“All happy families are alike…”: Some thoughts half way through “Anna Karenina”

Is it really over two months since I started reading Anna Karenina? Yes, I suppose it must be. I had expected to have finished it by now, but I see I am still only about half way through it. This is partly because, for reasons I need not go into here, the past few months have been quite fraught, and I have had less time than usual for my reading; but it is also because I am relishing this book so much that I have no desire to rush ahead: I am reading it slowly, often pausing at intervals the better to take in what I have just read, and often re-reading individual pages or chapters, just for the sheer delight of it. This has long been one of my very favourite works of literature, but reading it again, it really is even better than I had remembered it. There’s so much in it, and every single thing Tolstoy attempts, he pulls off.

I am fascinated especially by his long term pacing, and by his ability to structure the vast material: the opening part – well over 100 pages – is one continuous narrative arc, introducing all the major characters, themes, and milieux; thereafter, the various strands go their own ways, and the subtlety with which Tolstoy balances them and makes them counterpoint each other is breathtaking: this really is the sort of thing one does not – can not – notice at first reading. As ever, Tolstoy enters fully the mind of each character; and because we know why it is they act as they do, we do not condemn any of them. In the hands of any other author, Karenin would appear merely a pompous, emotionally desiccated bureaucrat, who is smothering his wife in a loveless marriage; but Tolstoy will have nothing to do with such simplistic nonsense. The passages where Karenin’s situation becomes too painful for him even to think about, and, turning his mind gratefully back to his work, expends his inarticulate fury on matters quite unrelated to what is really tormenting him, are simply extraordinary: we suddenly see a very vulnerable man. Anna, meanwhile, has to force herself into seeing her husband as a heartless man, as she cannot bear the thought of causing hurt to a man who can actually feel the hurt: to bear her sense of guilt, she has to convince herself that her husband is incapable of feeling; she has to convince herself that her marriage really is utterly loveless. Tolstoy takes us into the minds of both, and dissects their psyches with the most disconcertingly direct of touches: but he does not pass judgement, he does not condemn.

Karenin has to turn to his work to hide from himself what is truly hurting him; and Levin, after being initially rejected by Kitty, does the same. (It’s one of the many subtle and unexpected parallels that hold together the disparate elements of the novel). Exactly half way through the novel, Tolstoy brings all the various strands of the novel together: Karenin is present at the party in Oblonsky’s house when Levin is finally accepted by Kitty. But even as one happy family is forming, an unhappy one is breaking apart: even as Levin floats on waves of joy, Karenin’s world seems to disintegrate. The chapters describing Levin’s elation are wonderful: it’s the most difficult thing in the world to depict happiness, but it’s hard to read these chapters without breaking into a smile. But immediately afterwards, Tolstoy gives us some of the most agonising scenes in literature – scenes that wouldn’t be out of place even in a Dostoyevsky novel. He takes us to Anna’s bedside, immediately after she has given birth: she is feverish, and, seemingly, on the point of death. And suddenly, and very unexpectedly, all three main characters – Anna, Vronsky, Karenin- seem to enter a different, heightened, plane of consciousness. Karenin, to his own astonishment, finds access to a reservoir of love and tenderness within himself that even he – or, perhaps, especially he – had not suspected; Vronsky, meanwhile, for the first time in his life, feels shame, and he cannot cope with it. I could hardly bear to read the chapter in which, barely knowing what he is doing, he attempts suicide. And I was surprised as well in discovering how few pages all this is crammed into: for some reason, these extraordinary scenes had seemed to me to comprise a large chunk of the novel. But they aren’t: it’s the sheer intensity of these chapters, and not their length, that makes them loom so large in the imagination.

Once the crisis has passed, Karenin is aware that, for some reason that he cannot grasp, he cannot continue to love and to forgive: there are present mysterious powers that are stronger than his love. His perplexity in the face of what he cannot even begin to understand is painful to read. And the brief scene in which he meets with Anna – in which Anna, her hair cropped after her fever, is unable to look her husband in the face, and, fixing her attention instead on a swelled vein in Karenin’s hand, finds herself, to her own shame, physically revolted – is simply extraordinary.

