A woman commits adultery, dies in the end. That is the plot of Anna Karenina, a novel by Leo Tolstoy. There is also this other story about a man named Levin, but nobody cares about him. To a certain extent, the novel is dated, or at least bound to the time and place of its setting, Russia in the middle of the nineteenth century. It was a time when divorce was not allowed except for reasons of adultery, which for the guilty party would then preclude the possibility of remarriage and result in the loss of custody of one’s children. And everyone would be scandalized. Today, Anna would simply get a divorce and then move in with her lover Vronsky, whom she could marry if she wanted to, but she might not bother. Even if she committed adultery before getting divorced, she would probably get custody of her children, or at least visiting rights. And aside from her husband, no one would care. Thus, the story could never be set in twenty-first century America. Nevertheless, adultery always interests us, and the particular laws and mores of the time and place merely make for variations on an ancient theme of love, deceit, and betrayal.
There is, of course, a double standard, which Tolstoy underscores by beginning his novel with an adulterous affair between Anna’s brother Stiva and the family’s governess. Anna convinces Dolly, her sister-in-law, that Stiva loves her, that the affair with the governess was just sex, that he is miserable and truly sorry for what he has done, and that the best thing to do is to forgive him. She does, and all is well. No need for a long Russian novel about a cheating husband.
Like so many unfaithful spouses, Anna does a terrible job of keeping her affection for Vronsky secret, both with respect to her husband Karenin and their acquaintances. Her husband warns her that her behavior is giving others the wrong impression. He avers that jealousy is a degrading and humiliating feeling, which he refuses to countenance. He emphasizes that he is not inquiring into her feelings, to which he says he has no right. He only asks that she comport herself with a modicum of decorum.
Whew! He’s a better man than I am. Whenever I have become jealous as a result of the way a girlfriend is behaving with another man, it is precisely her feelings that worry me. If I could be sure of those, she could stand in the rain with him and get wet for all I care. There was this one girlfriend I had who was getting a little too familiar with another man, and I was none too happy about it. She must have picked up on it, because as soon as we were alone, she began kissing me, and telling me how much she loved me. Ladies, if you want to reassure a jealous man, that is how it is done. Don’t argue with him. Don’t tell him he has an ego problem. Just start kissing him as though you really mean it. As simple as that might sound, it is something an unfaithful wife will find hard to do. And as a matter of fact, Anna does not kiss her husband, but merely says she does not know what he is talking about. And thus she gives herself away one more time.
Things really come to a head when Vronsky falls off his horse during a race, causing Anna to display an inordinate amount of emotion. On the way home, Karenin cautions her again about behaving in a way that is causing gossip. Fed up, she tells him she hates him and loves Vronsky. At that point, he becomes silent. When they get home, he tells her she still needs to keep up appearances until he can make arrangements to protect his honor, after which he gets out of the carriage, politely helps her out, and then gets back in the carriage to continue on to St. Petersburg. Whew! He’s a better man than I am. It’s enough to make me wish I were thirty years younger and married to an unfaithful wife, just to see if I could pull off a class act like that.
Karenin’s admonitions to Anna to behave appropriately are disregarded. She leaves him and begins living with Vronsky. The climax of their struggles of living in sin occurs the night they go to the theater. Anna is snubbed and insulted. She becomes so wretched that she eventually commits suicide by throwing herself under the wheels of a moving train.
One of the problems with reading Anna Karenina today was alluded to above. Unless we are personally involved, we no longer condemn people for committing adultery, getting divorced, or cohabitating. And so, when I first read this novel, my attitude was that Anna had every right to seek happiness with the man she loved, and that society was wrong for being so cruel to her, as if the question of right and wrong settled the issue. Years later, I saw a movie version of this novel, the one with Greta Garbo made in 1935. Perhaps owing to the much simplified narrative of that film, I realized that it did not matter that society was wrong to condemn Anna. What matters is that society’s disapproval can crush you like the wheels of a train.
When the norms of society stand between us and our happiness, we tend to underestimate the social forces we are going up against. When we are in love, we feel we have a right to be happy, and that makes us foolish. Sure, we might be happy if people would just leave us alone, but how much happiness can there be if they will not?
There are two types of social disapproval when it comes to sex, the aesthetic and the moral. In the aesthetic category, I include size, age, and class, though that is not an exhaustive list. When I was in high school, I briefly dated a girl who was taller than I by about two inches. We got along fine when it was just the two of us, but as soon as we went out in public, I became self-conscious. No one said anything to me, but they did not have to. I simply knew how we must have looked together, and what I might have thought had I seen a couple as mismatched as we were. Without our having to discuss it, we quit seeing each other, no hard feelings. Society won, we lost.
