(Warning: this review contains spoilers of the book Anna Karenina)
In an age of Tinder, Snapchat, fast hook-ups and even faster divorces, it is tempting for many to wistfully imagine a past in which the excesses of female behaviour were tightly controlled by a strong patriarchal system, freeing men (and women) of the many difficulties that plague inter-gender relations in 2014. Students of classic literature know that things have never been entirely rosy. Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which was serialized in The Russian Messenger between 1873 and 1877, remains one of the greatest studies of hypergamy and its effects ever written.
Praised by both Dostoevsky and Nabokov as Tolstoy’s greatest novel, Anna Karenina tells the story of a woman who leaves her stern, unemotional husband Alexei Karenin for dashing cavalry officer Count Alexei Vronsky, charting their ensuing affair and Anna’s eventual downfall. In counterpoint we are presented with the experiences of Levin, a deeply ordinary but decent landowner (and avatar for Tolstoy) and his relationship with Kitty, a young socialite related to Anna through her brother’s marriage. Both women’s narratives dramatize female hypergamous desire and show its damaging effects on family life and the men involved, as well as on themselves.
The Power of Alpha
We are left in no doubt that Anna is an exceptionally attractive woman—Vronsky notes not only her beauty but also her ‘elegance and the modest grace of her whole figure’ and ‘an excess of vitality [that] filled her whole being’ when he first catches sight of her. Vronsky himself is every bit the dashing cad:
‘A very fine sample of the gilded youth of Petersburg . . .awfully rich, handsome, with influential connections, an aide-de-camp to the Emperor, and at the same time very good-natured — a first-rate fellow… he turns out to be educated and very clever — a man who will go far.’
Ticking pretty much every DHV box going, it is little wonder that both Anna and Kitty soon fall in love with him—in fact, it is his raw alpha presence that is the initial motor that sets the plot in motion.
When the novel opens, Levin is on his way to propose to Kitty. Tolstoy draws him sensitively, but we see all the same that he is gauche and not at ease in society. Kitty’s mother is particularly keen that her daughter favours Vronksy, who has also made his desire for her plain, even though we sense that he is a somewhat feckless, superficial man:
‘In her mother’s eyes there was no comparison between Levin and Vronsky. She did not like Levin’s strange and harsh criticisms, his awkward manner . . . Vronsky satisfied all the mother’s desires: he was very rich, clever, distinguished, with a brilliant military career before him.’
We can intuit that Kitty’s mother is tingling at the thought of Vronsky, and so we see the universal effect a hard alpha has on the feminine across generations. It is also interesting to observe how mothers will aid their own daughter’s hypergamous instincts (perhaps as a way of living out their own cougar fantasies). Sure enough, although Kitty is fond of Levin, she rejects his subsequent excruciatingly awkward proposal, expecting to accept his rival’s instead. Levin goes back to his country estate, crushed by the refusal, but all does not turn out well for Kitty either. The grand ball where she expects Vronsky to propose comes and goes, but he spends the evening flirting with Anna instead. This causes her to become physically ill, so much so that she has to go away to a spa where she becomes interested in religion—she becomes the very definition of an alpha widow, spoiled for other men.
Anna, meanwhile, returns to her husband in Moscow, pursued by Vronsky. After the three meet when Karenin comes to collect Anna at the station, she reflects on his goodness, honesty and kindness, but wonders why ‘his ears stick out so’ — the first overt indication that she has lost attraction for him. It is interesting to note that Karenin is at no point portrayed as a beta schlub — on the contrary, he is a powerful man, a high-ranking government official. What he lacks, though, is passion, and, we sense, a high sex drive. It is these qualities that Anna’s hypergamous antennae locate in Vronsky. When Vronsky asks if it’s impossible they might be together:
[Anna] exerted all the powers of her mind to say what she ought; but instead she fixed on him with her eyes filled with love and did not answer at all.