Yes, I am reading this very slowly indeed, but I am gasping in wonder and in astonishment in just about every page. Tolstoy, despite his reputation for didacticism, does not judge: Tolstoy once said that fiction is most effective when the author is not seen to take sides. This may seem strange coming from an author renowned for his didacticism, but he lives up to his principle: here, instead of judging, he explores. He questions incessantly the extent to which these characters are responsible for what they do, for being who they are. As he enters the mind of each of his characters, it appears that they cannot act otherwise: and yet, each is morally responsible for their own actions, and this remains, right to the end of the novel and beyond, a terrible unsolved paradox. Each of these characters is trapped within their own selves: they cannot even begin to understand their own complex psyches, and, to their terror, appear to rush headlong towards a doom they can vaguely sense, but cannot avoid. The sense of the tragic is intense: never has the terror in our everyday lives been expressed with such disconcerting power.

Anna Karenina is often coupled with Madame Bovary as the two great 19th century novels about adultery, but this coupling is generally unthinking, and not, I think, very helpful: although it is true that adultery is, in terms of plot at any rate, central to both, they really could not be more different. While it is Tolstoy who is renowned for his didacticism and Flaubert for his detachment, it is, ironically, Madame Bovary that seems to me the more didactic work of the two. Tolstoy in his novel explores his characters without preconceptions: Flaubert’s work, on the other hand, is steeped in the author’s conviction of the sheer futility and pointlessness of life. Of course, it is not Flaubert’s conviction of pointlessness that makes Madame Bovary so great an achievement: its greatness is, rather, rooted in the profound underlying sadness that life should be so. But Flaubert’s authorial stance is apparent in every page of Madame Bovary. There is, however, no comparable authorial stance apparent in Anna Karenina, no insistence on an underlying principle that governs everything. In his famous essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox”, Isaiah Berlin had characterised Tolstoy as an author who wanted desperately to discover an underlying truth to everything, a principle that holds everything together, but, instead, found himself dazzled by the sheer variety and diversity of life, by the sheer plenitude of it all; and, given such variety, it was impossible for him to discover any underlying unity, any principle that knits together all the diverse elements. Levin and Vronsky, Anna and Kitty and Dolly and Karenin, may all be governed by forces beyond their control or their understanding; but in each individual case, these same forces lead to very different destinations: no one size can fit all.

And yet, artistically, some sort of unity must be found: otherwise, the centre would not hold, and things would fall apart. The challenge was immense: Tolstoy had to find a unity despite depicting diversity; he had to hold his divergent material together with the grandest yet subtlest of architectural designs. And even on the umpteenth re-reading, it is not clear to me just how Tolstoy pulls it off: I can spot some, at least, of Tolstoy’s stratagems, but the achievement remains something of a miracle.


The famous opening line of this novel seems to me a sort of challenge: All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way*. Did Tolstoy really believe this, I wonder? Could the author who could, perhaps more than any other author, see the infinite variety of life and of humans, really think that two families, happy or not, could ever be alike? It seems unlikely. Rather, we should, I think, see this opening line as a sort of challenge – a statement the truth of which will be tested in the crucible.

Of course, the story of Levin and Kitty is essentially a happy one: this strand, though often ignored by those who wish to see this novel as essentially a romantic tragedy, is given just as much space and attention as the story of Anna, Vronsky and Karenin. But even in this happy story, we see the characters driven by forces beyond their control, and beyond their understanding. For those of us re-reading the novel, we know that Levin, even at his happiest, has to hide away ropes and guns and knives in case he is tempted to kill himself; we know also that the chapter entitled “Death” – the only chapter in the novel that is given a title – occurs in Levin’s story, not Anna’s. These two seemingly contrasting stories have not been spliced together arbitrarily: the forces that drive Anna, Vronsky and Karenin, are also the forces that drive Levin and Kitty. And yet they are not the same. For all the dark shadows, for all the terror, and despite the shadow of death that is cast over all our lives, Levin and Kitty are happy in their marriage – as happy, perhaps, as it is possible for humans to be. But throughout, their story is counterpointed insistently with the story of Anna, Vronsky and Karenin, and the effect of this counterpointing, though remarkable, is hard to articulate. There is no underlying moral principle to which life can be reduced: for all the clarity of Tolstoy’s presentation, there remains at the heart of it all a tremendous mystery.


