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Thursday, January 05, 2017

TOLSTOY: Anna Karenina (Part 1)

This 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.    

The 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.     

A 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.”

Meanwhile 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. 

Tolstoy has proved his point.  In this novel families really are unhappy in their own unique ways.


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