Having thus accepted Vronsky’s love, even though she remains married, Karenin now begins to experience the full cruelty of his wife’s emotional departure. How terrible—and yet how familiar to anyone who has suffered female infidelity—-the following lines are:
‘He saw that the depths of her soul, till now always open, were closed to him. More than that, he knew from her tone that she was not ashamed of this … As he spoke he looked at her laughing eyes, terrible to him now in their impenetrability and he felt the uselessness and idleness of his words. ‘
Rollo has written somewhere that when a woman loses attraction for a man she becomes colder to him than if they had never met—Tolstoy encapsulates the phenomenon clearly here.
Meanwhile, Kitty’s sister Dolly tries to explain to Levin why his proposal was rejected:
‘When you proposed to Kitty she was just in that state when it was impossible for her to give an answer — she was undecided between you and Vronsky; she saw him every day, you she had not seen for a long time. I admit that had she been older . . .’
While the reference to Kitty’s age is an attempt to sugar the pill, this is simply one woman’s justification for another’s cold-blooded behaviour. And the fact is that Kitty did give an answer—she refused Levin. What Dolly means is that Levin had forced her into a corner, making it impossible for her to vacillate for as long as she would have preferred to optimise her hypergamy. To put it crudely, Vronsky was Kitty’s first choice, but she would rather have kept Levin dangling until such time as Vronsky had put a ring on it, keeping him on hand as a kind of insurance policy.
Burned by Vronsky’s refusal of her for Anna, and getting older, Kitty now makes it obvious to Levin that she has had a change of heart, and they marry. Tolstoy makes it very clear that her decision is hastened by her having passed the peak of her SMV curve. She loves Levin because ‘she completely understood him, because she knew it was necessary for him to love, and that all that he loved was good’—hardly a grand passion. A wedding guest remarks that she ‘has grown so much plainer’ , and another that she looks as though she is being married against her will—clear indications that this is a woman ‘cashing out’ on her remaining attractiveness by settling for a wealthy beta provider. That their ensuing honeymoon (and consummation) is described as ‘shameful’ and unhealthy’ merely underlines the point.
Meanwhile, Anna and Vronksy elope and leave for Europe together, an almost unthinkable move, given the degree of shame that this would bring on a society women. In this way, Tolstoy emphasizes the lengths to which women will go when motivated by their biomechanical instincts. In a particularly painful scene at the opera, we see Anna shunned and scorned by respectable (and hypocritical) society women. Even more disturbing, Anna leaves not only her husband but her own son for Vronsky, a separation which does not trouble her much (at first). That a woman is capable of turning her back on even her own child in the face of powerful sexual attraction to an alpha male is a red pill truth many would rather remain unaware of.
Both Vronksy and Levin end up with the women that they desire, but neither is content.
Vronsky meanwhile, in spite of the complete fulfilment of what he had so long desired, was not completely happy. He soon felt that the realization of his longing gave him only one grain of the mountain of bliss he had anticipated. That realization showed him the eternal error men make by imagining that happiness consists in the gratification of their wishes.
Levin too becomes disillusioned as Kitty is possessive of him, interested only in trifles and hampers his ability to pursue his passion for agriculture and academia. This is a stark reminder of that most important of red pill principles: men must always ensure that women are secondary to their main pursuits, and never the central focus.
Anna’s eventual suicide, motivated by Vronsky’s slow emotional detachment from her, is the tragic consequence of her hypergamous instinct, and a chilling reminder of the power an alpha presence has to make a woman forsake her family, and finally derail her life. The novel is a classic examination of the dark side of female psychology and is a corrective to those who would blame the rise of feminism for all of society’s current ills. While early feminist ideas were slowly gaining credence in Russia in the nineteenth century, they were by no means commonplace, and society as a whole remained staunchly patriarchal. Anna Karenina demonstrates that while feminism today may enable hypergamy, it has existed forever as a fundamental driver of female behaviour.
Read More: Why Tolstoy Rejected The Church