Anna Karenina and alienation

Screen Shot 2015-06-09 at 15.50.44A very modern real custody battle is in the news. This has been covered well by BBC R4 Today (1hr 47m), Judge Wildblood’s judgement (using and praising the media), and Karen Woodall’s post (and concern for what may now be made of it) – and no mention of Alienation either. A good contrast, then, with what we can learn from Leo Tolstoy’s 1878 novel, Anna Karenina.

If you don’t know the book, shorter versions are the 2012 film and a synopsis. As the adults mess up, how far does this gripping fiction show the patterns and concerns we name as Alienation … ordinary alienation or specific Child and Parental Alienation? The story is about the adults’ loves and affairs – the children are not of paramount concern. I have extracted (below) some relevant bits of the synopsis as the plot unravels. Are there other good novels we can draw on?

Three kinds of alienation

Social alienation: There is a long history of social alienation in academic thinking through centuries of theology, philosophy, sociology and psychology. Put very simply, most of these thinkers describe social alienation as a situation between an individual and their society. ‘Society’ causes it; and it’s not clear what ‘society’ is meant to do about it.

Child and Parental Alienation (PA): This label has been more recently given to a specific more interpersonal process and pattern in particular families. The pattern is significantly promoted by local social structures like extended families, and legal and other agencies. The pattern of PA has special features of its own. Tolstoy’s believable story, written and set in the 19th century, reminds those who need reminding that Alienation can happen with any genders. In this story, the son ends up Alienated from his mother.

Generic Interpersonal Alienation: In Not sure about? there is a rather more generic description of interpersonal Alienation (that applies to PA too): One person turns a second against a third in a lasting way without good reason. This can fit an affair that breaks up a marriage. But it doesn’t really fit here. Vronsky is pushing a door that Anna is already opening; and the reasons are debatably good or bad. As usual here on ‘the alienation experience’ blog, capital ‘A’ means the more specific interpersonal Alienation (including PA); and small ‘a’ means other more nonspecific alienation (including social alienation).

Alienation in Anna Karenina

It is fair to say that, as a result of her open affair with Count Vronsky, Anna is socially alienated from and by her society. She is in shame for breaking a moral code without a divorce to go with it. No one is accusing anyone of any abuse. The only ‘crime’ is that Anna and Vronsky are very open about, and act on, what many couples do but keep quiet about – a loveless marriage and an affair that breaks the legal and emotional vows. It is only in modern times in some countries that this has been legally and socially less frowned on.

It is also clear that, after Anna leaves for Vronsky, her ex’s new helper, Lydia – but not Karenin himself – tries and fails to Alienate the son, Seryozha, against his mother. Lydia tells him she is dead. Although he is mostly kept apart from his mother physically – there would be letters, but no phones or Skype then – Seryozha is not at that point Alienated towards her. He misses her and still responds fully and promptly, for example, in having a loving time with her on his mother’s birthday visit to him. Anna continues to miss her son. Screen Shot 2015-06-09 at 15.51.28

There’s an alternative view of the Anna Karenina story – more commonly in modern times we think of a different gender: a father not a mother goes away from his children. Anna tries to hold it all together including having both her children, or at least contact with her son. Tolstoy asks us how far is she to be held responsible, in that culture, for putting her love of Vronsky over staying in a loveless conventional family for the welfare of (her husband and) her children? A more modern concern for the children’s welfare and voice doesn’t show much in this novel nor in those still pre-Freudian times. How far is Karenin culpable, shaped by the mores and laws of society at the time, for putting Anna in the position where she has to choose between Vronsky and her family? And who shares what responsibility for her further misery and ultimate suicide – the end of any recoverable future relationship with children or anyone?

