Their Only Pledge Is Their Passion
On the tragic essence of "Anna Karenina" and the adultery which defines it
One of the subscriber features here at Close Reads HQ is Heidi White’s monthly column in which she explores a theme that is near and dear to her heart (as longtime listeners of the show might know): the way duty and desire show up in literature. Each month she will be writing about how that idea is revealed in the work we are discussing on the podcast. Here is the third edition, this time on Anna Karenina.
In the literary sense, the proper ending to a comedy is marriage and tragedy, death. Reasons for this reach beyond the formal into the ontological because comedy and tragedy are deeply embedded in the created order. Marriage unites duty and desire—lovers pledge their allegiance and their ardor exclusively to one another. Conversely, adultery exacerbates the primal wound between duty and desire, further harming our fractured inner beings. In an adulterous union, a person’s desire is for one partner while his duty is to another, defiling not only the marriage bond but his already divided soul, catalyzing a descent into soul-death that is often embodied in literal death in tragic narratives. Perhaps this is why so many authors are enamored with the problem of adultery. At an existential level, such stories contemplate our essential humanity as much as the institution of marriage.
Among the most profound literary explorations of the duty/desire dichotomy in marriage and adultery is Leo Tolstoy’s 1877 novel, Anna Karenina. Widely considered one of the greatest novels ever written, Anna Karenina traces the trajectory of the eponymous heroine from glittering aristocratic socialite to haunted suicidal outcast in the wake of her affair with a dashing young officer. The structure of Anna’s narrative follows the pattern of a classic tragedy in that Anna moves from the pinnacle of fortune to its nadir as a result of a tragic flaw. But what flaw? Is she not more sinned against than sinning—a winsome but vulnerable woman at the mercy of society’s rigid double standards? Not according to Tolstoy, who illuminates the self-annihilation of the desire-driven lovers as well as the duty-driven cuckold. Although Tolstoy presents Anna as extraordinarily appealing and censures the superficiality of aristocratic Russia, the novel frankly exposes the divided nature of the three central figures of the adulterous triangle, highlighting the fundamental truth that adultery harms rather than heals the divided soul. Throughout the narrative, Tolstoy takes us inside the interior worlds of Anna, her husband Karenin, and her lover Vronsky, exploring the multitudinous manifestations of the profound division between duty and desire that destroys them.