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Reading Anna Karenina #2: Best start at the beginning

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.

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3 Responses to “Reading Anna Karenina #2: Best start at the beginning”

  1. helena kerzner Says:

    Very insightful!

    I had always understood “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” as any writer’s credo. Writing about blissful marriages and pure happiness is boring as much as reading about them. Tolstoy here postulates the obvious – literature is about chaos, conflict, pain, search. This is his literary and personal scream so to speak. As a man in conflict with everybody and everything, burdened with religious sentiment, he was forever looking for apologetics, justifications and excuses of common not perfect lives against unreachable though desirable ideals. As a man of genius saw the seeds of despair in all people around him and populated his novels with all too human frailties, frustrations and frivolities.

    Stepan is ready to find solace in a “dream of life”, to spend the day in denial of being discovered – he dresses with usual care and pampers his body with simple pleasures of comfort and good food. The pangs of infidelity is pushed away at least for a while. What is more common than this! To postpone, to delay, to be oblivious to the troubles that beseech us all. Notice that we readily sympathize with his predicament almost against our will. Why? Because Leo Tolstoy wants us to face the reality of our double ( triple etc) standards. He puts a mirror in front of our faces.

    And so the saga continues…

  2. helena kerzner Says:

    Painting by Heinrich Matvejevich Maniser, 1904.

  3. helena kerzner Says:

    My husband has written this:

    The first words of the novel, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way “ can be alternatively interpreted as an attention-catcher, a banality, or a plainly wrong statement of the writer whose life does not fulfill his ideals.

    However, based on the assumption that the work of a genius touches us to the core because it itself touches on the ideas which serve as a foundation of the world, we can interpret it as complete and absolute truth. Accordingly, it should be read as, “(Seemingly) happy families are all alike; every unhappy family (author trying to resolve the question in a real, deep, way) is unhappy in its own way (requires an individual approach, which can be worked out only through sufferings required to obtain knowledge)”. Don’t get scared, not necessarily physical suffering, but in the sense of “more wisdom – more sorrow; more knowledge – more grief.”

    Every person can give an obvious answer about what is right and what is wrong. Anna is her husband’s wife, given to him by God, and it should stay that way. This is wrong, however, too obvious to be true. Every time a person brings in God to support his stance against others, he is prejudiced and is therefore wrong.

    Vronsky is obviously Anna’s true love, and true partner, if only because they are indeed lovers. The conflict here, one might say, is that Vronsky has not completed his correction, he is not perfect, whereas Anna is. The only reason she is reincarnated is for him – and he blows this chance, probably again and again.

    Tolstoy is probing the veracity of this answer from many points of view, represented by the others in the novel. Will he get it? Let’s wait for the next 50 pages.

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