Years after the break-up

Years later however you could say that Seryozha’s “repressing all memory of his mother” might or might not be part of an Alienation. You could say that suppression might be Seryozha’s best way of coping with the loss and absence of his would-have-been still loved mother. Parental love 150 years ago in upper class Russia may have had a very different shape to our modern ideas. Fathers’ work was mostly outside the home. We don’t know how well Seryozha gets loved by his father but we know what Lydia and others think. Invisible servants may have been more important carers than the actual parents in some cultures and classes. This still happens – I was brought up in India with an ayah who loved me and wept for me, while my parents’ love showed in arranging boarding schools.

Anna apparently doesn’t get to meet her son when he is older. Did she try hard enough? So Seryozha’s response to actually seeing his mother again is not put to the test. Abduction or the failure of one parent to keep alive the relationship with the other parent over the years, or not to arrange for children to see their other parent, is a more passive, maybe less damaging, but just as real Alienation, isn’t it? Even if his mind was not turned against her, no contact means Seryozha gets no care or love from his mother.

Or it may be that Seryozha was more actively shaped or brain-washed into a negative if not hateful view of his mother. They might have tried to turn him against her, but privately he tried to keep his love alive. Though his feelings are repressed, if he were to meet his mother, he might have immediately or quite soon rekindled his relationship with her as can happen with Alienated children. The story does not go far enough into the future – and Anna’s suicide anyway makes Lydia’s earlier lie come true – so we don’t get to see if Seryozha later would think more for himself and perhaps initiate contact with his mother.

The prime concern of PA is the emotional harm that the children suffer. We can only guess at how badly affected Seryozha is by his Alienation. The grief and harm of their mother’s suicide for both children is another valid and related concern. Screen Shot 2015-06-09 at 15.52.07

The baby daughter, Seryozha’s half-sister, apparently does live with her parents, Anna and Vronsky. But she is not named and she’s hardly mentioned. Without a divorce, Vronsky and Anna don’t get legitimacy for their relationship nor their child. Despite the social disdain, Vronsky continues a prominent career. For their class, perhaps again servants did the childcare. Otherwise Tolstoy doesn’t bring Anna’s (son or) daughter into his extraordinary account of her deteriorating mental state and final suicide. As she headed to kill herself, Anna was not influenced by nor thinking of her children’s needs from her. Durkheim and others have written of suicide as a result of social alienation. But suicide can be an ultimate act of Alienation against everyone as well.

Whatever way you look at it, it is a terrible tragedy. The moral of the story in Tolstoy’s time is that we should put God and family life above our own needs. In our own time, we have opted for more secular freedoms that provide different solutions to many of our tragedies. But not all of them. We need to work hard to find ways to prevent the miserable stories like this one – and the ones in the news right now – that continue still in real life.

Finally, it seems that turning to well-known fictional families can be interesting and useful to illustrate and ask some questions about alienation and PA.  Please add your own thoughts in the comments box below. Are there other fictional families that you think would be useful? Thanks.

Nick Child, Edinburgh

~ ~ ~

Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy (1878)

Extracts from the synopsis here:

…. Locked in her empty sham of a marriage to Karenin, Anna heads off to the family’s country estate, where she and Vronsky continue their affair. Everything becomes even more complicated and awkward when Anna reveals to Karenin that she’s pregnant. And it really hits the fan when Karenin catches Vronsky in the front hallway of their country home. The next morning, Karenin ransacks Anna’s desk, finds Vronsky’s letters to her, and then consults a lawyer about getting a divorce.

Karenin … stops in Moscow … with the Oblonskys [Dolly and Stiva; Stiva is Anna’s brother] …. Dolly begs him not to divorce Anna: it would make her a social outcast. But this just makes Karenin more determined to end his marriage…

Before Karenin leaves Moscow, he receives a note from Anna saying that she’s dying and requesting him to come to her bedside. When he arrives, Anna’s baby girl has already been born, but Anna is deathly ill. At her delirious insistence, Karenin forgives both Anna and Vronsky and tells Anna that he’ll give her a divorce after all. Vronsky and Anna decide not to take the divorce, but they do drop everything and head to Europe together, leaving Karenin alone.

