Musings on the first 25 pages of Anna Karenina:
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
I assume that by commencing with this generalization Tolstoy’s objective, through the telling of his story, is to prove the hypothesis.
So, we are to muse on happiness. Are all happy families alike? I suppose that if: the married partners are compatible in important ways (sex, values, etc.); the relationship works equally well for both; the arrival of children doesn’t alienate the husband; both enjoy raising children, and both are able to sacrifice their needs for the ‘common good’, that ‘happiness’ is possible, and that yes happy families in this regards are all alike; these ingredients are common to all happy couples.
Does the same hold true for unhappy ones? Contrary to what Tolstoy tells us, I’d again say yes. Sex and money are the arenas within which most of the happy fall. Emotional neglect, sexual abuse, ‘broken’ homes in childhood often lead to less than blissful marriages. Boredom/a sense of being taken for granted, of feeling unappreciated are common culprits. All invariably lead to unhappiness; nothing unique here. Sure each family may endure and try to avoid them in slightly different ways, but the same potholes typically chequer the road to all familial contentment.
Problem is that, even when happiness is achieved, things change.
Stepan loses interest in his wife we are told in a blunt, honest ‘self’ assessment. He has an affair with the children’s governess
“Didn’t feel amorous” with his ‘worn out’ wife (seven children five living, two dead). He wished only that he’d concealed things better; was unaware that she would be so upset.
What to do? Leading us to believe that this is Stepan’s response to the situation - the narrator suggests that there is no answer, save for the one life gives to all the most ‘complex, insoluble’ questions: one must live for the needs of the day, in other words, become oblivious.
The meaning is a bit unclear here. Or perhaps the translation. Become ‘oblivious’ to the problem that exists: what to do: what does ‘live for the day’ mean? Avoid making a decision? Pretend nothing has happened? Passively wish that things will return to normal on their own? If actions are to be taken, what should they be – avoid his wife; beg for forgiveness; seek a divorce? There’s a hint that the governess may be pregnant, but nothing, so far at least, on Stepan’s feelings, if any, toward her.
All happiness alike? Perhaps Tolstoy is suggesting that when we’re happy/in love we don’t ‘sweat the small stuff.’ Everything glides along smoothly. It’s easy to live. Nothing bothers us. Nothing else matters. Life is light. But when we’re unhappy: the opposite. Everything’s a struggle. Everything goes wrong. We focus on all the annoying details. Life through shit-coloured glasses. It’s heavy.
Tolstoy himself certainly wasn’t happy in marriage. I suspect that he, at one time or another, lived the lives of each of the leading male characters in the novel. Time to drag out the bios.