You can tell a lot about our culture by the way we talk about marriage. Take the upcoming exchange of vows between Meghan Markle and Prince Harry. Press coverage will focus on aspects like the cost of the festivities, the size of the crowds and the fashion choices of the wedding party.
But since marriage represents one of the most important factors in predicting a person’s happiness, this marriage – and all marriages – deserve deeper reflection than the press tends to give them.
Marriage is increasingly described as an economic transaction, with marriage rates dictated by the conditions of the “marriage market” – whether matrimony will improve or worsen one’s financial outlook. It increasingly serves as a “status symbol,” a means for couples to signal their rank by sharing photos of expensive engagement rings and extravagant honeymoons on social media. Scholars also suggest that marriage is becoming less of a lifelong commitment, with spouses entering and exiting more freely based on their individual level of satisfaction.
Beyond status, money and personal gratification, none of these trends delineate what a good marriage should actually look like, and what expectations each partner should have.
Fortunately, one of the greatest novels ever published – Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” which I teach regularly to my ethics students at Indiana University – provides deep insights on why some marriages thrive and others don’t.
The pitfalls of restless desire
“Anna Karenina” may have been published 140 years ago, but the doubts and desires of the characters ring true today.
The novel tells the story of four couples.
Dolly is the devoted mother of many children, while her husband, Stiva, cannot believe that he can be expected to devote his life to his family. The novel opens with a marital crisis precipitated by his infidelity.
Anna is a popular and astute socialite married to an honorable yet rather dry senior statesman, Karenin, who is 20 years her senior. Anna discovers that she longs for more.
Anna falls in love with Vronsky, a dashing cavalry officer who grew up in a wealthy but failed family, with no meaningful family life. Anna eventually leaves her husband for Vronsky, which results in her fall from societal grace.
Kitty is a debutante and Dolly’s younger sister, and Levin is a landowner searching for the meaning of life. Though Kitty initially rejects Levin’s overtures, the two later marry and become parents.
The rich human panoply of the novel cannot be boiled down into a few simple rules for a happy marriage. Yet it brims with insights on the differences between happy and unhappy families.
Consider Anna and her brother Stiva. Both see marriage as a contract into which they can enter or leave at will. Stiva cannot understand how a young red-blooded, convivial man such as himself could possibly find contentment by completely devoting himself to his wife, “a worn-out woman no longer young or good-looking, and in no way remarkable or interesting, merely a good mother.”
Surely life owes him more than that, he thinks.
Anna also finds her highly regimented marriage to Karenin less than satisfying and seeks the adventure of romantic love with Vronksy, a man to whom genuine family life is unknown. But ultimately even the lover of her dreams cannot rescue her from her perpetual dissatisfaction.
Levin is one of the characters who most realizes the richness of marriage. In preparing for his wedding, he “had thought his engagement would have nothing about it like others, that the ordinary conditions of engaged couples would spoil his special happiness; but it ended in his doing exactly as other people did, and his happiness being only increased thereby and becoming more and more special, more and more unlike anything that had ever happened.”
Levin is continually surprised by what he discovers of his wife, of parenthood, and of himself as husband and father.