Leo Tolstoy “read a lot of English family novels,” his son Sergey later recalled, “and sometimes
joked about them.” The great Russian writer claimed that “these novels always end up with him
putting his arm round her waist, then they get married, and he inherits an estate and a baronetcy.
These novelists end their novels with him and her getting married. But a novel should not be
about what happens before they get married, but what happens after they get married.”
Novelist Jeffrey Eugenides has called this time-honored story line, mocked so savagely by
Tolstoy, the “marriage plot.” Although it dominates the fiction of Jane Austen, George Eliot,
Henry James, and other highly ranked authors in the heavyweight division, it is hardly limited to
the novel. Hollywood loves the marriage plot, and has been churning out romantic comedies built
on its premises for a hundred years. You will find it in TV dramas, comic books, reality shows,
Broadway musicals, stage plays, even pop songs and music videos. It might very well be the
most resilient story line in the history of Western narrative.
But for all its popularity, the marriage plot has fallen on hard times. As a professor of English
literature in Eugenides’ novel explains it: “the novel had reached its apogee with the marriage
plot and had never recovered from its disappearance. In the days when success in life had
depended on marriage, and marriage had depended on money, novelists had had a subject to
write about. The great epics sang of war, the novel of marriage. Sexual equality, good for
women, had been bad for the novel. And divorce had undone it completely. What would it matter
whom Emma married if she could file for separation later? How would Isabel Archer’s marriage
to Gilbert Osmond have been affected by the existence of a prenup?” The end result of all this:
“marriage didn’t mean much any more, and neither did the novel.”
Okay, it’s tempting to assign responsibility for the debunking of the marriage plot to modern
attitudes, but maybe we ought to give some credit to Leo Tolstoy too. No novelist did more to
challenge our presumptions about matrimonial bliss, most famously in Anna Karenina, but also
in other works where marriage is investigated and found wanting. In his final novel,
Resurrection, the prospect of a wedding emerges as almost a kind of penance for the
protagonist Nekhlyudov, a way to make amends for past indiscretions and transgressions
against women. Tolstoy’s 1889 novella The Kreutzer Sonata is even more extreme, presenting
the most skeptical view of marriage in all the annals of fiction.
The Kreutzer Sonata was not only censored in Russia, but even ran afoul of authorities in the
United States, where Teddy Roosevelt declared that its author was a “sexual moral pervert.” In all
fairness, Tolstoy could just as properly be accused of the exact opposite—he even makes a
case for abstinence in this work—yet it’s hard to contest the notion that his tale is strange and
extreme. For Emile Zola, The Kreutzer Sonata was a “nightmare, born of a diseased
imagination.” The poet and literary critic Donald Davie, my former teacher and mentor, was only
slightly less dismissive, labeling The Kreutzer Sonata as “a didactic tract disguised as a novel.”
Yet even many fierce critics have recognized the power of Tolstoy’s storytelling here, which
almost approaches the maniacal fervor of Edgar Allan Poe or the gothic noir sensibility of
Daphne du Maurier.
But Tolstoy paid a price on the home front for his fierce attack on matrimony. His wife Sophia
wrote “I do not know how or why everyone connected The Kreutzer Sonata with our own
married life, but this is what has happened….It has done me a great wrong, humiliated me in the
eyes of the world and destroyed the last vestiges of love between us.” Yet Sophia also played a
key role in the publication of this story—her personal intercession to Czar Alexander III led to a
lifting of the censorship ban in Russia.
Even so, Tolstoy’s best known work about marriage is his expansive 1877 novel Anna Karenina.
This book spans more than 800 pages, but you only need to get to the first sentence to realize
that its author is no admirer of the “marriage plot.” In one of the most famous openings in literary
history, Tolstoy declares: “All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is
unhappy in its own way.” And to prove that matrimonial bliss is not a suitable subject for the
novel, he immediately launches into a description of the turmoil at the Oblonsky household,
where the wife has discovered, as early as the second paragraph of the book, “an intrigue
between her husband and their former French governess.”
Strained marriages and infidelities are at the heart of this novel, but this opening impasse is
merely a preamble to the stresses ahead. In fact, Anna Karenina, whose tragic affair with
Vronsky is the centerpiece of the book, actually arrives on the scene to smooth over the tensions
at the Oblonsky home. In this novel, the same character can emerge as an upholder of marital
bonds at one turn, and betray them at the next.
