Happy families, unhappy families: the two strands of “Anna Karenina”

The famous opening line of Anna Karenina, however we may choose to interpret it, focuses out attention on one of the novel’s principal themes: families – happy and unhappy. As is well-known, there are two principal strands of narrative contrasting with each other: the breakdown of an unhappy family contrasts with the formation of a happy one. But is this all? Is this frankly rather banal contrast the only reason why Tolstoy has decided to splice together these two tales that, in narrative terms, barely touch each other?

Looking around the net at the various comments on this novel, it seems that most readers belong to either one or the other camp: there are those who find the Levin strand with its endless depictions and discussion of farming methods a distraction from the doomed tragic love story of Anna and Vronsky; and there are others who are fascinated by Levin’s and Kitty’s discovery of domestic bliss, and are irritated by the irrationality of Anna and Vronsky and Karenin that brings to them so much needless sorrow. But rarely do I find any commentary from readers that sees the two strands as not merely equally important, but, indeed, vital to each other, such that if one were to be missing the other would be incomplete.

And yet, if we are to see the novel as a unity that it surely is rather than as two disparate strands awkwardly meshed together, we need to see it in precisely these terms. I find it hard to believe that a writer who could create a work of such endless complexity would splice the two stories together simply to depict something so banal as a contrast between happiness and unhappiness, light and shade. The ties binding these stories together must be stronger than merely this.

In searching for these ties, we should note, I think, that the story of Anna and Vronsky is not unrelievedly dark, nor the story of Levin and Kitty unrelievedly light. Quite clearly, Vronsky and Anna experience joy together – a joy that is more than merely that of sexual gratification; and Vronsky’s relationship with Anna ennobles him, as he finds in himself a greater depth than either he or anyone else had suspected – a sense of commitment and of self-sacrifice that transcends the mere unthinking hedonism in which his life had previously been rooted. Meanwhile, Kitty and Levin’s lives are by no means purely sunny and cloudless: that things work out happily for them in the end should not lead us to overlook the suffering that had come before. After Levin is humiliated by Kitty’s initial rejection, he tries to bury himself in his work, to close his mind from all remembrance of Kitty. In this, of course, he fails, as each renewed memory administers a sharp lash to his stubbornly open wound. (Interestingly, when Karenin is humiliated by his awareness of Anna’s affair, he also, like Levin, tries to drive it from his mind by burying himself in his work; and he is similarly unsuccessful.) Kitty, meanwhile, appears to have what amounts to a nervous breakdown. Neither Levin nor Kitty can understand why. Why have they come to this? Why has Kitty behaved as she has done? Why is Levin so unable to blot out those thoughts that cause him such pain? In their inability to understand these questions about themselves, they curiously resemble those personages from the tragic strand who are similarly incapable of understanding the forces that are driving them.

Tragedy is rarely far from Levin’s and Kitty’s lives. There is only one chapter in the entire novel that is given a title, and that title is “Death”; and it occurs not within the tragic strand, but in the happy. Before Kitty discovers her pregnancy, before the miracle of the creation of a new life is realised, they, and we, are faced with that other inexplicable event – that which, equally mysteriously, ends human life. And we find later in the novel that Levin, even at his happiest, has to hide away ropes and guns in case he is tempted to kill himself. Yet again, he is driven by forces he cannot understand.

It seems to me that the tragic fates of Anna and of Vronsky render all the deeper the dark shadows that co-exist with the happiness of Levin and Kitty; and, conversely, that which constitutes merely the potential for tragedy in the lives of Kitty and Levin is realised all too terribly in the lives of Anna and Vronsky. The two strands are intimately knit together, far more deeply that may be suggested by a mere banal contrast between light and dark.

There is also a third family in the novel: the Oblonskys. Structurally, husband and wife, Stiva and Dolly, hold together the strands of the Karenins and the Levins (Anna is Stiva’s sister, and Kitty is Dolly’s) . But they are important in their own light, and, had Tolstoy’s perspective been slightly different, they could easily have held the centre of the novel on their own. Is this a happy family or an unhappy family? In an earlier post, I had suggested that Dolly was, in her own way, every bit as tragic a figure as is Anna. But as for Stiva, he is perhaps the only happy character in the entire novel: this is because he cannot feel anything deeply enough to be unhappy for too long. Even as we see Vronsky at the end, his very soul ripped out and suffering from toothache, and going to the wars with the sole wish that he may perish there, Stiva, Anna’s own brother, appears as jolly and as amiable as ever, the recent tragedy seemingly forgotten. The sheer variety of human types never ceased to be for Tolstoy a source of wonder.

3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Brian Joseph on October 2, 2012 at 11:45 pm

    I have not read this work but need to get to it. As you allude to, your description of the characters seems to indicate that Tolstoy has created a host of realistic, varied and fascinating characters.

    You wrote — “But as for Stiva, he is perhaps the only happy character in the entire novel: this is because he cannot feel anything deeply enough to be unhappy for too long.”

    I must say that I know some real life people that fit this bill. I often marvel at them!


  2. Posted by Simon on February 10, 2015 at 10:26 pm

    Thanks so much for this, its firstly tempted me back into reading Anna Karenina and secondly also challenged some of my assumptions around some of the strands. I must admit I had taken the Levin subplot as being another “unhappy family” but Levins melancholy being cast against the genuine tragic unhappiness of the vronsky, karenin, Anna triangle. But I really enjoy the Levin subplot. I strangely find myself warming to Levin, despite his flaws I. But it has been absolutely yonks since ive read it, must read it again.


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