In one of the few things written about writing worth reading, Edith Wharton insisted that the story of a novel should be implicit on the very first page. In Anna Karenina the story is implicit in the very first sentence: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Leo Tolstoy, one of the greatest novelists who ever wrote, tries to describe, and by describing explain, what makes the “happy family” the standard by which to measure all the other marriages that are, each of them, unhappy in their own way. He begins with the unhappy family of Prince Stepan Arkadyich, known as Oblonsky.
Oblonsky holds a high position in the Tsar’s government because his sister, Anna Karenina, is married to Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin who occupies one of the most important government offices. Oblonsky’s wife, Princess Darya Alexandrovna, known as Dolly, is the older sister of the eighteen year old Princess Ekaterina Alexandrovna Shcherbatsky, whom everyone calls Kitty. Oblonsky, we should note right at the beginning, does not have a mind of his own – and this is the genius of Tolstoy – neither do most of the others. Oblonsky holds the same views on important subjects “as the majority and his newspaper did, and changed them only when the majority did or, rather, he did not change them, but they themselves changed imperceptibly in him.” He was a liberal because, among other reasons, the liberal party said marriage was an obsolete institution and in need of reform, “and indeed family life gave Stepan Arkadyich little pleasure and forced him to lie and pretend.” Like nearly everyone else he knew, Oblonsky believed that it was the “aim of civilization to make everything an enjoyment.”
Because they come to define the essential difference between a happy and an unhappy family, the two most important characters in the novel are Oblonsky’s sister, Anna Karenina, and his sister-in-law, Kitty, both of whom are in love with Count Alexei Kirillovich. Because Kitty is in love with him, she turns down the proposal of a friend of Oblonsky’s, Konstantin Levin. Vronsky is very rich, very well-born, very Intelligent, with a brilliant military and court career ahead of him, all of which means that he can give himself “to every passion without blushing and laughs at everything else.” He does not want to marry Kitty or anyone else.
It is important to remember that this is a Russian novel. Everyone, everyone except Vronsky, is really quite miserable. Oblonsky is miserable because of too many women and too many debts. His wife, Dolly, is miserable because of his many infidelities. Kitty is miserable because Vronsky does not want her, and Levin is miserable because Kitty does not want him. The winters in Moscow and Petersburg are very long and very cold. And then Vronsky meets Anna Karenina and, forget the season, the summer heat has arrived.
The moment Vronsky meets Annna he cannot take his eyes off her. He immediately begins his pursuit, a pursuit that is the “very thing her soul desired but that her reason feared.” Everything changes. She begins to notice, more than she had before, how much she dislikes her husband’s looks, and she becomes aware, more aware than she had been before, of her feelings of dissatisfaction with herself. She even begins to find something like disappointment in her young son. It is an unhappy marriage: a much older husband, physically unattractive, every minute of his life “occupied and scheduled,” and a wife, more beautiful than any woman in Petersburg, falling in love with one of the most handsome and charming men in Russia.
Anna Karenina is not a story that would be a story today, when most marriages end in divorce, and divorce is almost never the source of scandal, but in 19th century Russia when government and society were both organized in a strict hierarchy, the relations between men and women were guided and controlled by a clear and unbreakable set of rules, all of them supported by the time-honored teachings of the Orthodox Church. The rules, however, had certain well-understood exceptions, and society was more interested in the appearance than in the reality of propriety. Vronsky understood that, far from shock and disapproval, society would see that “a man who attached himself to a married woman and devoted his life to involving her in adultery at all costs, had something beautiful and grand about it.” (135) The reaction of Anna’s husband to her infidelity almost proved his point
The first time Karenina asked if the rumors of a liaison with Vronsky were true, Anna denied it, but when she becomes pregnant with Vronsky’s child, she admits that she has fallen in love with Vronsky and become his mistress. She also tells her husband that she cannot stand him, that she hates him, and that he should “Do what you like with me.”
Whatever Karenin would like to do, there is one thing he will not do: he will not even think about divorce.
“So be it!” he exclaims. “But I demand that the outward conventions of propriety be observed until…I take measures to secure my honor….”
