From the Ballroom to the Bedroom:
Public and Private Spaces in Anna Karenina
Leo Tolstoy’s comparison of the Shcherbatsky ball to a “bee-hive” in Anna Karenina conveys the event’s lively, energetic atmosphere. Attuned to the tempo of the “mazurka,” the guests engage in such social behaviours as dancing, conversing, gossiping, and flirting… the last activity to be conducted in the most inconspicuous fashion, of course (Tolstoy 70, 75). Indeed, this bee-hive of a ballroom serves as an example of a “public space” in nineteenth-century Russian society: a physical place where participants are subject to being observed and, potentially, judged by their onlookers. To avoid harsh judgement spiraling into scandal, individuals, particularly women, abide by unspoken rules about how to behave, constantly considering how their interactions would be interpreted in the public eye. The “private space,” in contrast, is freer. Enclosed by the four walls of, say, a bedroom, or physically removed from an area that any person can enter unannounced and without suspicion, the private space enables the individual to be herself and express her true emotions, especially concerning her partner (or partners). In the novel, readers dip in and out of these public and private spaces, recognizing that Anna and Kitty behave differently with their lovers, Vronsky and Levin, respectively, depending on their physical location. Tolstoy often blurs the lines between what is truly “public” and “private,” constructing a spectrum of spaces for his characters to determine how they interact (or should interact) within them, these decisions structuring their future relationships. Our awareness of how these couples behave differently in each sphere will add to our understanding of why Anna’s and Vronsky’s relationship fails, while Kitty’s and Levin’s succeeds into the future, and far past the pages in which we meet them.
Anna and Vronsky meet for the first time in a public space: the train station. Although their initial encounter at the compartment door is just for a second, Tolstoy painstakingly slows this moment. having Vronsky notice miniscule details about the shifting light in Anna’s “bright grey eyes” to emphasize their instantaneous intimacy, amidst the overcrowded “bustle” of the station (56, 54). This “short look” between the two is, well, short, and would go generally undetected as anything more intense to a passerby, but the readers have access to an omniscient narration, which reveals how Anna “deliberately tried to extinguish that light in her eyes” (56). We already know that Anna is married, which explains why she attempts to hide this spark of emotion for another man in such a public environment. Still, she cannot help but test the limits of marital fidelity when she tosses a “ball of coquetry” to Vronsky during conversation, before swiftly shutting the flirtation down, perhaps having realized how these comments might be perceived by her husband, or even someone who knows Karenin (58). Their connection and coquetry may seem innocent and brief, but these subtle behaviours would only be appropriate in such spaces as a ballroom full of eligible men and women, not between strangers in such a casual and open area.
Alas, the train station encounter was merely a warm-up for the main display of public affection, where a few nights later, outside on the moving train carriage, Vronsky confesses his love for Anna, urging that he needs “to be where [she is]” (94). He comes “close between her and the wavering light of the lamp,” Tolstoy making their interaction feel sensual in the dark. Further, the descriptions of the wind and train contribute to this sexual tension: the onomatopoeia from the scattering snow, “clattering” iron, and howling engine imitates how one’s heart would beat, or nerves would jitter in the stomach when committing such an immoral act. The second-hand incitement readers may feel from reading about Anna’s and Vronsky’s close contact is made more intense by the fact that it is conducted in a public space. Although it seems isolated, the pair stand in a spot, which, at any point, could be accessed by a train worker or passenger, just like when “two gentlemen passed [Anna]” when Vronsky first approached her. The same tense atmosphere would not exist if Vronsky were to ambush Anna in a locked bedroom safeguarded by servants. Here, Tolstoy creates a faux-private space, one which seems to allow an individual to express herself (and her sexual desires) freely, but with the wrong move, can trap her, making her vulnerable to public judgement. In part, readers are drawn to this scene because of the drama and scandal that would unfold if Anna and Vronsky were caught. When Vronsky becomes more stubborn in his declarations, Anna realizes this exact danger, suddenly crying out “enough!”, rushing back into the carriage, and dissolving the trepidation that the readers feel.