Recently, I have been wondering about the nature of our personal tastes, and of the various things that mould them. My own taste in literature has been moulded by Tolstoy more than by anyone else: I discovered his two great novels as a teenager, and have been reading and re-reading them ever since. And, looking over my personal likes and dislikes, it seems clear to me that I, wittingly or unwittingly, measure all fiction by the yardstick provided by Tolstoy. This naturally has problems: the further any fiction is from Tolstoy’s aesthetics, the less I find myself able to enter into its spirit; and yet, if any author’s aesthetic values do come close to Tolstoy’s, that author almost inevitably falls short. Perhaps my discovery of Tolstoy at such an early and impressionable age was not such a good thing after all. But I don’t regret it: there are, I suppose, worse tastes to be saddled with. Art, as we all know, is not a competitive sport, and there is no such thing as “the greatest”. Yes, I know, I know… And yet, at the same time, when I think of the most enriching and wonderful experiences I have had from reading fiction, it is War and Peace and Anna Karenina that first come to mind; only then do I think of all the others.

* From the translation by Kyril Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes.


19 responses to this post.

  1. “Of course, the story of Levin and Kitty is essentially a happy one: this strand, though often ignored by those who wish to see this novel as essentially a romantic tragedy…”

    I tend to ignore Anna more than Levin myself…


    • I guess you don’t see the novel as a Romantic tragedy! 🙂 Seriously, though, Tolstoy’s counterpointing of the two stories, and drawing such strong parallels between them, does generate, even in the context of the “happy” story, a curious tension, quite unlike anything else I can think of. I need to think a bit more deeply about just why it is Tolstoy has chosen to present these two particular stories in tandem: I am sure it wasn’t merely an arbitrary decision on his part.


  2. I have not read Anna Karenina but it sounds as if the characters are incredibly complex and nuanced. I need to get to Tolstoy soon.

    Your ruminations and Tolstoy’s statement about happy families makes me think about Harold Bloom’s comment concerning Macbeth, when he described the Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as the happiest married couple in all of Shakespeare’s works.


    • I think I had heard Bloom’scomment before – although I had forgotten about it till you reminded me – and, startling though it seems at first hearing, it is rather perceptive: for the Macbeths, at the start of the play, are very close indeed to each other – they confide totally in each other, and open out their very hearts and souls. Not least of their personal tragedy is their drifting apart; until, when Lady Macbeth dies, Macbeth cannot even feel any sense of grief.

      It is curious that Tolstoy so hated Shakespeare: I can think of no other writer beyond these two who could enter into other peoples’ minds so completely and so convincingly.


  3. I agree that Tolstoy is the quintessential story-teller in Russian literature (if not world literature). Tolstoy’s skill in developing a complex narrative is unquestionable and I love to read his prose (even in translation, since I do not read in Russian). However, this is why I prefer reading Dostoevsky … edgier, more difficult to read, more demanding in both style and theme … a challenge that has enormous returns.

    Do you consider Anna Karenina superior to War & Peace (I do)? Do you consider The Brothers Karamozov superior to anything Tolstoy wrote (I do)? Which Russian author do you consider the greater writer of short fiction (here I’m conflicted)?


    • Tolstoy & Dostoyevsky are examples of what in an earlier post I had characterised as “mighty opposites” – writers of comparable stature who complement each other: whether one prefers one to the other is a matter of personal inclination, I think, and no more.

      I don’t, incidentally, think that Dostoyevsky is more “demanding” than Tolstoy: any writer who has a vision of profundity to impart is demanding, and both Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky demanded much of their readers. I do not know that it is any more possible to judge between these two than it is to judge between, say, Michelangelo or Titian, or between Mozart and Beethoven: at such levels of achievement, comparisons are odorous (as Dogberry might say!) Even within Tolstoy’s work, I do not know that it is possible to choose between War and Peace and Anna Karenina: I love them both equally, and am equally in awe of them.

