‘Anna Karenina’ and the anti-Valentine

The anti-Valentine is always more persuasive and more appealing than
the Valentine. Reading about a romantic train wreck satisfies the
jilted’s urge for amorous schadenfreude and the committed’s urge for
amorous self-aggrandizement. What Tolstoy gets right in Anna
is that the vessel of every relationship, even the most
apparently secure, is taking on water and listing hard to port.

 I was in Group Process class a couple years back and this one
participant, I’ll call her Monika, explained the secret to her happy
marriage: she and her spouse had agreed that they would reserve all
talk of complaints and dissatisfactions with each other for each
other. They would be each other’s closest confidants. No more spilling
the beans on marital troubles to Mom or best friend. What was most
admirable about this was not the idea in itself, which seemed either
completely essential or completely impossible, but Monika’s commitment
to that ideal. She would have the perfect marriage, damn it! Nobody
would know the pain she was enduring except her very torturer, her

 (The end of the story, of course, as you have guessed is that I’ve
fallen out of touch with Monika. Like the antiheroine of some baroque
Mafia saga, she had apparently found it easier to eliminate all
witnesses to her oath than to cleave to the oath itself.)

 As I approach Chapter 9 of Part Two of Anna Karenina, Anna’s
husband, Alexey Alexandrovitch, has decided to put the spotlight on
Anna’s apparent flirtation with Vronsky. Being an enlightened sort of
husband, he feels that the base emotion of jealousy is beneath him and
he therefore couches his argument for Anna to desist in her attentions
to Vronsky in terms of propriety: it doesn’t look right to others.

 Tolstoy quickly limns the snare through which Alexey Alexandrovitch
falls: although “he saw that the inmost recesses of her soul, that had
always hitherto lain open before him, were closed against him,” he
chooses to complain instead that “through thoughtlessness and lack of
caution you may cause yourself to be talked about in society.” She
then perceives this reasoned approach as further evidence of his
passionless feeling for her (“Love? Can he love? If he hadn’t heard
there was such a thing as love, he would never have used the word.”),
and when Alexey Alexandrovitch starts to mewl about his true feelings
(“But if you are conscious yourself of even the smallest foundation
for them [his earlier words of reproach], then I beg you to think a
little, and if your heart prompts you, to speak out to me…”) he finds
himself, as Tolstoy drily notes, “unconsciously saying something
utterly unlike what he had prepared.”

 I couldn’t help thinking of Monika and her perfect hermetic marriage
as I read this. This is the kind of trouble we get into when we
petition our faithless lovers for pardon, or convict them for their
obvious trespasses. All the best arguments prove themselves
insufficient and we fall back on the once-reliable appeal to the
emotions. Of course, as in the Karenins’ case, the lover’s soul has
now closed against us and our entreaties mean nothing.