Karenina does not want a divorce because divorce will lead to the scandal of a court trial, but neither does he want his wife to be united with Vronsky. He wants to pay her back for her crime. “She should be unhappy, but I am not guilty, and therefore cannot be unhappy.” His mind, full of logic, thinks like a textbook on ethics. Vronsky, on the other hand, thinks like a man of action, or rather what the thinks a man of action would think like. When Anna tells him what she has done, he is so caught up in imagining how he will handle himself in a duel, a duel Karenin himself will never think of, that he does not realize that if he had asked Anna, then and there, to run away with him, she would have done so without a moment’s hesitation.
The decisive moment in the unhappy marriage of Anna Karenina occurs when she falls ill and is expected to die. Something happens now that shows what Tolstoy, and not just Tolstoy but someone like Dostoevsky, understood by the Russian soul and the power of the Christian religion. Anna tells her husband that he is a saint, that her infidelity is unforgivable and begs for his forgiveness. Experiencing a religious conversion in which “the joyful feeling of love’s forgiveness of his enemies filled his soul,” Karenin reconciles with his wife’s lover. Vronsky does not understand this feeling, but sensing that is “something lofty and even inaccessible to him,” he realizes that he has dishonored himself, compared to the way Anna’s husband had behaved. There is only one honorable thing to do. He shoots himself, but misses his heart. (435)
Anna recovers, but instead of seeing her husband as a saint, she again looks at him “with that painful feeling of physical revulsion.” When Vronsky recovers from his suicide attempt he and Anna run off to Italy where Anna gives birth to their daughter. The child, however, does not have anything like the same importance to her as the son she has left behind. Anna and her husband and their son were an unhappy family and, as Tolstoy insisted in the very first sentence, Anna and Vronsky and their daughter become an unhappy family in their own way, so unhappy that Anna, certain she is losing Vronsky, throws herself under a train.
Bolonsky and his wife, Anna and her husband, Anna and Vronsky, studies in human unhappiness, but, as is fitting, Kitty and Levin, who had both suffered their own unhappiness because Kitty had wanted Vronsky and Levin had wanted her, now find each other again, and not more than three months after they marry are so happy that Levin “no longer knew where she ended and he began.” (501) This was possible only because, as had happened, if only briefly, between Anna and her husband, the sudden presence of death put everything in a new perspective. This time it is Levin’s brother. Kitty takes care of him and Levin learns that women, far more than men, know what to do around the dying. Later, when Kitty gives birth, Tolstoy makes the connection between the two events that not only mark the limit of human life but the very meaning of existence. Both were “outside all ordinary life, through which something higher showed. And just as painful, as tormenting in the coming, was what was now being accomplished; and just as inconceivably, in contemplating this higher thing, the soul rose to such heights as it had never known before, where reason was no longer able to overtake it.”
The ordinary world is changed, changed for Levin into such happiness that he almost can not bear it. The child, a human being “who had never existed before,” would live its own life, “would live and produce its own kind.” But happy though he is in family life, Levin needs more. He needs to know what he is and why he is here. Without that “‘it is impossible for me to live.’”
Levin, who has always kept his distance from those who live their lives in and for society, has noticed that the good people around him all have a deep belief in religion. He does not have that belief, but neither does he believe what the materialists have to say, which means what modern science, what Darwin, have to say. Searching for answers, he reads or re-reads Plato, Spinoza, Kant Schelling, Hegel and Schopenhauer, but does not find what he is looking for. “Reasoning led him into doubt and kept him from seeing what he should and should not do. Yet when he did not think, but lived, he constantly felt in his soul the presence of an infallible judge who decided which of two possible actions was better and which was worse; and whenever he did not act as he should, he felt it at once.” From this Levin concludes “that he was able to live only thanks to the beliefs in which he had been brought up.” He believed what he had been taught as a child “because they told me what was in my soul.”
All happy families are alike, one is tempted to say, because all happy families are made up of a man and a woman who have been brought up the right way, brought up to understand the difference between right and wrong. And because, such is the mystery of existence, they were born with the kind of good natures that made that teaching responsive to what, somehow, they already knew. All unhappy families are unhappy in their own way because the passions, the desires, of men and women are infinite in their variety, and, if the truth be told, make much more interesting stories, as any reader of Anna Karenina can tell you.