Vengeance on Whom

Periodically, when some new sex scandal among politicians breaks, or some old one shows up again unwanted, we are treated to a series of hand-wringing essays about what this or that action means about the implacable entitlement of men, or, alternatively, how our evolutionary makeup makes philandering among the powerful inevitable.

But another perspective is that the reason these stories of men behaving badly are of such intense interest and so widely discussed is because married men’s moral life is of intense interest to our culture. We are willing to- even eager to- judge them, while the stakes of women’s choices have perhaps faded away somewhat, as feminism steps in to defend almost any arrangement or decision.

This is an obvious contrast with 19th century literature: in Madame Bovary or A Doll’s House or Middlemarch, a married woman’s sexual and domestic choices are interesting as literature because they are open to moral judgement, because those choices- to stay or go, to suffer or stray- are given moral weight by the society. This is most obvious in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the epigraph to which establishes the theme of judgement and retribution up front:

Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” – Romans 12:19

One of the main themes in Anna Karenina is the contrast between Anna herself, who is utterly destroyed when she strays from her marriage, and her brother Stepan Arkadyevitch (Stiva) Oblonsky, a cheerful and popular civil servant and minor politico who gaily strolls along, philandering with gusto and doing damage to his family and others wherever he goes. In the beginning of the novel, we learn that his conscience is entirely free when he is found out for sleeping with the governess, and that he only regrets getting caught:

Stepan Arkadyevitch was a truthful man in his relations with himself. He was incapable of deceiving himself and persuading himself that he repented of his conduct. He could not at this date repent of the fact that he, a handsome, susceptible man of thirty-four, was not in love with his wife, the mother of five living and two dead children, and only a year younger than himself. All he repented of was that he had not succeeded better in hiding it from his wife. But he felt all the difficulty of his position and was sorry for his wife, his children, and himself. Possibly he might have managed to conceal his sins better from his wife if he had anticipated that the knowledge of them would have had such an effect on her. He had never clearly thought out the subject, but he had vaguely conceived that his wife must long ago have suspected him of being unfaithful to her, and shut her eyes to the fact. He had even supposed that she, a worn-out woman no longer young or good-looking, and in no way remarkable or interesting, merely a good mother, ought from a sense of fairness to take an indulgent view. It had turned out quite the other way.

‘Oh, it’s awful! oh dear, oh dear! awful!’ Stepan Arkadyevitch kept repeating to himself, and he could think of nothing to be done. ‘And how well things were going up till now! how well we got on! She was contented and happy in her children; I never interfered with her in anything; I let her manage the children and the house just as she liked. It’s true it’s bad her having been a governess in our house. That’s bad! There’s something common, vulgar, in flirting with one’s governess. But what a governess!’ (He vividly recalled the roguish black eyes of Mlle. Roland and her smile.)

Indeed, almost no one in Tolstoy’s novel is willing to hold Stiva’s actions against him; the narrator may judge, but no one else does.  Vengeance is repaid in spades upon Anna for falling in love with a man who isn’t her husband, and for abandoning her son, while no vengeance of any kind (at least in this life) descends upon her brother.

Has this changed? Has the double standard faded? It certainly seems as if it has. But I think it is an open question whether that is a favor to women or to men.

One simple observation that has struck me throughout my adult life is that, for all the ways in which the legal (and arguably cultural) terrain of marriage has shifted away from men’s favor, the men I know who have the option of marrying someone they love generally do so, and are happy to have done so. Those who no longer marry are overwhelmingly those with fewer options and less economic security, not more. And while “happiness research” is subject to its share of fair criticisms, one can’t entirely ignore patterns like this:

By many objective measures the lives of women in the United States have improved over the past 35 years, yet we show that measures of subjective well-being indicate that women’s happiness has declined both absolutely and relative to men. The paradox of women’s declining relative well-being is found across various datasets, measures of subjective well-being, and is pervasive across demographic groups and industrialized countries. Relative declines in female happiness have eroded a gender gap in happiness in which women in the 1970s typically reported higher subjective well-being than did men. These declines have continued and a new gender gap is emerging—one with higher subjective well-being for men.

Being the subject of moral judgement is a burden but also a gift.


8 thoughts on “Vengeance on Whom

  1. “feminism steps in to defend almost any arrangement or decision.”

    Is this true? For example, when Kristin Stewart cheated on the vampire guy, did feminist defend her? (That’s the only recent high profile female cheating story I can think of off the top of my head.)


    1. I was thinking more of the endless stream of “I had an open marriage and it made me a better mom”-style essays- more specific to marriage. Were Stewart and the vampire guy married or just involved?


      1. Taylor Swift’s serial devouring of men and then singing about it might be a better and more comparable parable of never married serial monogamy… which might better be characterized as sequential adultery.


      2. An interesting point; I don’t know any Swift songs apart from Shake it Off, but it does seem like we’re more averse to “love songs” as a category and more inclined to “no longer in love” or “never in love” songs in general; I’m sure there’s an ebb and flow, though


  2. I cannot imagine a female politician getting caught cheating and not suffering worse condemnation than their male conterparts.


    1. I think the main way we work out these issues is just by not investigating and publicizing claims very thoroughly, just as innumerable affairs of male politicians were routinely ignored up through George HW Bush or so. I don’t think the judgmental nature/obsession with scandal of our media landscape is necessarily a good thing, but behavior within marriage, particularly for men, is one of the few bulwarks against general permissiveness; that does seem to be a good thing. (eg, )


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