What does Tolstoy's Anna Karenina reveal about women in ninteenth century?
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In Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, the segment of society shown is that of the upper classes. Tolstoy is praised for his "profound insight into the relationship between the individual and the surrounding society" (eNotes, Masterplots). So any insights to nineteenth century women will be fairly well restricted to that level of society. In addition, the insights will be restricted to Russian society. Furthermore, the insights can not be expected to generalize to other levels of Russian society.
One thing that Tolstoy's novel reveals about Russian upper class women is that they are keepers of the moral norm. When a woman transgresses a moral or religious principle or doctrine, it is the women of society who shut their doors to her thus excluding her from their social circles. All closely related social circles will also be closed to her lest they be seen as breaking a social norm and code in their own right. The opinion of society and its social circles was a powerful tool for deterring moral and religious violations and for punishment of transgressions (eNotes, Masterplots). This is what Anna faced after beginning her liaison with Vronsky. On the other hand, when Anna and Vronsky became expatriates, they were welcomed by the other expatriates, many of whom were themselves in violation of moral and religious norms in their home countries.
The novel also shows women as dependent upon the good graces of the men with whom they are connected. Once Anna was brought to shame, whether Anna could see their son or not was dependent upon Karenin's good graces. While keeping company with Vronsky, whether Anna continued in the path of infamy or ceased seeing him was dependent upon his good graces: Would he think of what was best for her or would he insist on what was best for him? As he also did with Karnein, Vronsky used his superior social stature to insist upon having what was best for him.
Tolstoy also reveals women as being kept at some distance from the rearing of their children as a result of the nature of the legal and social norms of the nineteenth century: Men owned their children; women were only the bearers of the man's rightful heirs. This was dramatically demonstrated after Anna left Karenin but also demonstrated in the snatches of everyday life that Tolstoy paints. As an example of this distance, Anna would dress for the theater or a ball while her son was fed and readied for bed by his nurse. Before leaving for the evening--dressed in all her finery of silks and jewels and perfumes--Anna would enter the nursery, which was under the care of the nurse maid, sit by her son's side for a bit, chat a little, then kiss him good night and leave. History shows and feminist critics argue that novels demonstrate that the nineteenth century was a most restrictive period for women's rights and freedoms, whether personal, social, or legal.
I believe that the book reveals more about only high-society women rather than women in general. Of course, there are shared qualities between richer women and poorer women, but for the most part this book focuses on wealthy individuals. What this book says about wealthier women in the 19th century is that at that time, even in Russia, many women felt they deserved better education, treatment, etc, though they appreciated what they had. For the most part the men treated the women with respect, however, in one part of the book (where Levin and Kitty finally get engaged) the men discuss the rights of women, and they feel that they don't really need any more rights; that they have enough already.
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