      On a personal level, I am far more of a Tolstoyan than I am a Dostoyevskian – but this is personal inclination and nothing more. I loved Dostoyevsky as a teenager, but in my 20s, I began to find him irritating in many ways: I tired of what seemed to me his crude melodrama, his poorly structured narratives, his hysteria. In the last decade or so, I have returned to his work, somewhat embarrassed by some of the things I had said about him: he remains a deeply flawed author, but his flaws and his greatness now seem to me part of parts of the whole package – i.e. one could not have one without the other. And his greatness is undeniable.

      But for all that, it is Tolstoy whose work remains more central to me. However, choosing between the two in objective terms seems to me impossible: we are speaking here of some of the highest peaks of human achievement, and even after we have applied to them all the criteria of literary excellence we can think of, there remains in both that which defies definition, let alone measurement.

      On the question of short fiction, both have produced some top drawer novellas; but Tolstoy seemed to me more frequently drawn to that form.


  4. Ooo
    That is a tough to get through.
    Tolstoy has always been rough.


    • Hello Frank, any literature worth its salt is demanding, but as Browning perspicaciously pointed out, a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for? 🙂

      I do know what you mean, though: faced with works of such obvious greatness, I tis easy to feel overawed. (At least I find it easy to feel overawed.) The best thing to do is, I think, just to dive in!


  5. I’ve often thought about the first line, and I interpret it this way: in every happy family (how many of these are there anyway), everyone is happy, loved and content. It’s a formula, if you will, for success.
    Unhappy families, on the other hand, are unhappy for a range of reasons: money troubles, a tyrannical father, ill health, thwarted ambitions etc etc.


    • Posted that before I was finished. One thing you mention is that Tolstoy doesn’t judge and I think that is the heart of Tolstoy’s work. I had a discussion w/myself recently as to what Anna would have been like as a creation of Dostoyevsky’s.

      I like savouring these classics. I read a classic at night and when I’m reading a Trollope, let’s say, his 800 pages take ages, but I, like you, enjoy every word.


    • Hello Guy, at the end of the day, I find myself too mentally exhausted to take in anything much more demanding than a ghost story, or some Sherlock Holmes! (These tend to be my usual bedtime reading.) I am glad to see that you agree about Tolstoy’s refusal to pass judgement: he is often accused of being too judgemental an author. I see, for instance, that Kiera Knightley, who is playing Anna in a new film version has opined that Tolstoy hated Anna. She must have been reading a different Anna Karenina from the one I have been reading. I don’t know that it is possible to explore with any objectivity, let alone with any sympathy, the mind of someone one hates.

      Certainly, Anna, like many others in the novel, does “wrong”: but throughout the novel, Tolstoy explores to what extent we can help what we do, or what we are – to what extent we can be held responsible. Anna’s tragedy is not merely that bad things happen to her; more subtly, a great part of her tragedy is that she cannot help doing bad things. She cannot help, for instance, hating her husband, even while knowing that it is wrong to hate him. If Anna Karenina were merely a moral tract, it would be a poor work of literature: it is, rather, an exploration of moral themes.

      It is interesting to speculate what Anna would have been like had she been a Dostooyevskian creation. I think she would have been very different. Where Tolstoy presents characters who cannot help being what they are, Dostoyevsky gives his characters complete freedom – to the extent even of forgoing planning so as not to impose upon the characters the author’s pre-determination. A Dostoyevskian Anna would have been far more impulsive; and the hysterical state in which Tolstoy at times allows us to see Anna (e.g. after she gives birth to Vronsky’s child, or in the chapters leading up to the denouement in the railway station) would have been a permanent state. It would have been a very, very different novel. It probably requires the literary imagination of Dostoyevsky himself to figure out just how different!