Throughout the first section of the novel, Tolstoy moves Anna and Vronsky from these faux-private spaces to extremely public ones, intentionally provoking them closer and building up their sexual tension, which eventually erupts with extreme passion in, thank goodness, a genuine-private space. On the train platform in St. Petersburg, Vronsky approaches Anna when she is with Karenin, dropping such phrases as, “Did you have a good night?” and “I hope to have the honour of calling on you,” which, like a “short look,” seem harmless, but are actually charged with intimate references, intended to remind Anna of Vronsky’s love (97). Earlier at the ball, we observe Anna, smiling, with a “joyful light [kindling] in her eyes” every time Vronsky speaks to and dances with her; he is no different in his behaviour when he “bow[s] his head” in submission to Mrs. Karenina (74). When Anna suspects that Kitty— with a “look of surprise and despair”— has noticed the smile exchanges, she leaves the function before the young girl can interpret anything more definitive from her observations (76). Anna and Vronsky continue to interact with each other in “grand Society,” most notably at Princess Betsy’s dinner party, where the lovers take their smiles to the next level (116). At a “little table,” detached from the main circle of guests, they talk to each other about their feelings, but make it seem as though they are merely handing each other tea, and presumably talking about their favourite flavors (128). The Russian socialites in attendance are, however, shrewder than this: from interjections of gossip in this scene, we learn that Anna’s and Vronsky’s contact is regarded as “becoming improper!” (128).
In public spaces, the couple behave as though they are walking on a tightrope: first examining how sturdy the rope is with a suggestive glance, then taking a step with a flirtatious comment, continuing to balance atop the rope with smiles, nods, and looks, every step becoming more dangerous until, to the reader’s nervous excitement, they reach the other side. It takes “nearly a year,” but Tolstoy finally offers the tightrope artists privacy to consummate their relationship. The tension that has previously structured all Anna and Vronsky’s public interactions explodes, and to suggest how vehement and lustful the physical touch is, Tolstoy likens Vronsky to a murderer, kissing Anna’s face as though he is “hack[ing]” at it (136). When they are truly alone, both become wild, almost animalistic figures thriving in this natural private space, which is unrestrained by the man-made, rigid societal rules: Anna “writhe[s]” on the sofa, while the murderous Vronsky’s “jaw” trembles; these descriptions seem to salivate with the desire of the occupying characters (135).
To contrast such immorality (do forgive me), we should turn our attention to the interactions between Kitty and Levin, which are far passionate than those of our previous couple. In public spaces, these two abide by all the rules that exist to circumvent the type of gossip that lurks in Anna’s shadow: at the ice-skating rink, their only physical contact is a polite handshake (27), when Kitty’s mother is cold towards Levin, not wanting to make him feel awkward, Kitty immediately smiles and speaks cordially (29), and even after rejecting his proposal, to show she does not hold anything negative against him, Kitty comes to Levin’s defense in a social group discussing “table-turning and spiritualism” (48). Thus, their interactions in public spaces are buffered by the idle pleasantries of shallow conversation between two people who do not know each other well. Yet, from Kitty’s inner thoughts, we know that she thinks Levin is kind and “charming”; Levin’s own mind reveals how much he admires Kitty and her beauty, and his constant questioning and backtracking of thoughts— “My God! What have I done? O Lord”— reveals just how desperately he wants to do and say the right thing around her (29). They are both quiet, timid, and incapable of honest expression, and though they need not be as extreme and Anna and Vronsky on the train, Kitty and Levin could certainly be more forthright about their feelings… especially as Levin thought it appropriate to say, on their very first meeting and without any former signs of flirtation, “It all depends on you,” expressing that Kitty will determine how long he spends in Moscow (28).
