Marriage and self-giving (Anna Karenina)

I finished reading Anna Karenina a week or so ago. It is a big classic Russian novel (translated into English) written by Leo Tolstoy in the late 19th century – pre communist Russia. The novel follows the lives and loves of two families, Levin and his wife Kitty, and Anna Karinina, her husband Alexey, and her lover, Count Vronsky. In the telling Tolstoy takes in the grand theories of his time about land ownership, farming, politics and family values.

I want to look at the issue of marriage. In the marriage service in the UK, the couple say to each other these words: “all that I am I give to you, all that I have I share with you“

They give themselves to each other. Giving has always been a part of marriage, whether it is families giving their children in marriage, or individuals giving themselves. But the point is the same, in the giving, the couple no longer belong to themselves, but to each other. What was mine becomes ours. What is good for me becomes ‘is it good for us?’. There are shared possessions, shared ideals, shared dreams, shared goals, shared happiness and sadness.

In the book, Kitty initially rebuffed Levins proposal. After a stay away watching a friend look after an elderly and difficult relative – seeing love in action – Kitty understood the ‘given-ness’ of love. Levin and Kitty marry do everything for each other, and are happy. Difficulties do come along. Levin’s brother lay sick and dying and Levin wanted to visit alone, but Kitty insisted on coming. Her support for Levin and care for his brother as he died taught them both about love and was an example of self-giving. Similarly, when a person comes along who threatens to come in between them, they discuss it and decide to ask this person to leave. The marriage was too important for anything to get in between them. The threat is removed. They self-givingly live for the benefit of each other. This is love.

By contrast Anna: near the beginning of the book, Anna is swept off her feet by Count Vronsky. She had never truly had feelings for her husband, whereas in Vronsky there was passion, excitement and what she thought was love, so she leaves Alexey for him. However, as their relationship progresses things deteriorate. Firstly it is little annoyances. Then she is shunned by society and loses her friends. All her worth now rests on Vronsky, and no man is up to that. She starts to become suspicious, accusing, and eventually destroys the relationship and herself.

In that relationship, the given-ness of marriage was not there. They fell into the mistaken thinking that love is about excitement and passion. They were in it for the passion they could get out of it. There was no given-ness, only the expectation of what they could receive from each other. When these impossible ideals were not met, the relationship imploded.

Love involves giving. Marriage is a public declaration and commitment of giving to the other.  All that I am I give to you, all that I have I share with you. In giving ourselves to the other, relationships are set on a firm foundation of a safe and stable place of love that always looks for the benefit of the other first.

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