Women in Anna Karenina and One Hundred Years of Solitude are well characterized and shape the plot of the novels. Anna Karenina written by Leo Tolstoy is a nineteenth century novel tracing the lives of three families, the Oblonskys, the Karenins and the Levins. One Hundred Years of Solitude, written in 1967 by Gabriel Garcia Marquez follows the story of the Bundia Family for a hundred years in fictional Macondo. In both novels women are essential; yet they are portrayed very differently. However, it is worthwhile to take into account that the novels were written two centuries apart from each other, a time during which the position of women evolved. This paper will be comparing the position of women in Anna Karenina and One Hundred Years of Solitude, their treatment by the male characters and their role in society.
Women and men were clearly not treated equally in the high society of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. This can be observed through the theme of adultery with Anna and Stiva. Stiva and Anna both commit adultery and the consequences of their actions are exceedingly different. In addition to Stiva's wife, Dolly quickly forgiving her husband, Stiva's reputation and position in the society remains intact. On the other hand, Anna who lives the same situation is shunned and cast away from society. Mme Kartasov insults Anna by saying that it was a disgrace to sit next to her at the opera (p. 549) and her friend Princess Betsy refuses to visit her fearing that people will "throw stones at her" (p.529) if she associates herself with Anna. She is condemned to social exile and eventually commits suicide because of her betrayal whereas Oblonsky's recurrent infidelity does not cause him any distress and goes unmentioned after the first chapters of the book. This contrast in outcome shows that infidelity was acceptable for men but not for women. Pestov, Sergei's fellow philosopher, puts this view into words when he states at a dinner that "the inequality of spouses consists in the fact that the unfaithfulness of a wife and the unfaithfulness of a husband are punished unequally by the law and public opinion" (p.291). Stiva who almost forgets to apologise to his wife for his immoral actions can be used as proof that men were not worried about their situation with their wives after committing adultery. The importance of fidelity for women is nonetheless constantly underlined throughout the novel and not only through Anna. Levin "already saw himself as a deceived husband, who was needed by his wife and her lover only in order to provide them with the comforts of life and with pleasures" (p.490) when he sees a man flirting with his wife Kitty, which shows that women were not to have any affiliations with other men.
In comparison, the equality of sexes in One Hundred Years of Solitude is supported throughout the novel. This is demonstrated by the two arguably most important woman of the novel, Ursula and Pilar Ternera. Ursula is one of the founders of Macondo and the matriarch of the Bundia family. She lives the longest and takes care of the family and of her delirious husband, keeping the house from falling apart and ensuring the continuation of the family line; "As long as Ursula had full use of her faculties some of the old customs survived and the life of the family kept some quality of her impulsivenessâ€¦ no one but she determined the destiny of the family." (p.228). She is the strong character of the book. Unlike the women in Anna Karenina, she wields authority, and perhaps the most authority of all the characters. For instance, she banishes José Arcadio and Rebecca when she finds out about their affiliation, and when her son Colonel Aureliano Buendia, plans to execute General Moncada, she stands up for the general and says to her son "But don't forget that as long as God gives us life we will still be mothers and no matter how revolutionary you may be, we have the right to pull down your pants and give you a whipping at the first sign of disrespect" (p.162). Pilar Ternera shows that women were identical to men in a different way, through sexuality. She could be said to be the "sexual" matriarch of Macondo and of the Bundia family as she has children with both Aureliano Buendia and Jose Arcadio and had sexual intercourse with Aureliano and Arcadio. Despite this, no one judges her and she is integrated into society.
How men perceive the women in Anna Karenina is overtly revealed during a dinner at the Oblonsky's house where the guests discuss education and the rights of women. Pestov, Sergei and Alexei came to agree that "Woman desires to have rights, to be independent, educated. And she is oppressed, humiliated by the consciousness of her disabilities" (p.389).This demonstrates their belief of women being inferior; incapable to do what they, men, do. During their discussions, moreover, they express their thoughts about how they do not understand why women would want to seek new obligation as they already have to take care of the family. Dolly perfectly fits into what they seem to expect from a woman: she pours her life into her six children and remains with her husband despite his infidelity. Also, during Kitty and Levin's wedding, the priest articulates that "the women are joined to the man for the procreation of the human race".(p.501) His statement exhibits the sole role of women in the nineteenth century; that of childbearers. It seems in Anna Karenina that men's primary interests are outside the home, whereas women, like Dolly and Kitty, centre their existence within the family. Ironically and contradicting the women's dependent role, Oblonsky needs his wife to save his honour more than anyone as Dolly has her own fortune that is much needed to pay his debts.
Similarly, in One Hundred Years of Solitude, Ursula's life revolves around her family. She brings up and educates her three children almost alone and manages the house; "Thanks to her the floors of tamped earth, the unwhitewashed mud walls, the rustic, wooden furniture they built themselves were always clean, and the old chests where they kept their clothes exhaled the warm smell of basil". (p85). However, there are also women like Pilar Ternera, Petra Cotes, Rebecca and Renata Remedios who express their sexuality and are not shunned from society although Pilar Ternera was criticized by Ursula who forbade her from coming to see her son at her house. Despite this, Gabriel Garcia Marquez seems to want to demonstrate that the women who were having unconventional relationships were happier than the women who adhered to strict Catholic principles religious morals like Fernanda Del Carpio. Through the coupling of Petra Cotes and Aureliano Segundo which increased the proliferation of the animals, it appears that the author in an exaggerated way wants to endorse the practice of "free love" by illustrating their love as illicit yet blessed by financial success.
Not all women in Anna Karenina succumb to the role of housewife. Betsy, who is among the elite of the Petersburg society, lives in stark contrast to expectations. She is married but believes that marriage is a conservative idea that everyone undertakes merely for society's sake. She cheats on her husband blatantly and does not have any concern of for judgements of morality or religion. Yet, she is the 'queen' of high society; everyone knows her and attends her social events. Betsy goes against what was expected of women in society, but at the same time, she is the leader of Petersburg's social sect. She is nonetheless not highly regarded; Alexei Karenin sees in Princess Betsy "an embodiment of that crude force which was to guide his life in the eyes of the world and which prevented him from giving himself to his feeling of love and forgiveness" (p 560). The fact that she is able to move with such impunity with her husband never mentioned in the novel is perhaps due to the fact that Betsy's husband does not hold the same status as the Karenins and others. One cannot help noticing the similarity between the characters of Pilar Ternera and Betsy. While Pilar Ternera conflicts with society's "proper" behaviour epitomized by Ursula and Fernanda del Carpio, giving birth to the children of both Aureliano Buedia and Jose Arcadio and becoming the matron of a brothel, openly stating "I'm happy knowing that people are happy in bed," (p301), Betsy is avant-garde in the Russian orthodox aristocracy and goes against social norms by having extra-marital activities.
In conclusion it is possible, from the male writers' depiction of the female characters in both novels, to trace the slow evolution of women's ability to remove themselves from male dependency. It is noteworthy that both authors use sexuality and infidelity as themes of assertion and independence. The expression of sexuality as represented in both novels equates it to a form of liberation, the freedom to do as one pleases, regardless of gender, and regardless of society's moral, civic or religious judgement. This choice gives rise to the understanding that the repression of women throughout the time span of both novels served to benefit male dominated society. Although the major themes were sexual, the underlying message was about acting with freedom of choice. The women in both novels who showed freedom in their choices were brave and courageous and although the writers showed these women's' independence through sexual activity, the possibility for this activity to take place began in the liberation of their minds.