Sunday, December 4, 2011

Anna Karenina and birth control

There is a section in part six of Anna Karenina where Anna reveals to Dolly that it is impossible for her to have more children.

Anna hasn't received a divorce, causing Vronsky to be concerned that any children they might have will legally belong to Alexey Alexandrovitch.

Anna reacts with this section:

“What children?” Anna said, not looking at Dolly, and half closing her eyes.

“Annie and those to come...”

“He need not trouble on that score; I shall have no more children.”

“How can you tell that you won't?”

“I shall not, because I don't wish it.” And, in spite of all her emotion, Anna smiled, as she caught the na├»ve expression of curiosity, wonder, and horror on Dolly's face.

“The doctor told me after my illness...”

“Impossible!” said Dolly, opening her eyes wide.

The quick research I did on this section indicates that some readers consider this to be Anna revealing that she uses birth control.

This takes place in the late nineteenth century, so condoms and diaphragms were available. But a diaphragm would have been difficult to use regularly without Vronsky's knowledge and a condom would have been impossible.

The other option Anna had was the most common form of birth control in Russia at that time, abortion. I think Anna is either revealing here that she has had at least one abortion and intends to have others or that she has had a hysterectomy.

Either of those revelations would explain Dolly's reaction, but the two possibilities would give Dolly very different views of Anna. The Christian church existed in Czarist Russia in a number of different forms. Dolly is not presented as a devout follower, but she could have been influenced by what were then the current views of the morality of abortion. If that was the case she might have been appalled at what Anna had done. But Anna does say “The doctor told me after my illness...”, so there is a good chance Anna is talking about an operation that has left her sterile. If so, Dolly is reacting to what has happened to Anna's womanhood, from a nineteenth century perspective. In this case she would have been filled with pity for Anna. When she leaves Anna's home, Dolly seems more appalled than consumed with pity, but either way her reaction is interesting.

Once again, Tolstoy touches on a topic that is very relevant to a modern reader, even though his novel was written and set in the eighteen hundreds.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Okay, I know this page is four years old, but just in case anyone ends up here:

    This passage is almost certainly referring to birth control, not abortion. While abortions were attainable, it would have been unthinkable for an aristocratic woman in a monogamous relationship. Dolly's horror comes from the idea that Anna is carrying on a sexual relationship WITHOUT the possibility of procreation.

    Birth control was shocking enough as it is in late 19th century Russia. For those who were religiously observant, like most of the characters in this text, the attitude of the church would have been much the same as the Catholic Church in places like Ireland in the 20th century: that it was a sin to engage in sexual intercourse while deliberately obstructing the possibility of conception.

    Dolly, whose identity is so firmly rooted in her role as mother, is shocked that Anna would pursue a monogramous relationship without the possibility of bearing children. This means that, for Anna, this affair is mostly about pleasure, and not about the ostensibly more noble aim of starting a legitimate family with Vronsky.

    You say it wouldn't be possible for Anna to use a diaphragm without Vronsky's knowledge - I don't think that is the case. But it certainly wouldn't be possible for her to procure abortions without his knowledge. And if she were admitting to abortions here - a married Russian Orthodox aristocrat and mother of two - it would have overshadowed the whole narrative, and the book would have been much, much more controversial than it was.