Anna Karenina as a Family Novel
“All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion”
This is how Tolstoy introduces Anna Karenina. It is admitted on all hands that Tolstoy believed in this high position of the society and family. This novel deals as much with personal relationship of those within the family as with the meaning of life and eternal verities. Tolstoy has laid bare many aspects of real life as of spiritual life. In part VII he writes :
“Without a doubt a family should live just as our fathers and grandfathers lived, that is with the same upbringing, and children should be brought up in the same way”.
In Anna Karenina Tolstoy was concerned with the aristocratic families, of which he had first-hand knowledge. He had, of course, profound sympathy for the working class people and the peasants, who, he sincerely believed had more strength and a greater consciousness of good evil than among barons, bakers, and professors”. But he did not know then quite as intimately as he had known the aristocrats.
The book opens with Oblongsky, popularly known as Stiva. Himself happy and carefree, he radiates happiness and bonhomie. He is quite willing to go out of his way to help others, although philanthropist’ would be too strong a term to be applied to him In Oblongsky household everything has gone wrong, because wife Dolly has detected his clandestine relationship with the former French governess. Anna Karenina, the sister of Oblongsky, has come to restore peace. Dolly, though a member of the aristocratic society cannot reconcile herself to the infidelity of her husband. She is the daughter of the Prince and Princess Cherbatzky.
The Prince unlike his wife, is a man of dignity and nobility. He has two daughters-Dolly and Kitty. Dolly has all the goodness and simple faith of a respectable woman. Her husband’s infidelity has come to her as a rude shock and about a strangling blow.
Anna has come to reunite Dolly and Oblongsky, but as an irony of fate she meets Vronsky, a strikingly handsome young man and falls in love with her. She, who has hardly any sympathy for her brother’s adultery, becomes faithless to her husband, Alexis Karenin. Twenty years older than Anna, Karenin is an official dignitary. He is a bureaucrat, always cold and formal. Love and passion are words not to be found in his dictionary. Anna’s marriage was arranged, and therefore, she has not, till her meeting with Vronsky, experienced love. Vronsky appears as her man of men, elegant, handsome, and attractive. He is equally passionate. Their illicit liaison affects the family of Karenin. Both Vronsky and Anna have lived a life of emotion- a sort of life Karenin cannot conceive of.
The family of Karenin and Anna is a heart-break house, where two persons with absolutely no emotional compatibility have to live together. Their son is the only link, and not quite a strong one. A little love, a little understanding could have cemented the relationship between the husband and wife. And that love is conspicuous by its absence. Once Anna comes in touch with Vronsky, she goes so far as to say that she would rather kill herself than live with a cold and heartless husband like Karenin.
From this brief outline it appears that Tolstoy is in quest of an ideal family life. Oblongsky’s family could have been happy, but his infidelity wrecks it. Karenin’s family is wrecked right from the beginning. Anna’s adultery precipitates the ruin of the family. Were Anna and Vornsky married, and Karenin had not appeared on the scene at all, perhaps they could have built a happy home. But that does not happen. Anna is separated from her husband, which comes as a relief. But her separation from her son whom she adores comes as a staggering blow. And, therefore, her life with Vronsky is not one of unalloyed and uninterrupted happiness. For a time Anna, while on death-bed after the birth of her child by Vronsky, experiences a little happiness. Karenin forgives Anna and Anna realises the essential nobility of her husband. Vronsky also undergoes a sort of spiritual transformation. He is conscience-stricken and is about to shoot himself for having seduced a gentleman’s wife. But this scene of tender grace and forgiveness is a glint, of sunshine shortly to be hidden.
Vronsky has sacrificed his bright career for Anna. But he has an equally strong passion for horses. Whenever he abandons himself to either his horses or any other preoccupation, Anna gets jealous and wrongly imagines that Vronsky’s love is dead. Jealousy and irritability persistently grow upon her. She tortures Vronsky, and thereby tortures herself. Vronsky stands the test very well and emerges with credit. For after all he is not a wanton young man, a gay Lothario. He displays exemplary patience. A little understanding precipitates the tragedy. One day Anna kicks up a row, and mentally hurt, Vronsky leaves for country to see his mother, but to be precise, just to be away from Anna for a while. Anna sends a telegram asking him to come back. A servant comes, with a note that he is coming shortly. Anna misinterprets the note and throws herself under the wheels of a goods train.
Levin and Kitty represent for Tolstoy an ideal family. They have shown how to be happy. Levin is highly educated and is essentially aristocratic. But by choice he becomes a plain, unsophisticated country gentleman. Hypersensitive and educated, Levin has his intermittent periods of turmoil, of moral and emotional stress and strain. Between twenty and thirty five he lost his faith in Christianity. He turns to science and rationalism to find the meaning and purpose of life. But science, the new god fails. His marriage with Kitty and the birth of a son, the outcome of their love, being only momentary happiness. But one day a common peasant gives him the message of joy. “Why does one peasant behave more humanely than another?” Asks Levin. “Men are not all alike”, replies a peasant, “one man lives for his belly, like Mitiovuck, another for his soul, for god like old Plato”. Since the answer does not appear sufficiently explicit, Levin asks him :
“What do you mean by living for his soul, for god ?” It’s quite simple”, replies the peasant, “living by the rule of god, of the truth. All men are not the same, that’s certain. You yourself for instance, you wouldn’t do wrong by a poor man”. Levin at long last gets the meaning and purpose of life. He goes on muttering the cryptic phrase almost like an incantation : “Living by the rule of god, of the truth”.
Levin heard these words even in his childhood. But they have not left a permanent impression upon his mind. But now they have for him an added significance. They are a distinct clue to the correct appreciation of life.
Once Levin saw Oblongsky’s children throwing milk, a valuable and staple food, at each other. Dolly scolded them for this wanton waste. The children, however, could not understand their mother’s point of view. Now Levin realises that most people, even the grown-ups, do not know the value of things they are wasting all the while. He exclaims:
“I, a Christian, brought up in the faith, my life filled with the benefits of Christianity, living on these benefits without being conscious of it, I like these children, I have been trying to destroy what makes and builds up my life”.
The concluding words of Levin illustrate Tolstoy’s conception of an ideal family life :
“I shall probably continue to get out of temper with my coachman to go into useless arguments, to air my ideas unreasonably; I shall always feel a barrier between the sanctuary of my soul and the soul of other people, even that of my wife; I shall always be holding her responsible for my annoyances and feeling sorry for it directly afterwards. I shall continue to pray without being able to explain to myself why I pray; but my inner life has won its liberty, it will no longer be at the mercy of events, and every minute of my existence will have a meaning sure and profound which it will be in my power to impress on every single one of my actions, that of being good”.
Had all the other characters of the novel lived up to this ideal, all the families could have become happy.