      Interestingly, Dostoyevsky, who was not usually too effusive in praise of his contemporaries, referred to Anna Karenina as a “perfect” work of art. It’s a curious adjective to use, especially as we in our modern age tend to refer to any 19th century novel of any length as “loose, baggy monsters”. But the adjective does not seem to me misapplied. What is interesting is that Dostoyevsky should use that adjective, as perfection is not a quality he ever aimed for in his own work: he was quite happy with rough edges, with slipshod pacing and construction; he was quite happy to improvise, to freewheel, to allow the novel to go off at unexpected tangents. That he should praise Tolstoy’s novel for having the very quality that he did not appear to prize in his own work does seem curious, doesn’t it? Either he intended it as a back-handed compliment; or he recognised that the qualities of Tolstoy were different from, and complementary with, his own.


  6. It’s been a long time since I read ‘Anna Karenina’ but I remember being fascinated by the complexity and depth exhibited in Tolstoy’s work. I am, some day, going to re-read this as I’m back into reading classics after a gamut of modern literature! I read my favourite novel, ‘Wuthering Heights’ recently with the same level of wonderment and discovery of ‘new’ things as you’ve been with ‘Anna…’ Currently I’m reading ‘Lorna Doone’ having visited the place where it is set this summer, but that is slow going – is it because I want to savour each and every line or because the language of classic literature is something I’ve fallen out of familiarity with after reading modern literature for so long ? Finally….Himadridada….do you think you should’ve studied English at University ? You have a fine talent for writing and literary criticism. I can see you as an English Literature lecturer!!:)


    • Hello Anjana, and welcome to the board. (You did post here once before, didn’t you? But I had to approve this your latest post, so I can only assume you’re new here…)

      I sometimes wonder whether I should have studied literature at university, but then I see those dreary tomes of impenetrable and, to my philistine mind, pointless tomes of postmodernist or deconstructivist literary theory, and I’m quite glad I didn’t! And academic literary criticism is a proper discipline: I could hardly get away there with the sort of nonsense I often put up here (e.g. my … er … considered appraisal here of D. H. Lawrence). This blog is not academic by any stretch of the imagination: I just like the opportunity to celebrate what I love, or to let off a bit of steam when I feel like it: there’s nothing like a good rant on here about something or other (usually the cultural decline in our modern times … O tempora! O mores!) to make me feel better!


  7. I read ‘Anna Karenina’ many years ago, so my memory of it is rather hazy. I do remember feeling very frustrated with Anna. For me, it was Levin, with his desire for a ‘life well lived’ who was at the heart of the story. I wonder if I would feel the same way rereading it now?


    • Hello Karen, and welcome. A novel of this stature certainly repays re-readings, as I’ve been discovering.

      It was certainly a very deliberate and conscious decision on Tolstoy’s part to splice together these two very different strands, and as a consequence, the story of Levin & Kitty’s happy marriage is darkened with the tragic shadows of Anna’s story. What I am not so sure of is the extent to which Anna’s story is coloured by Levin. I need to think about this: Anna Karenina is certainly not two different novels spliced together: it is a carefully considered unity, and I can sense the two strands complementing each other, even though, for the moment at least, I am finding it difficult to understand just how this happens.

      Apparently, Tolstoy was particularly proud of the intricate structure of this novel.

      Cheers for now, Himadri


  8. Writing about happiness may be difficult, but Tolstoy did so well in War and Peace’s epilogue with the married lives of Nikolai and Mary, and Pierre and Natasha. There was a joyfulness and serenity in it that was very honest, not artificial at all, the way happiness is.


    • Hello Miguel, I think the epilogue of War and peace is as wonderful as the rest of the novel. We had followed these characters for some 7 or 8 years, and now we see them again some 8 years later; and, once again, they have changed, but they remain identifiably the same characters. There is, as you say, a sense of joy and of serenity; but Pierre is still searching – the wisdom that he had thought he had gained 8 years earlier proved not to be quite as life-changing as he had thought; there is clearly conflict brewing between Andrei’s on, ow a teenager, and his Uncle Nikolai; and so on. They are contented, yes, as contented as perhaps we can be, but they are still seeking… they are all older, and more experienced of life; but they are not wiser. It’s the most convincing “happy ending” I can think of!


  9. Matthew and Keira together again after pride &? prejudice? YES!! Even better with Joe directing this film. Can’t wait to see it


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