So often I imagine I’m a bird
And can spread my wings and fly.
I used to be so free and happy,
But since I came here to live that’s all changed.

Kátya Kabanová

Marital Woes

Leoš Janáček’s 1921 opera, Kátya Kabanová, is foremost a study of marriage as a social institution and its effects on men and women in a world where divorce is not only frowned upon, but impossible even to imagine. Aleksandr Ostrovsky’s play The Storm, on which Janáček based his opera, premiered in Russia in 1859, and Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina, a quintessential tale of the married woman gone astray, was published in full in 1878. Both the play and the novel reflected the values and debates dominating Russian society of that era, including the Emancipation Reform of 1861 (and the events leading up to it), legal reforms, and the “woman question,” which included, among other things, women’s suffrage, property, legal and medical rights, and divorce and marriage laws.

In 1792, France became the first country in Europe to pass laws that made divorce possible by mutual consent. However in 1816, the new Restoration government abolished it completely as a product of the Revolution. The Divorce Act of 1857 legalized divorce in England, but in most countries, divorce remained illegal. In Tsarist, Russian Orthodox society, divorce was prohibited, except among very wealthy aristocrats who were not closely connected with the Tsar.

Both Ostrovsky’s Katerina, as the character was named in the play, and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina are trapped in unhappy marriages with no way out; both seek solace in doomed love affairs with unworthy men; and both commit suicide as a result, having lost everything: their lovers, their families, and the economic stability and social respectability that came with marriage, however miserable it was. Writing about Ostrovsky’s play, scholar Cynthia Marsh (1982) points out that Katerina’s situation was typical for many women of her era:

Katerina belongs to a particular class of Russian society which, by the mid-nineteenth century, had a distinctively traditionalist, reactionary and xenophobic character … Katerina’s treatment was typical of that endured by young married women in this society—her humiliation by her mother-in-law, the apparent indifference, even cruelty, of her husband, and her incarceration within the family house. As a result Katerina is haunted by images of freedom, and by a desire to escape.

Both Ostrovsky and Tolstoy provide a social critique of current marriage laws, and both seem to suggest that a loveless marriage is a particularly horrific fate for a woman. The story of Janáček’s Kátya, which, like Ostrovsky’s story, also takes place in 1860s Russia, is no different: she is the prototypical woman of her epoch.

Larry Wolff, a scholar of modern Europe, notes that “alienation and adultery in the provinces was an important theme of modernist literature, dating back to Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857).” Flaubert’s Emma, Ostrovsky’s Katerina, Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne (The Scarlet Letter, 1850), and Chekhov’s Masha (The Three Sisters, 1900) share a similar milieu: a backward, socially and culturally constricting province in which they clearly don’t fit, and whose oppressive values and conventions eventually destroy them. These stories, in which marriage and sexuality are woven into the socio-economic and moral fabric of the bourgeois life, are at once cautionary and empathetic tales.

Until Death

Written in 1921, Kátya Kabanová, however, reflects the world of its heroine as much as that of its writer. During the early 20th century, issues of love, marriage, and divorce continued to dominate public discourse throughout Europe, with sociologists and legal experts arguing about the social and cultural ramifications of the prevailing marriage laws, which in most cases continued to privilege men.

In his monumental 1930 statistical study of suicide in Victorian society, the sociologist Emile Durkheim, for example, noticed that the number of male suicides rose whenever divorce became more easily obtainable. With stricter divorce laws, the number of female suicides rose. Durkheim’s analysis of the relationship between divorce laws and differences in suicides rates between men and women ran counter to the traditional view of marriage: it is women, not men, who feel trapped by it. Durkheim concluded: “We now have the cause of that antagonism of the sexes which prevents marriage favouring them equally: their interests are contrary; one needs restraint and the other liberty.” Durkheim proposed a two-fold solution to this social problem: first, to prevent male suicides, he advocated stricter divorce laws; then, to prevent female suicides, he suggested giving women more freedom and independence outside of marriage. Writing about Durkheim’s study, the scholar Robert Alun Jones (1986) noted that:

…since monogamic matrimony provides no suicidal immunity to the wife, it is a gratuitous form of social discipline which she suffers without the slightest compensatory advantage. The traditional view of marriage—that its purpose is to protect the woman from masculine caprice, and to impose a sacrifice of polygamous instincts upon the man—is thus clearly false; on the contrary, it is the woman who makes the sacrifices, receiving little or nothing in return.

