Tolstoy's Perspective on Women's Rights as Depicted in Anna Karenina

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"Vengeance is mine; I will repay," states the darkly foretelling epigraph of Leo Tolstoy's famous novel Anna Karenina. Throughout the work, the author seems torn between feminist and misogynist sympathies, leading one to wonder if the above quote is directed at the adulterous Anna--the only character in the novel who pays for her transgressions with her life. At first, Tolstoy seems to sympathize with Anna, contrasting her situation with that of her brother Stiva, who has also committed adultery but received no social chastisement. But by the end of the novel it's almost as though the author feels he has allowed Anna to get away with too much, and must teach the reader a lesson about such behavior from a woman. Anna's last mention in the novel that bears her name comes nearly 50 pages before its conclusion, when Countess Vronsky calls her "mean and low" (917).

When we first meet Anna, Tolstoy describes his heroine as quite loving and maternal. She has come to console her sister-in-law Dolly Oblonskaya, who has just learned that her husband is having an affair with their French governess. Dolly is impressed by the fact that Anna not only remembers the names of all her nieces and nephews, "but remembered the years and even the months of their births, their characters, and what illnesses they had had" (79). The aim of Anna's visit is to reconcile Dolly and Stiva, an effort in which Anna's deep concern for family is revealed. So far, Anna's personality seems like that of an ideal 19th century Russian wife. However, as soon as she meets Count Vronksy at a ball, a mean streak seems to develop in her.

At the ball, hosted by Dolly's family the Scherbatskys, Anna and Vronsky dance together several times. Kitty Scherbats...

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..., she regrets her actions and wishes to live, but it is too late. She has been punished for her actions.

The final mention of Anna by Countess Vronsky is a disparaging one in reference to Anna's suicide. "Yes, she ended as such a woman deserved to end," remarks the Countess, "Even the death she chose was mean and low" (917). Tolstoy dismisses Anna in these final words, as though her entire life and good qualities counted for nothing. She committed adultery, and was therefore condemned to die miserably, whereas her brother, also an adulterer, reconciled with his wife and continued his happy existence. Despite Tolstoy's seeming sympathy with Anna's social situation, when all is said and done, he feels the same way as the rest of society. Men may commit adultery with little or no consequence, but for a woman such an action could well prove to be her demise.