Tolstoy’s Prescient Critique of Postmodern Sexual Ethics

October 28, 2020 | Joshua Pauling
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In Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy tells the story of the adulterous romance between the title character and the dashing Alexei Vronsky. Experiencing true love for the first time, Karenina leaves her stifling marriage to a religious, conservative, and cruel husband, while Vronsky leaves behind his life of womanizing. Yet not all is happy in the relationship between these two consenting adults. Joshua Pauling sees in the novel a powerful corrective to Western morality in the era after the sexual revolution:

Several of the book’s main characters reject marital and familial commitments, and their choices leave themselves and their families deeply broken. Vronsky and Anna’s affair, with its unrestrained and disordered desire, ultimately consumes them both, as Vronsky confesses: “As a man, I’m a wreck, [stuck in] a wholly useless remorse never to be effaced.”

The book also explores how sexual liberation affects children. To Vronsky, “a man is in duty bound to live for himself, as every man of culture should live,” and children are inconveniences that should not “prevent their parents from enjoying life.”

As Anna and Vronsky begin their affair, Anna’s son Seryozha haunts them. Vronsky often notices the child’s “bewildered glance fixed upon him, . . . as though the child felt that between this man and his mother there existed some important bond, the significance of which he could not understand.” Despite being pricked in their consciences by Seryozha, they refuse to reorder their desires; instead they flee to Italy. Seryozha becomes a casualty of their self-serving love.

Alongside Vronsky and Anna’s libertine relationship, Tolstoy portrays a contrasting experience of marriage and family through the character of Konstantin Levin. Levin’s thoughts on marriage are quite different from those of his aristocratic friends. Levin was “so far from conceiving of love for woman apart from marriage that he positively pictured to himself first the family, and only secondarily the woman who would give him a family.” While the [members of Vronsky’s urbane and aristocratic circle] saw marriage as a life accessory, “for Levin it was the chief affair of life, on which its whole happiness turned.”

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