Durkheim saw marriage as a social necessity for curtailing men’s sexual—and hence self-destructive—impulses: “By forcing a man to attach himself forever to the same woman,” Durkheim observed, “[marriage] assigns a strictly definite object to the need for love, and closes the horizon,” thus also foreclosing a man’s all-consuming chase for the newest love object. If for Victorian men, marriage provided protection from the dangers of boundless freedom, for Victorian women, Durkheim noted, marriage, with all the legal, social, and emotional constraints it placed on them, was a bad deal.

Drowning in the River

Like Kátya’s affair, her suicide by drowning is also a quintessential ending to female-driven dramas of the period. Within the spheres of art and literature, the figures of Elaine, Crazy Jane, Ida, the Lady of Shalott, and other tragically drowned heroines dominated the turn-of-the-century artistic and literary scene. The emphasis on the way they died (drowning) and the reason (love) was meant to reiterate the gender difference; the images of love-struck and forlorn women emphasized their essential femininity, separate from and other to the masculine, thus brave and heroic, way of dying (such as by shooting or hanging). In her 1988 book Victorian Suicide, the scholar Barbara Gates pointed out that “inherent in these observations is an absurd prejudice in favor of bloodier suicides as being braver and therefore more manly.”

In his 1914 psycho-physical study of gender differences, Man and Woman: A Study of Human Secondary Sexual Characters, H. Ellis argued that “men prefer to adopt active methods of suicide, which are at the same time usually more deliberate and more repulsive[;] women prefer more passive methods, which are at the same time usually more decorous and require less resolute preparation.” Choosing a more spectacular and bloody form of suicide, Ellis suggested, was a sign of men’s intrinsic bravery, whereas choosing a less spectacular method, such as drowning, was a sign of women’s intrinsic weakness.

The turn-of-the-century fascination with and proliferation of suicidal women in art and literature, however, did not reflect the statistical reality: 19th-century women were actually four times less likely to commit suicide than men. Gates suggests that the excessive representation of suicidal females during the era was in fact a symptom of the subconscious displacement of men’s own self-destructive impulses onto women.

Ironically, the lower suicide rate among women was often interpreted as a sign of their intrinsic mental and physical weakness. In 1857, writing for the Westminster Review, George Henry Lewes argued that the lower suicide rate among women was due to women’s “greater timidity” and to “their greater power of passive endurance, both of bodily and mental pain.” In his 1893 study Suicide and Insanity: Psychological and Sociological Study, S. A. K. Strahan noted that “self-destruction has been more frequently practiced by the males than by the females.” The higher rate of suicide among men, however, Strahan attributed to men’s greater, and thus more stress-inducing, participation in public life. For Strahan, the lower suicide rate among women was caused by their intrinsic frailty:

Being the weaker physically and mentally, and because of the calls made upon her by her maternal duties, woman has of necessity taken second place in the struggle for existence in every civilization. Now, suicide is one of the results of this struggle, and man bears the burden of the fight, he suffers proportionately heavily from its after effects. As civilization advances the stress becomes greater, and as the stress increases so does self-destruction.

Among Victorian women who did commit suicide, however, most did so because of failed affairs or illicit pregnancies. In his 1846 short study on suicide, Karl Marx described multiple stories of women who had committed suicide out of shame or guilt. Marx argued that 19th-century women who were pregnant, abandoned, trapped in abusive marriages, seduced, or humiliated viewed suicide as a last-resort solution to shame those who humiliated them, abused them, or abandoned them. Like Durkheim, Marx also noted the relationship between female suicides and the sexual and marital politics of his era.

Originally posted at Boston Lyric Opera blog (2/18/15)

Works Cited

  • Den, Petr. “Notes on Czechoslovakia’s Young Theater of the Absurd.”Books Abroad 41, no. 2 (Spring 1967): 157–63.
  • Durkheim, E. Suicide: A Study in Sociology. New York: Free Press, 1930.
  • Ellis, H. Man and Woman: A Study of Human Secondary Sexual Characters. London: Walter Scott, 1914.
  • Gates, B. T. Victorian Suicide: Mad Crimes and Sad Histories. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988.
  • Johnson, R. A. Transformation: Understanding the Three Levels of Masculine Consciousness. San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991.
  • Marsh, Cynthia. “Ostrovky’s play The Thunderstorm.” In Leoš Janáček: Kát’a Kabanová, ed. John Tyrrell. Cambridge Opera Handbooks. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982. 38–47.
  • Marx, K. Marx on Suicide. Ed. Eric C. Plaut and Kevin Anderson. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964.
  • Strahan, S. A. K. Suicide and Insanity: Psychological and Sociological Study. London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1893.