novel begins with the famous line “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy
family is unhappy in its own way.” That
sounds good; but is it true? Does it make
just as much sense if we said: Unhappy families are all alike; every happy
family is happy in its own way?
Maybe. But not in Tolstoy’s
novel. It’s kind of like accepting one
of the Postulates in Euclid’s Elements of geometry. For example, Euclid starts off by asking the
reader to accept (for the sake of argument) that we can “draw a straight line
from any point to any point.” Tolstoy
asks the reader of Anna Karenina to accept as fact that happy families are
alike but unhappy families are unhappy in their own unique ways. From that starting point Tolstoy creates a
work of art.
novel begins with an unhappy family. A
husband and wife are quarreling. The
wife (Dolly) has just found out that her husband (Stepan) has been having an
affair with their governess. “What’s
this? this? she asked, pointing to the letter.” Of course Stepan is upset because he’s made Dolly
upset and wants to smooth things over.
Adultery is bad no doubt and having an affair with the governess is rather
tacky but really, deep down, “All he repented of was that he had not succeeded
better in hiding it from his wife.” To
make matters worse, Dolly has money and “the most unpleasant thing of all was
that his pecuniary interests should in this way enter into the question of
reconciliation with his wife.” The
Arkadyevitch family (Stepan, Dolly, their children and the servants) are one
unhappy family. Sex and money are
classic problems for all married couples but in the Arkadyevitch family it
produces its own unique brand of unhappiness.
little further on in the novel we meet Dolly’s parents. They’re quarreling too but they’re unhappy
for a different reason. The old prince
(Dolly’s father) hasn’t been unfaithful.
Their quarrel springs from a different source, the kids. Dolly’s younger sister, Kitty, has come of
marrying age. Two young bachelors are vying
for Kitty’s attentions; Levin and Count Vronsky. “The prince was on Levin’s side and he wished
for nothing better for Kitty.” The old
prince thinks Levin is unpretentious and would make a fine husband for his youngest
daughter. But “in the mother’s eyes
there could be no comparison between Vronsky and Levin. She disliked in Levin his strange and
uncompromising opinions and his shyness in society, founded, as she supposed,
on his pride and his queer sort of life, as she considered it, absorbed in
cattle and peasants.” On the other hand “Vronsky
satisfied all the mother’s desires. Very
wealthy, clever, of aristocratic family, on the highroad to a brilliant career in
the army and at court, and a fascinating man.
Nothing better could be wished for.”
this Vronsky fellow is emerging from an unhappy family life himself. “Vronsky had never had a real home-life. His mother had been in her youth a brilliant
society woman who had had during her married life, and still more afterwards,
many love-affairs notorious in the whole fashionable world.” Of course all mom’s affairs left their mark
on the young man. He liked flirting with
women but that was all. “It never even
entered his head that there could be any harm in his relations with Kitty.” Kitty, and especially Kitty’s mom, think
Vronsky intends to marry her. They don’t
realize the truth. “Marriage had never
presented itself to him as a possibility.
He not only disliked family life, but a family, and especially a husband
was, in accordance with the views general in the bachelor world in which he
lived, conceived as something alien, repellent, and, above all, ridiculous.” So much for Vronsky.
has proved his point. In this novel families
really are unhappy in their own unique ways.