After some time, the pair eventually learn how to be honest about their feelings in a public space in a way that still upholds their reserved natures. At the Oblonsky dinner party, Kitty, without wanting to be too upfront and risk misbelieving that Levin loves her, offers facial expressions as signals to show she now has “love for him” (350). For instance, “in every sound and every movement of her lips, her eyes, and her hands,” Kitty silently hints that she is genuinely interested in Levin, and as the party progresses, Tolstoy reports that she follows him around with her “a smile,” altering him with a blush and “truthful eyes” to ask her what she has been waiting to hear again (350, 360, 361). The way the two inch together is slow and drawn-out, so that the readers can fully appreciate the purity and nervous joy that describes this couple’s intimacy, as opposed to the faster pace of events, which mark Anna’s and Vronsky’s intimacy as risqué and intense. Finally, readers reach the long-awaited proposal, where Levin and Kitty spell out on the table, using the first letters of each word, that they love each other, and “Yes,” Kitty will marry him (362). Now, these two do not need to sneak around (especially since neither are currently married) but are mightily cautious in their actions because of the public judgement they would face if they misunderstood each other: Levin does not want to be humiliated by being rejected again, and Kitty does not want to be socially charged with “coquetting,” thereby reducing her chances of meeting another suitable husband and ending up a spinster (29). Thus, the written word— concealed in code and unable to be eavesdropped upon— seems the safest way to assess each other’s love in public.
Despite having (somewhat) mastered the art of subtle romance in public, Kitty and Levin need some practice to explore how they should and wish to behave in private together. The faux-private dancing-hall in the Shcherbatsky house serves as the location for their first attempt. “Without thinking or asking herself what next,” Kitty rushes into the space and kisses Levin, which is surprising to readers, who have not yet read about any physical contact between the pair (368). This brief insight into Kitty’s freer self signifies that she understands the delineations between public and private society, but it is also refreshing to see, concretely showing how other, shy young women can feel empowered to express themselves. However, just as quickly, Kitty interrupts the moment with, “Come to Mama!,” an invitation to return to the public space, where, perhaps, both would feel more comfortable and certain of how to act towards the other. The writing in this section exudes a slight sense of unease and fear amidst the happiness, which is reminiscent of how Levin and Kitty felt in their earlier meetings when they were initially trying to make sense of their emotions: here, Levin feels “joyful terror” and has a “timid look”; Kitty’s eyes are “frightened,” and she is “timid and bashful.” Before the wedding, in the private space of a “back room,” Levin’s anxieties persist, and his mind, again, becomes restlessly wrapped up in questions, “supposing that [Kitty] does not love him” and she is not telling him “the whole truth” (404).
As neither person has been in a serious relationship before, they do not know how a couple behaves behind closed doors (Anna has had practice with her husband, and Vronsky, well, readers suspect philandering qualities within him). Besides short blips of physical affection, such as when Kitty and Levin “kiss” at the altar, the first part of their marriage, before Kitty gives birth, is filled with quarrels and inner anxieties, instead of the passion and sensual affection we might expect (in fact, I do not believe I read about a consummation scene… Kitty is simply announced as pregnant one day!) (416). Tolstoy seems to hint that until the pair can express themselves to each other in a more intimate manner, thus adapting to the private space, they will continue to face difficulties. For example, when Levin becomes jealous of Veslovsky, the “superfluous stranger,” whose “handsome smile” makes Kitty blush, he does not speak to his wife about his bitterness, and instead, “hurrie[s] away from her” when she tries to convince him to open up (516, 543). It takes nine chapters, an exhausting shooting trip, a night at a peasant’s cottage, and a chat with Dolly for Levin to finally express himself and order “the horses to be harnessed for” Veslovsky, requesting the dandy to leave at once (556). Kitty has her own moment of jealousy when Levin returns from meeting Anna. Just as Kitty did, he “blush[es]” and she realizes with a sobbing pain that he has “fallen in love with that horrid woman” (636). Without strict rules to abide by and the potential threats of scandal in the public eye, both Kitty and Levin struggle to adapt to a space where their sexual and emotional desires have free reign over their thoughts and actions.
