In this section, Tolstoy uses the dinner party discussion of local politics to explore the notion of social commitment. Vronsky comes across as high-minded in his eloquent assertion that Russian nobles must serve their governmental duties, affirming a vital political and social role for the aristocracy. But his praise of social duty may be hollow, an idea put forth for show but lacking substance—just like Vronsky’s state-of-the-art hospital, which seems to have been constructed more with the aim of being an architectural wonder than a practical facility. Vronsky may feel lofty social sentiments, but we trust Levin more, understanding his complaints that the local courts are bureaucratic and inefficient. Levin has had more hands-on political experience than Vronsky, having served on a zemstvo, so we give his cynicism about Russian local politics more weight. Moreover, the local elections at Kashin make us feel the futility of local social institutions even more sharply. Despite all the fanfare, most local landowners appear to agree that the vote is meaningless. All the bluster and attention leads to nothing of importance. As Vronsky figures large in the elections, we may associate this empty bluster with his character.
Tolstoy’s brand of feminism, in the sense of attention to the political and social oppression of the women of his era, is strongly evident in these chapters, beginning with the unforgettable portrait of Dolly meeting the happy Anna on horseback. At the time, as the narrator hints, it was almost scandalous for a grown woman to ride on horseback. Tolstoy thus purposely portrays Anna in a radically unconventional pose. The symbolic contrast with Dolly is noticeable. We note that Dolly’s journey to Anna’s house is enabled entirely by men: Dolly is transported by a male driver, on horses borrowed from another man, Levin. Anna, on the other hand, is in control of her own movement, guiding the horse directly. When Dolly compares herself to Anna immediately upon meeting her, noting the differences in the aging of their faces, we feel that Dolly is already envious of Anna’s independence and its benefits. Yet Tolstoy reminds us that Anna’s independence is far from complete, noting how she fumes over the fact that Vronsky enjoys far greater rights than she. Vronsky can travel at will, while she is stuck at home. Symbolically, Anna is on the road to women’s emancipation but has not yet arrived.
Tolstoy’s treatment of motherhood here may indicate the limitations of his feminist sympathies. As Anna pursues her freedom, Tolstoy deprives her of a maternal role—not only does she lose custody of Seryozha and feel ambivalence toward her baby girl, but her illness also leaves her unable to have any more children. Some readers feel that Tolstoy demonstrates an old-fashioned sexism in insisting that an independent woman automatically becomes both infertile and a bad mother. But we should not necessarily label Tolstoy a misogynist. The sexist ideas that appear here—such as Dolly’s idea that Anna will be unable to keep Vronsky after her beauty fades, which equates a woman’s desirability only with her physical appearance—are not necessarily Tolstoy’s. The author may circulate ideas that provoke dissent and reflection in the reader without agreeing with them himself. In any case, we must exercise caution in assessing Tolstoy’s views toward women.