I ruefully reflected on the fact that had we discussed the matter, we might have agreed to keep our relationship a secret. But that almost never happens with an aesthetic deviation from what is acceptable. One person might be cynical enough to want to sneak around and keep it private, but the other is bound to be hurt by such a suggestion. In fact, aesthetically inappropriate lovers are more inclined to become defiant than clandestine: a couple in which the man is shorter is more likely to be seen holding hands than one that conforms to the norm.
In the case of an inappropriate age difference, especially where the woman is significantly older than the man, the real problem lies more in the future than the present. If they just have a fling, all will be well. But love is hard to control, and if instead they marry, their friends will shake their heads and calculate the cruel arithmetic of the years to come. (Of course, when I speak of inappropriate age differences, I confine my discussion in this matter, as well as to other sexual relationships that may meet with disapproval, to consenting adults.)
As for class, there is the well-known expression, spoken by women with a sense of dread, “She married beneath her station.” But it is also a problem when things are reversed. A man who wishes to get ahead in the world must make sure he has a wife of suitable status. There is an expression often heard regarding aspiring executives who have low-class wives: “As soon as she opened her mouth, he was dead.” Where the class difference between two lovers is significant, they would be wise to hide it from others, but such prudence is rare. Lady Chatterley was able to have a good relationship with the gamekeeper because the affair was adulterous, thus requiring secrecy for moral reasons. Had they both been single, they would have had no excuse for keeping their aesthetically inappropriate love private, and would likely have succumbed to the felt need to tell the world, possibly even to the point of getting married. Such a mésalliance would have opened them up to scorn and derision, and the whole thing would have been a disaster.
Where the disapproval of society is moral and rather than aesthetic, secrecy is more easily agreed to. But even here, living a lie is a strain, and likely to give way to defiance, as in the case of Anna, with her brutal confession to her husband. The way was open to her to continue having the affair, provided she was discreet. But that would have required a degree of sangfroid of which Anna was not capable. Unfaithful spouses often admit their infidelity more out of emotional exhaustion than honesty.
Many of the types of relationships for which there once was strong moral condemnation, such as fornication, homosexuality, and miscegenation, have become more accepted today. A measure of their acceptance lies in the fact that they are no longer illegal, and they do not disqualify one for public office. Even adultery is not a disqualifier in politics, provided the affair is not ongoing. To say that such relationships will today be met with no social resistance at all, however, would be going too far. Couples of different religion sometimes meet with disapproval, but mostly from their families, not from American society in general.
There is one remaining type of relationship between consenting adults for which there is still strong moral disapproval, even to the point of being illegal in some states, and that is incest. And wouldn’t you know it, it just so happens that I knew a woman once who had an incestuous affair. In telling this story, it is necessary for me to exercise maximum discretion, so suffice it to say she fell in love with a man to whom she was closely related.
What can we say about incest between consenting adults? There is the problem of inbreeding, of course, but she was no longer fertile, and in any event, what with the availability of birth control and abortion, that need not be a concern. And so, when I found out about their situation, I had a tendency to shrug and say, “Who cares?” But that was a silly question, because the answer is that lots of people care, and very much so. Interestingly enough, about three months before all this happened, she told me she had seen Anna Karenina on television, and she seemed quite fascinated by the story. Unfortunately, she must have missed the part where Anna was destroyed by the disapproval of society.
They could have kept their affair a secret, but I guess it is hard to say, “I love you, but I am ashamed of what we are doing, so let’s make sure no one finds out.” So they went with defiance and started living together. “I don’t care what people think,” I once heard him say, ostensibly about an unrelated matter. But people who really don’t care what others think feel no need to say so. In any event, when she told me what was going on, as if I had not already figured that out along with everyone else, she idealized their relationship as true love, the union of two soul mates. Of course, they had to think of it that way in order to justify what they were doing. And this meant that it would be difficult for them to break up, should things not work out, because that would mean admitting to themselves that instead of it being true love, it was just a sordid affair of forbidden lust. In other words, they were going to be stuck with each other for a long time.
They moved away, but a mutual friend visited her one weekend a couple of years later, after which she called me to tell me about it. She said they were miserable. How much of that misery was due to what happens to people when love dies, and how much was due to the shame of violating a taboo, I cannot say. But what I can say, what I learned from reading Anna Karenina, is that when it comes to sex, having the approval of society is one of the goods that can contribute to a happy life, and having its disapproval may preclude happiness altogether. This is a truth we are loath to acknowledge, for we feel that such matters are nobody’s business but our own. And yet, it is folly to pretend it isn’t so.