Gender and Social Norms in "Anna Karenina" by Leo Tolstoy

Categories: Anna Karenina

The novel Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy commences and concludes with the act of adultery and the consequences of the forbidden love affairs. Stepan Arkadyevitch Oblonsky and his sister Anna Arkadyevna Karenina are the driving forces of the scandalous love affairs within the novel. Oblonsky has an affair with his children‘s governess, while Anna Kanrenina has an affair with a wealthy military officer, Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky. Oblonsky and Karenina’s affairs are similar in that they both go against their social responsibility; however, the love Karenina has for Vronksy is much more passionate than the attraction Oblonsky feels for the governess.

The consequences the siblings face for their actions are completely different because of their gender roles and the societal norms.

Taking a further look into Oblonksy’s affair and the consequences of it, the apparent differences between his sister’s affair are evident. Oblonsky is not an emotional person; he has a hard time deciding on his emotions because of their lack of true meaning.

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Oblonsky could not “persuade himself that he repented of his conduct” with the mistress (Tolstoy 7). He felt no serious remorse for his actions with the mistress because he never developed any real emotion for her. Oblonsky being a male sees no harm in sleeping with another woman because there is little consequences for his actions; however, a woman who is doing the same thing could potentially become pregnant and face immense consequences. Oblonsky views his relations with the mistress as “fun” and not harming to the “sanctity of his home” (Tolstoy 111).

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Society seems to share the same views as Oblonsky, besides his wife being upset with him nothing else changes for him. He and his wife continue their maladaptive marriage and he ends up getting the job he wanted.

All the while, society has no criticism for his actions due to his lack of emotion and gender.

Completely opposite from Oblonsky’s affair, Karenina’s affair has love, passion, and committement. The consequences she faces are extremely severe and lead to her eventual suicide. Karenina is a woman and society holds her to a higher standard for her affair, yet she also allows her “dangerous passions” to interfere with her affair (Tolstoy 382). Karenina’s mother speaks of her daughters strong emotions and how they tend to get her in trouble. Her strong passion for Vronsky pulls Karenina away from her husband and son and she eventually abandons them. The abandonment of her family is another reason why she treated negatively by society. Society was shocked that Karenina was willing to completely abandon her son and husband; they viewed her abandonment as failing to be a mother and wife— a woman's duty in society. The problem with Karenina’s gender is demonstrated one night when she begs to attend the opera with Vronsky; however, Vronsky does not understand why she would want to show herself as a “fallen woman” to society and embarrass him (Tolstoy 1181).

The separation between Vronsky and Karenina begins to develop at this point in the novel; the difference between male and female is demonstrated because Vronsky, who has impregnated a married woman, faces no consequences while Karenina is completely excluded from society. Karenina is now an embarrassment for Vronsky according to society. Sadly, the passion Karenina feels and her role in society are reasons that lead to her eventual downfall.

After studying the affairs and the consequences of both Oblonsky and Karenina, the major similarities and differences between the two situations are evident. The most obvious similarity between the two characters is found in their personalities; they are both sociable and delightful in the beginning of the novel. However, this similarity begins to change as society changes their view of Karenina. On the contrary, gender role is the major difference between the two characters. Tolstoy uses these two characters to demonstrate how during this time a man and a woman could commit the same sin, yet the woman is the one that faces the harshest punishment. As a male, Oblonsky has an advantage in the affair and his lack of emotions in his relationships allows him to live carelessly without any consequences from society. Tolstoy develops Oblonsky's character very little, and in fact he becomes more of a stagnant character. Karenina’s personality is the complete opposite of Oblonsky; she is a very passionate woman, and society viewed this a negative. Furthermore, the treatment of man versus woman in the novel is the major difference between Karenina and Oblonsky, and is a representation of how society handled gender roles.

Overall, Tolstoy uses the novel Anna Karenina to display how the treatment of man and woman during this time was unfair. Karenina is judged brutally for her strong passions in her affair and not fulfilling her role in society, while the emotionless Oblonsky gets away without any consequences. The novel shows how society judges those who do not follow gender norms or one’s societal role.

Updated: Feb 14, 2024
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Gender and Social Norms in "Anna Karenina" by Leo Tolstoy. (2024, Feb 14). Retrieved from

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