Back in Petersburg, Karenin turns out to be pretty bad at coping on his own. Luckily for him, a woman named Countess Lydia is in love with Karenin, and she’s more than willing to help him out. Lydia tells Seryozha (Anna’s eight-year-old son) that his mother is dead, but Seryozha doesn’t believe it. When Anna writes asking to see her son, Countess Lydia convinces Karenin that this is a bad idea. Anna shows up on Seryozha’s birthday anyway and has a joyful reunion with her boy.

But this creates tension between Anna and Vronsky: Anna refuses to talk to Vronsky about missing her son, but at the same time she blames Vronsky for letting her suffer alone. In fact, she’s getting increasingly resentful of the fact that Vronsky can still move around in society, while their affair has made Anna an outcast. She gets so upset by her outsider status that she and Vronsky immediately head back to the country  …

… When Dolly goes to visit Anna, she feels uncomfortable throughout her stay. Everything at the house is new, foreign, and expensive. Vronsky asks Dolly to talk to Anna about obtaining a divorce from Karenin in order to formalize their position as a couple, and give their children some legitimacy. ….

The more Anna clings to Vronsky, the more he feels like he needs some space. He’s very involved in public affairs and has an important role in the elections …. Towards the end of the election process, Anna pens a letter to Vronsky asking him to come home. He does so immediately. She’s convinced that Vronsky’s growing tired of her, and finally writes to Karenin to request a divorce.

Anna and Vronsky then move to Moscow to settle down as a married couple (except that they’re still not actually married. Karenin’s slow with the divorce). … Stiva Oblonsky persuades Levin [a friend of his] to meet Anna. He promptly falls for her …  Anna wonders why her charms are failing to work on Vronsky, if it’s so easy to seduce upright guys like Levin. She is frustrated because she feels like she has given up everything for Vronsky – her son with Karenin, her position in society – and now he doesn’t love her any more.

Stiva travels to Petersburg … to speak with Karenin about Anna’s divorce. While there, he sees Anna’s son, Seryozha. Seryozha has grown into a handsome boy, and has repressed all memories of his mother. Karenin needs to take pity on his estranged wife, Stiva argues, because Anna is being destroyed by the long wait for a divorce. Despite Anna’s own pitiable emotional state and his own promises, Karenin decides against the divorce.

Anna and Vronsky’s relationship is caught in a downward spiral, and Anna becomes increasingly clingy, neurotic, and certain that Vronsky is deliberately delaying his return to the countryside to avoid her. Her desperation ends with her suicide. Having gone to the train station to meet Vronsky, Anna instead throws herself under a train. The novel resumes almost two months later …. Vronsky views going to war as a quick and easy way to die. He’s depressed, and it seems that Anna got her last wish – both to rekindle his love for her and cause him suffering.

Meanwhile, out in the country, [happily married good guy] Levin continues to struggle with philosophical questions until a local peasant tells him that the purpose of life is “to live not for one’s own needs but for God”. As Levin struggles with this message, he has an epiphany that resolves his philosophical battles and affirms his faith in God. This leads him finally to embrace his love for his son and the importance of his domestic life. And that’s the end of Anna Karenina.

About Nick Child

Retired child and family shrink and family therapist living, working and playing in Edinburgh.

One comment

  1. Another case of a ‘rose by any other name’. I am reminded of a quote by the State of Victoria’s “(Australia) first Commissioner for the victims of crime that “the uncorroborated evidence of a child is hardly likely to result in a conviction [of sexual abuse]”.

    Yet, here we have a dual track legal system in which a parent risks being ‘convicted’ in the family law system but without even a prima facie case in the criminal law system. There is a set of double standards where a parent will only accept as ‘justice ‘ what they agree with. I am protecting my child indeed! In the absence of any evidence to suggest that the child is at risk? The major risk the child faces is of believing that something has been done to them based upon the climate of fear induced in them my the interrogating mother.

    This is alienation by any other name, yet poor lawmakers and child protection systems are unwilling to call it for what it is.


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