Even the earliest readers could appreciate the debunking of the marriage plot in this story. When
the first installment appeared in Russian Messenger in 1875, it concluded with Anna’s beguiling
dance with Vronsky at a society ball—and the handsome cavalry officer is so infatuated with her
that he neglects the young debutante Kitty, who has been hoping for a proposal from him. She
has already rejected a proposal from the landowner Levin—a surrogate for Tolstoy in this book—
and he leaves Moscow crestfallen and despondent. We are still in the early stages of the novel,
but already everyone pursuing a “marriage plot” has experienced a shock.
As always, the harsh intrusion of reality on hopes and dreams is the trademark and strong suit of
Tolstoy’s work. And it’s a peculiar fixation for a cultural figure many have derided as idealistic
and out of touch with the real world. But this tension is precisely why Tolstoy was the most
beguiling of the realist novelists. Others were always more cynical and world-weary, but Tolstoy
somehow managed to reveal the ugly underbelly of society without losing those three Christian
virtues of faith, hope and charity. Can we say the same for Zola or Flaubert or Balzac?
We need to keep this in mind when we confront the betrayals at the heart of Anna Karenina.
Other novelists had written of adultery before Tolstoy—in fact, it was a well-known theme in
fiction, opera, folk ballads, and virtually every other form of popular storytelling. But Tolstoy’s
focus on the mismatch between human weakness and the lofty ideals of matrimony is his
particular specialty. He never shows the scorn for his title character that Flaubert reveals when
exposing the bêtises of his Madame Bovary or the irritation at social conventions Hawthorne
embeds in The Scarlet Letter. Indeed, Tolstoy is quite the moralist himself, and it’s clear from the
eventual fate of Anna that our author would never let her get off without paying a heavy price for
her liaison. Even so, he also shows deep empathy for her.
As is only proper for a true debunking of the marriage plot, Tolstoy is more suspicious of the
institution than of the people caught in its sometimes overwhelming demands. He understood
that tension because he lived it. Yes, he was cranky and domineering, and his own track record
as a husband and family man less than exemplary. But he was also steadfast, and his marriage
to Sophia lasted almost a half-century, producing thirteen children. His letters and journal entries
from the early days of their relationship even reveal a romantic idealism and devotion that almost
seem taken from the pages of an English family novel.
Divorce was quite rare in Russia at this juncture, but you would have never guessed it by
observing the Tolstoy family. His wife Sonya saw both her older sister and her brother get
divorced. When Tolstoy’s sister Maria separated from her husband and had a child with a
Swedish viscount, the novelist took great pains to secure a divorce, even getting permission
from a bishop. But Maria decided to avoid any open scandal, and remain at least nominally
married—soon her husband died, but by this time her lover had already abandoned her. This
troubled relationship no doubt influenced the story line and character development of Anna
But divorce was never an option for the author of Anna Karenina, despite the frequent conflicts
of his home life. In fact, his greatest romantic regrets were not that he had gotten married but
rather that he had seduced young peasant girls during his youth—a subject that would influence
his final novel Resurrection. That may be why Leo Tolstoy is so convincing in his deconstruction
of the marriage plot: he had constructed one for himself and lived through all of the resulting
complications and obstacles—many of them self-created.
So, yes, Tolstoy deserves our praise for deconstructing one of the most powerful storylines in
history, but we also ought to spare a little bit of compassion for the mistakes and stumbles that
made him such an expert on romance gone bad. How ironic that this author, who had devoted so
much energy to researching the historical details that animate War and Peace, hardly needed to
undertake so much archival sleuthing for this follow-up book. For the debunked marriage plot
was one subject that Mr. Tolstoy could research—for better or worse—without leaving his own
Ted Gioia is the author of eleven books, including the forthcoming Music: A Subversive History (Basic Books).
Publication date: April 18, 2019
Leo Tolstoy and the Marriage Plot
a website devoted to radical,
unconventional and experimental
fiction with a particular focus on the
rise of modernism and its aftermath.
After centuries as the most
popular theme for fiction, the
marriage plot is now in disrepute
and gradually disappearing from
all forms of storytelling. Did Leo
Tolstoy's sharp critique of
romance narratives serve as the
tipping point in the decline of
this once cherished genre?
Essay by Ted Gioia