4

Alexei Vronsky is first mentioned by Stepan Oblonsky, in Part One chapter XI. This is how he is presented there by Stiva (Pevear translation):

Vronsky is one of the sons of Count Kirill Ivanovich Vronsky and one of the finest examples of the gilded youth of Petersburg. I got to know him in Tver, when I was in government service there and he came for the conscription. Terribly rich, handsome, big connections, an imperial aide-de-camp

However, later in the novel, the reputation of his family - notably, his mother - is called into question multiple times. For example, when Stiva implies Vronsky was probably considered by the Shcherbatsky's to be more aristocratic than Konstantin Levin, Levin protests:

You consider Vronsky an aristocrat, but I don’t. A man whose father crept out of nothing by wiliness, whose mother, God knows who she didn’t have liaisons with... No, excuse me, but I consider myself an aristocrat and people like myself, who can point to three or four honest generations in their families’ past

I believe the questionable reputation of Vronksy's mother was mentioned in some other places too.

Wouldn't that reputation be a huge problem in Russian society of the time, by itself enough to lower Vronsky's social status below that of Levin?

Also, I would assume that lineage would be crucial to aristocratic status, so how can Vronky's family be considered very noble if they can't trace four generations back? And what of the description of Vronsky's father as a man who "crept out of nothing by wiliness"?

In short, I cannot reconcile the apparent contradiction between the fact that many characters in the novel consider Vronsky to enjoy a very high aristocratic status, while at the same time multiple sources treat his mother's reputation as notoriously compromised, and Levin at least presents his ancestors generally and his father specifically as having little or no aristocratic status.

3

I'll give it a go.

I'll start with providing an extended quote from Levin's dialogue with Oblonsky:

'Aristocratism, you say. But allow me to ask, what makes up this aristocratism of Vronsky or whoever else it may be - such aristocratism that I can be scorned? You consider Vronsky an aristocrat, but I don't. A man whose father crept out of nothing by wiliness, whose mother, God knows who she didn't have liaisons with... No, excuse me, but I consider myself an aristocrat and people like myself, who can point to three or four honest generations in their families' past, who had a high degree of education (talent and intelligence are another thing), and who never lowered themselves before anyone, never depended on anyone, as my father lived, and my grandfather. And I know many like that. You find it mean that I count the trees in the forest, while you give away thirty thousand to Ryabinin; but you'll have rent coming in and I don't know what else, while I won't, and so I value what I've inherited and worked for... We're the aristocrats, and not someone who can only exist on hand-outs from the mighty of this world and can be bought for twenty kopecks.

'But who are you attacking? I agree with you,' said Stepan Arkadyich sincerely and cheerfully, though he felt Levin included him among those who could be bought for twenty kopecks.”

It is important to note that Levin says the above while being offended by the fact that his proposal was turned down by Kitty Shtcherbatskaya (or, rather, by her mother - as Stiva tries to reassure him), and the higher social status and the wealth of Vronsky was presumably the main reason.

Levin here outlines his personal view on what he considers to be "true aristocratism" and this view is a bit idealistic, with the stress on 'honesty', 'reputation', 'education' and the independence "from the mighty of this world".

So, to comment on your specific questions:

Wouldn't that reputation be a huge problem in Russian society of the time, by itself enough to lower Vronsky's social status below that of Levin?

No, not really. A few idealists like Levin might have despised you but as long as you're rich and stick to the aristocratic life style (banquets, balls, duels, etc) you'd be surrounded by crowds of people looking up at you. Besides, it was his mother whose reputation was questionable, not him.

Also, I would assume that lineage would be crucial to aristocratic status, so how can Vronsky's family be considered very noble if they can't trace four generations back?

We don't, actually, know about the lineage, Levin speaks about "three or four honest generations in their families' past" but, as I said, this view wouldn't be shared by many.

And what of the description of Vronsky's father as a man who "crept out of nothing by wiliness"?

Tolstoy never explains what exactly is meant by "crept out of nothing by wiliness (in other translations: by intrigue)" in regards to Vronsky's father (at least I couldn't find anything on this), so we are left to make any sort of wild guesses. I would assume that Vronskys are a noble family in many generations but only his father somehow managed to creep into the "top of the tops" and acquire great wealth.

Anyway, apart from Levin, everyone else refers to the de-facto aristocratism of Vronsky - he is a Count, very rich, graduated from a very prestigious military school and so on.

Updated: In a way, you can see it as two different meanings of the word aristocrat being used here and the difference is somewhat similar to the meaning of "gentleman" in English as outlined here:

For most of the Middle Ages, when the basic social distinction was between nobiles (the tenants in chivalry, whether earls, barons, knights, esquires, or freemen) and ignobiles (serfs, citizens, and burgesses) the word gentleman was roughly equivalent to nobilis.

In this sense, Vronsky is definitely an aristocrat. Levin, however, refers to the moral aspects of what he calls the real aristocratism, as in (from the same source):

In general, however, the modern "gentleman" is well mannered rather than necessarily well bred or well off.

Hope this helps.

| improve this answer | |
  • Thanks! You state that Levin wasn't refused by Kitty Shtcherbatskaya, but rather by her mother. That claim is presented by Stiva in the same conversation from which I quoted. However, Stiva makes a consistent habit of telling his companions whatever they'd most like to hear, with little concern to truth or honesty. In fact earlier in the novel, he told Levin the exact opposite: that Kitty's parents favor his proposal. In both cases his statement seem to be based on nothing, and is in fact manifestly untrue in both of them. – Goh May 30 at 15:58
  • Kitty's feelings for Vronsky are far stronger than her feelings to Levin, especially in the romantic sense. Consider for example her emotional reaction upon meeting him again. She refuses him very much of her own accord, and despite her father's strong preference for him and dislike of Vronsky. Note that Kitty is much more fond of her father than her mother, and her mother would not be able to prevent Kitty from accepting Levin if it was her wish to do so. – Goh May 30 at 16:00
  • I accept much of your answer, including specifically the observation that much of the negative light on the Vronskys is cast by Levin's very particular definitions of "aristocratic", which may be unconventional, or even counter-conventional. However, I am not certain that it would be so easy for a woman to get away with multiple affairs. Isn't a major point of the novel that Stiva (a man) could get away with multiple affairs, while his sister Anna was entirely ruined by just one such affair? – Goh May 30 at 16:04
  • @Goh It's been a long while since I've actually read the novel. I had to quickly browse through a few chapters to produce this "attempt of an answer". You're right that "rather by her mother" comes from Stiva. However, he's not exactly lying or making things up - he assumes that the mother might have influenced the decision and this is a reasonable assumption. Going against your parents' wishes, ignoring their disapproval was a very rare thing at that time. Possible but rare and "dangerous"... Anyway, busy at the moment but I'll come back to this later. – tum_ May 30 at 17:24
  • Hi again. Having re-read this whole thread I'm starting to doubt I understand your question correctly. Could you elaborate a bit on the definition of the "social status"? I'm not a native English speaker and as soon as I read the question title I started to think in the direction of "the hierarchical position in the society". But then seeing you discussing the Vronsky's mother "liaisons" and comparing her to Anna's fate - I'm no longer sure I follow. These things are sort of tangential. – tum_ May 31 at 16:43

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.