Summary and Analysis
While Vronsky's life runs its normal course with its social and military obligations, his passion absorbs his entire inner life. "Society" has various reactions. The younger men envy him; his brother, who enjoys his own extramarital affairs, disapproves because "those whom it was necessary to please" disapprove. His mother thinking an affair in the highest society is "a finishing touch" for a promising young man, disapproves when she hears Alexey refused an important post in order to remain in Petersburg, and when she learns the affair is based upon a desperate, not graceful and worldly, passion. Meanwhile the women of Anna's circle await the turn of public opinion before falling upon her with the full weight of their scorn.
Besides his regimental and social interests, Vronsky is passionately fond of horses and racing. At this time, he has purchased an English thoroughbred and anticipates winning the officers' steeplechase. On the morning of the race he checks his mare, Frou-Frou, and, satisfied she is in the best possible condition, he drives to Anna's house. He resolves to put an end to their impossible position which demands so much lying and deceit. Anna's thoughtful pose impresses him anew with her beauty and grace, and he gazes enraptured until she feels his presence and turns to greet him. Vronsky perceives something new troubling her, but she is reluctant to answer his inquiry. Finally whispering, "I am with child," Anna brings the matter to a head. Vronsky insists that only divorce will "put an end to the deception in which we now live. Our fate is sealed." For fear of losing Seriozha, Anna refuses to consider divorce, but does not mention this to Vronsky. The sound of her son's voice ends their talk, and Vronsky drives to the race.
With mounting excitement, Vronsky watches as the English groom leads Frou-Frou in. Lean and beautiful, she moves as if on springs. Nearby a groom tends a strong, exquisite stallion, the lop-eared Gladiator who is Frou-Frou's chief competitor. Vronsky approaches the starting gate, following his rival Mahotin, Gladiator's rider. They are among seventeen officers competing in the nine hurdle race which runs a three mile elliptical course.
The white-legged Gladiator takes the lead. Frou-Frou. without any urging, increases her speed and draws up to the other horse on the outside, just as Vronsky would have asked her to. His affection for this responsive mount increases. Leading Mahotin's stallion, Vronsky knows he will win, for Frou-Frou's last reserve of strength is more than a match for the final jump. Increasing her speed, the mare clears the ditch. But at that instant, Vronsky makes a dreadful, unforgivable blunder: he drops back — too soon — in the saddle. The white-legged stallion flashes by, while Vronsky, with one foot on the ground, feels the mare sink beneath him. Not realizing his clumsy movement has broken her back, he tugs at the reins. Fluttering, she is unable to rise. In a sudden passion, he wrenches the lines, then savagely kicks her belly. A doctor and some officers run up, quickly deciding to shoot the mare. Vronsky leaves the race course; for the first time in his life he knows the bitterest kind of misfortune — misfortune beyond remedy, caused by his own fault.
It is significant that Anna's announcement of her pregnancy occurs at the same time Vronsky's passion for horses bears fruit, his imminent victory at the steeplechase. Both situations demand all the resources of which Vronsky is capable in order to meet the challenge. Both crises are confrontations with destiny.
With obvious significance, Tolstoy remarks that Anna and Vronsky appear to him as a fine mare and full-blooded stallion (an analogy which other critics have also pointed out). Mahotin's stallion wins the race, but the sensitive mare loses her life. The close relationship between rider and mount is akin to Vronsky's bond with Anna. The intensity of their unlawful love is like the intensity of the steeplechase with their life running a course of obstacles which both, as one, must overcome until their race against moral law is won.
But Frou-Frou's entire being exists for racing, Anna's for loving; that the mare breaks her back in fulfilling the purpose of her existence prefigures Anna's subsequent doom. Vronsky, however, does not share his horse's commitment to the race. Though he loves Frou-Frou while they are in the run, his passion for racing is basically frivolous and self-indulgent. The analogy applies to his love affair, where Vronsky, though deeply in love, is not committed to Anna as she is committed to him. That Vronsky's lack of commitment can make him destructive when his mount flounders (he kicks the mare) presages his hostility to Anna when their relationship becomes irritating.
Although Vronsky's horsemanship is unexcelled, Frou-Frou required a perfect rider. And Vronsky had missed perfection by a fatal blunder at the most critical moment. Anna as a sensitive, responsive woman, demanding all-consuming love from her lover, finds Vronsky unequal to meet her exacting requirements. This fatal, irreparable flaw in their relationship drives her to destruction.
The tragedy of the steeplechase, as well as of the doomed liaison, is not a function of Vronsky's horsemanship nor of an inability to love. It is rather a moral tragedy, implicit in human life, occurring whenever an individual confronts crisis. The critical moment provides an "historical necessity" whereby man's imperfectibility defines his destiny.