Tolstoy didn’t write the novel Darya Oblonskaya. But he could have done. For Darya Oblonskaya – Dolly in Anna Karenina – is, in her own way, just as tragic a figure as is Anna.
I’ve heard it said that Tolstoy didn’t take Dolly’s predicament very seriously. That while he punished Anna’s sexual transgression, the various sexual transgressions of Dolly’s husband Stiva are taken more lightly. I have even heard this excused on the grounds that Tolstoy was, after all, a man of his times, and that he was but reflecting the patriarchal values of his times. So, as a consequence, Anna is punished, but Stiva isn’t.
Quite apart from confusing the values of the author with the values of the society that author is depicting; and, further, seeing quite needlessly in the fates of fictional characters the author’s own judgement on his creations; such views seem to me to the views of people who haven’t read the novel with adequate care. For Dolly, right from the start, is a tragic character.
At the very start of the novel, Stiva is in an awkward situation. His wife has found out about his harmless little affair, and he is forced to sleep on the settee in the library. But what to Stiva is but an awkward situation – and one he quite easily puts out of mind when he goes in to work – is, to Dolly, nothing short of a disaster. Still only in her thirties, she is burdened with all the household responsibilities that her husband finds too uninteresting to bother with; she is worn out with constant childbearing and nursing; and she has lost her youthful good looks, and knows – as indeed, does her husband, honest in this respect if not in all others – that she is no longer loved. And on top of all this is the insult – the sheer humiliation of it all. And yet, what can she do? She has to stay, to continue with this humiliating situation, because, quite literally, she has nowhere else to go to. If this is not tragic, I don’t know what is: if Anna’s tragedy is that of a woman who leaves her family, Dolly’s tragedy is of a woman who doesn’t.
Much later in the novel, when Anna, as a “fallen woman”, is beyond the pale of respectable society, Dolly makes the brave decision to visit her. And on the way there, she daydreams of doing what Anna has done – to leave her family, to relinquish all the worries and troubles that have so devastated her life. Anna, when Dolly sees her, seems at first happy and carefree. But later, Dolly is shocked to see the real mental state of her friend. Anna is what we would now describe as “clinically depressed”: she has to take opium to rid herself, at least momentarily, of those thoughts that torment her so. Dolly returns from her visit thinking that her fate isn’t so bad after all. But she is perhaps mistaken in this. Anna’s tragic fate we all know about: Dolly has to continue with her unloved, humiliating existence, without remission, for the rest of her life, while her husband continues, quite unembarrassed, with a string of further affairs. And Dolly has to accept because, once again, she has literally nowhere else to go.
Tolstoy does not pass judgement, either on Dolly, or on Stiva, or even on Anna or Vronsky or Karenin. Indeed, he made a point of not passing judgement on anyone. He depicted, with utmost honesty, and leaving nothing out – merely trying to understand why people think and act as they do, and to what extent people are morally responsible. Any judgement we form is our own.