This post is an expansion of the thoughts I wrote about Vronsky before. Vronsky is one of the finest characters in Anna Karenina, the young officer who falls in love with Anna, seduces her and for whom she leaves her husband. Vronsky is dashing, handsome, intelligent, high-spirited, and rich. So far that’s hardly remarkable, since these attributes are the stock and trade of his type of character, the charming seducer who sweeps the married woman’s feet off her ground. What is so remarkable about Vronsky and what elevates Anna Karenina above Madame Bovary and Cousin Bazilio is that he genuinely loves Anna. He’s not a rake or a Lothario who has a fling with Anna and then abandons her to her misfortunes. His love is sincere and to the best of his ability he tries to have an honourable life with her. This makes Anna Karenina all the more tragic because it’s a real love story rather than a cynical satire of romantic love.
It’s true that when we meet him, Vronskys is about to break Kitty’s heart by giving her false expectations of intending to marry her. His youth, beauty and joie de vivre make him careless and prevent him from seeing that he’s hurting anyone. In a way, he’s like Oblonsky, a married womanizer in the novel, too cheerful to care about anything:
He did not know that his behaviour toward Kitty had a name of its own, that it was decoying a girl with no intentions of marrying her, and is one of the evil actions common among brilliant young men like himself. He thought he was the first to discover this pleasure and he enjoyed his discovery.
He even has a sneering attitude for those ordinary people who build families, have mundane jobs and live boring lives:
In his Petersburg world people were divided into two quite opposite sorts. One – the inferior sort: the paltry, stupid, and, above all, all ridiculous people who believe that a husband should live with the one wife to whom he is married, that a maiden should be pure, a woman modest, and a man, manly, self-controlled and firm; that one should bring up one’s children to earn their living, should pay one’s debts, and other nonsense of that kind. These were the old-fashioned and ridiculous people. But there was another sort of people: the real people to which all his set belonged, who had above all to be well-bred, generous, bold, gay, and to abandon themselves unblushingly to all their passions and laugh at everything else.
But then he meets Anna and changes. He quits his military career to be with her. He once tries to commit suicide because of her. But he desperately wants to live with her, he wants Karenin to grant her a divorce so he can legally claim their daughter as his, and he wants to have a male child with Anna. In other words, with Anna he’s wiling to live the mundane, predictable life he censored others for living. Tolstoy masterfully captures Vronsky’s awareness of this change in himself:
He was angry with everybody for their interference, just because he felt in his soul that they were right. He felt that the love that united him with Anna was not momentary infatuation, which would pass, as Society intrigues do, without leaving any trace in the lives of the one or the other except pleasant or disagreeable memories. He felt all the torment of his and her position, all the difficulties they were surrounded by in consequence of their station in life, which exposed them to the eyes of the whole world, obliged them to hide their love, to lie and deceive, and again to lie and deceive, to scheme and constantly think about others while the passion that bound them was so strong that they both forgot everything but their love.
He’s aware this isn’t a mere fleeting love, coquetry. He wants to build his life with her, and to return with her into society as husband and wife. Of course he’s prey to the usual problems that affect all lovers: his love grows a bit weaker, he can’t abandon some of his past vices, his love for parties, entertaining friends and going out, a behaviour which upsets Anna as she grows more possessive of him. But for all their difficulties and Anna’s growing irritation and jealous paranoia that he’s cheating on her (he’s not), he’s a model husband, caring, affectionate, who continues to love her still after her death, and indeed finds her absence so unbearable he volunteers to serve in a war and hopes to die in it. At one point in the novel, Dolly, who almost left Oblonsky after he cheated on her, worries that Vronsky might get tired of Anna too, but he never does. Perhaps if their love had continued, they would have got tired of each other, that is always a possibility, but what we can glean from the text is that Anna’s death leaves Vronsky emotionally fractured, so heartbroken, that he has no alternative but to leave for war with the expectation of dying.