Society has been inundated recently with stories of oppressed women. The #MeToo campaign, in particular, gained traction after media outlets publicized sexual misconduct allegations against Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men (PolisPandit wrote about it here). Stories detailing the plight of women at the hands of powerful male oppressors have persisted for centuries. Whether due to double-standards, stereotypes, class disparity, unequal career prospects, or other factors, women have received disparate and oppressive treatment for generations at all levels of society.
In few places is this more apparent than in Leo Tolstoy’s magnum opus, Anna Karenina. Although written and set in the mid to late 19th century, many themes from the novel still hold true today. From the beginning of story, we witness a marriage in shambles when Anna visits her brother, Stiva, who has been unfaithful to his wife, Dolly. Anna persuades Dolly to forgive her profligate brother. Dolly submits and her marriage with Stiva survives, but her forgiveness permits him to act unabated and with impunity. Society does nothing to punish Stiva for his adulterous acts that betrayed his wife and family. Instead, it effectively rewards him, allowing him to rise higher with better paying jobs by the end of the novel. Stiva continues to attend parties and high society events, and never once receives scorn for his marauding behavior.
Anna, on the other hand, experiences an entirely different reaction after her affair with Vronsky is publicly revealed. She is shunned. Not only by men, but by other women as well. At one point, when Anna goes to the theatre after leaving her husband for Vronsky, another woman makes a noisy exit because she refuses to be in Anna’s presence. Anna is viewed as damaged and dangerous. Other women, particularly Kitty (sister to Dolly), envy and despise Anna, constantly fearful that she will seduce and steal their husbands.
The treatment is similar to the mass shaming Monica Lewinsky experienced after her Oval Office encounter with Bill Clinton went public. Monica never recovered. In a TED Talk from 2015 she detailed the price of shame and the detrimental impact it had on her. The negative reputation detrimentally affected her career, relationships, and ultimately, future. Meanwhile, Bill Clinton enjoyed a rather favorable reputation in his post-presidential life. He spoke at numerous political events and the Clinton Global Initiative prospered (although it it currently under DOJ scrutiny). And of course, his presidency was largely unaffected by the allegations of promiscuity levied against him as Arkansas Governor and Attorney General. Similarly, current President Donald Trump was elected even after recordings of his disturbing “locker room banter” were broadcasted across the nation. There have also been a number of recent media stories about Trump’s promiscuity and mistreatment of women, and unsurprisingly, his administration has vehemently denied everything.
While these powerful men are almost celebrated for cheating, women like Monica and the fictional Anna are denigrated. The persistent distaste society possessed for Anna led her and Vronsky to leave Russia for Italy. Upon returning to St. Petersburg and failing to find a place in society, they retreated to the countryside. Their relationship inevitably unfolded, causing Anna to grow anxious and concerned that Vronsky lost all love for her. What started as an intense carnal attraction, simmered to a slow burn that eventually extinguished in Anna’s mind. Anna’s downfall and resulting suicide was undoubtedly spurred by the intensely negative societal reaction to her adultery.
The morality of both adulterous scenarios in the novel, the first of Stiva and the other of Anna, is arguably the same. Both cheated on their spouses. Both broke their vows. Yet Stiva, who was acting purely out of lust and instant gratification, survived unscathed. Conversely, Anna, who attempted to pursue true love, was vilified. Although it is almost impossible to justify her adulterous actions, even considering how she married a much older man at too young an age, she was after something genuine, beautiful, and pure. From her first meeting with Vronsky at the train station, the energy between them popped from the page. The heat from their fiery romance could be felt when reading about their dancing at the ball where Vronsky ignored all other available and eager suitors like Kitty. The reader is tempted to root for Anna’s romantic success here. Most people dream of a storybook romance where attraction levels spike uncontrollably, where the passion and desire are indescribable and the connection is unbreakable.
Anna experienced this beautiful love, however, at the expense of her husband and son. Her disloyalty and unfaithfulness cannot be justified despite the ideal nature of her love with Vronsky. Yet society regularly absolves men of their adulterous sins. People may speak in hushed tones about this unethical behavior, but unfaithful men are far more likely to earn high-fives from their peers than unbridled contempt. This cultural mindset creates a moral ecosystem that cultivates persistent misbehavior by men and incessant denigration of women for similar actions. Vronsky should be held accountable for aiding and abetting marital destruction as much as Anna is found culpable for her marriage’s demise. Instead, society views Vronsky in an esteemed light, celebrating his presence at high class parties and later on in politics, while Anna remains missing and uninvited.
Anna Karenina is rife with themes that continue to have relevance in contemporary times. Morality and the disparate treatment of women are some of the most pertinent to this era. Until we hold the Vronskys, Stivas, Trumps, and Clintons of the world to a stricter standard, especially when juxtaposed with the public scrutiny placed on women in similar circumstances, oppressive treatment will continue. Cheating should never be celebrated, but women should not experience intense shame while their male counterparts are viewed favorably. For it is this behavior that sets the moral tone for men in relationships. If men can cheat or womanize with impunity, there is little to stop the more aggressive and powerful among them from taking it one oppressive step further.