for men. The notion of the contrast in treatment based on gender is evident throughout the novel. Oblonsky’s peers perceive him in the same dignified status before and after the affair. Vronsky, who is also considered a sociable individual, also does not receive any penalty for his affair. Other men, upon learning of Vronsky’s relationship, commend him for “the exalted position of Karenin, and the consequent publicity of their connection os society” (Tolstoy 162). He is idolized for his love affair as he took the wife of a high-seated man in society.
Though her lover is idolized for his love affair, Anna, because of her high role in society, becomes the subject of public scrutiny. After the news of Anna’s affair begins to spread, “The greater number of the young women, who envied Anna and had long been weary of hearing her called virtuous, rejoiced at the fulfillment of their predictions and were only waiting for a decisive turn in public opinion to fall upon her with all the weight of their scorn” (Tolstoy 162). The assets and substance of her character do not seem to influence Anna’s position in society as her peers are willing to alter their view of her when the opportunity presents itself (Roberts). Social Reputations are ??? concepts that rely mainly on the way society views an individual rather than the personality and behavior of an individual. Anna is treated poorly for loving someone, which manifests the hypocrisy of society in its treatment of women and men for parallel actions.
Societal pressure impacts Anna’s relationship with her husband, Karenin. Upon learning of her affair, Karenin proclaims that he will disregard it “so long as [his] name is not disgraced…and that only in the event of your compromising me shall I be obliged to take steps to secure my honor.” (Tolstoy 297). Karenin states that he would rather have a troubled marriage than confess to Anna’s affair as his social status is more valuable to him than his relationship. As stated by Henry Pickford in the Tolstoy Studies Journal, Karenin is not troubled that Anna is cheating on him as he is his marriage was not for happiness, but simply due to the fact that it is discerned as necessary by society (Pickford). Thus, Anna is unable to be with the person she loves and has to uphold a public image that she herself no longer wants. Because of the pressure laid upon them from society, Karenin and Anna must lead lives of either falsehood or persecution.
After pursuing their affair, the inhibition of their public images becomes so prominent in their daily lives that Vronsky and Anna attempt to escape to Italy. In spite of being in a different country, Vronsky and Anna only affiliate with Russian people and quickly become disdained by their surroundings: “The palazzo suddenly seemed so obtrusively old and dirty, the spots on the curtains, the cracks in the floor, the broken plaster on the cornices became so disagreeable obvious… that they had to make some change” (Tolstoy 444). Vronsky and Anna’s escape could not last because the Italian environment is not adequate for them due to the exorbitant Russian social conditioning. In no environment are they able to find peace; thus they are unable to extricate themselves from the influence of their social circles. Tolstoy uses imagery in this setting to highlight these cultural pressures. While in Italy, Vronsky and Anna meet a Russian painter and request a portrait of Anna upon seeing his skill. Once the painting was completed, Vronsky was astonished that the painter had encapsulated Anna’s signature beauty: “One needs to know and love her as I have loved her to discover the very sweetest expression of her soul” (Tolstoy 442). However, the narrator states, “it was only from this portrait that Vronsky had himself learned this sweetest expression of her soul. But the expression was so true that he, and others too, fancied they had long known it” (Tolstoy 442). The social perspective that Anna is perceived from, as well as this painting, establishes an unreachable ideal of beauty that does not exist. Despite the fact that Vronsky feels as though he has known this idea of her, his finding of this “characteristic beauty” (Tolstoy 442) is established simply because it is placed in front of him. Although starting positively, in which their reputations precede them, the critical eye on Vronsky and Anna becomes a negative outlook.