That said, there is a gentle tenderness to Kitty’s and Levin’s marriage that gives readers hope that they will adapt to a more private setting. When they are discussing how Varekna’s and Koznyshev’s relationship will not materialize because neither will “bite,” or make the first move, Kitty lightly kisses her husband’s hand (513). Tolstoy then ends her next line of dialogue with an ellipsis… suggesting that her next kiss was far more intimate than one we have ever read before, especially as Levin worries the peasants might see! By substituting any description of the second kiss with punctuation, Tolstoy himself abides by the rules of the private sphere and averts everybody’s eyes from the rare affectionate and jovial pleasures between Kitty and Levin.
This tenderness does not exist in Anna and Vronsky’s relationship, especially when they spend more time together in private. At the end of part four, the two escape Russia, travelling around “Venice, Rome, and Naples” (417). It is likely that they encountered many people in these cities, but I would classify Italy as a private space, because they are so distanced, “cut off” even, from the society that exists to restrict them (422). Conversely, even if Tolstoy were to characterize their time in Italy as being in a public space, having already been judged for their flight, Anna and Vronsky need not fear further social repercussions, and thus, can behave as “privately” as possible whenever they so choose, such as when Anna calls Vronsky “simply Alexey” in the presence of Golenishchev (419). Despite Anna’s “unpardonably happy” feelings when alone with Vronsky, he does not express the same bliss, instead, revealing that he is extremely bored (422). He misses the “pleasures of a bachelor’s life,” and so, we can infer that he also misses the secrecy and mischievousness that arose when he was sneaking around with Anna. Tolstoy inverts the animalistic descriptions that once suggested the couple’s passion and writes, instead, that “as a hungry animal seizes every object,” Vronsky seizes new hobbies to distract himself from his boredom with Anna (423). The topics of divorce, marriage, and children that eventually enter their private conversations have diluted the sexual tension and feeling of excitement at potentially being caught that previously acted as a catalyst for their affair. Anna believes that the love that once “united them” has turned into strife (639). I suggest that it is lust— the anticipation of seeing each other in public, having to hold back on their desires until they can reach a private space— that actually unites them.
Tolstoy does not often allow for his titular character and her lover to interact and become closer in an environment, public or private, not marked by sexual tension; he rushes them into a private realm at a much faster rate than he does Kitty and Levin. These two, however, learn to love and respect each other, gradually progressing from public to private spaces, trying to adapt and understand how to express themselves (sometimes failing) in many different contexts, all the while, continuing to express sympathy for the other. What “unites them” in both spheres is a mixture of feelings and willingness to show compassion, exemplified well when Levin meets baby Mitya: he has a “distressing sense of fear” of the baby, as well as a “joy and… pride” (650-651).
Essentially, Tolstoy presents both Anna and Vronsky and Kitty and Levin on a spectrum of public and private spaces to demonstrate how differently the couples behave when they are restricted by the dainty gloves and narrow eyes of gossipy Russian society verses when they are free from these clasps. The former couple desperately wish to be in private together and are tested by the constraints of faux-private and public arenas, until they are finally alone and can release all of their sexual tension. However, when they spend increasing amounts of time alone together, without the exhilaration of their affair, Anna and Vronsky falter, their “love” diminishes. On the other hand, Kitty and Levin succeed in public, finding that the unspoken rules about how to behave in public society cohere quite well with their own timidity. Although they first struggle in private, not realizing how to express themselves freely and honestly, the pair still find ways to display their tender care and affection for each other, emanating hope about their future. Of course, there are no ideals of comportment that any couple, in either nineteenth century- or twenty first century-Russia, can follow exactly to make sure they succeed in both a public and private setting. But Tolstoy’s characters experiment with passion, intimacy, and conversation in a range of places to present readers with the consequences and pleasures of following the rules… or choosing to sneak around them.
Essay written by Mimi Thompson in Spring 2021 for coursework as part of "Russian Literature"