Anna Karenina begins with one of the most famous lines of literature: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." But I think it's impossible to read Anna Karenina and think that this is something Tolstoy believes--perhaps it is what Stiva Oblonsky believes, as the novel opens, exiled to the sofa by his wife on account of his recent affair. Oblonsky's adultery nearly tears his family apart--passions in Anna Karenina are a force of great power, both creative and destructive--but a false dichotomy between the passionate and the mundane life turns one's moral transgressions into the stuff of art.
By contrast, Anna Karenina rejects this statement by giving us a pair of vivid, lifelike romances, one more or less happy and one more or less unhappy, as simplistic as that might sound. The first is the titular story of Anna Karenina, who falls in love with the young soldier Count Vronsky, for whom she abandons her husband and young son. Anna and Vronsky's love is the stuff of romance novels--immediate, passionate, overwhelming--but it always threatens to topple into disaster and heartbreak, and it causes Anna as much pain as it does joy. Their love is so powerful that it envelops her:
The more she knew of Vronsky, the more she loved him. She loved him for himself and for his love of her. To possess him fully was a constant joy for her. His nearness was always pleasing to her. All the traits of his character, which she was coming to know more and more, were inexpressibly dear to her. His appearance, changed by civilian clothes, was as attractive to her as to a young girl in love. In everything he said, thought and did, she saw something especially noble and lofty. Her admiration for him often frightened her: she sought and failed to find anything not beautiful in him. She did not dare show him her awareness of her own nullity before him. It seemed to her that if he knew it, he would stop loving her sooner; and she feared nothing so much now, though she had no reason for it, as losing his love.
This passage terrifies me, because it is the perfect image of perfect love, the kind of love we look for in literature and film in order to assure ourselves that it exists for us. In it, Anna and Vronsky exist only for each other, but look at the frightening implication: She did not dare show him her awareness of her own nullity before him. Anna, devoted to Vronsky, ceases, in a way, to be Anna. Tolstoy shows us the real-world implications of this, including the devastation of Anna's husband Karenin, a shallow, self-obsessed bureaucrat whom we pity because he does not share Anna's romantic sensibilities and therefore cannot really express his own anguish.
Because of Russian custody laws, Anna must give up her son, Seryozha, whom she loves with as much intensity as she does Vronsky. One of the lines that hits me hardest comes at the end of a chapter in which Anna has snuck into her husband's house in order to see Seryozha, but is caught and flees:
She had no time to take out the toys she had selected with such love and sadness in the shop the day before, and so brought them home with her.
Oof. Something about that image--Anna, brooding over a package of toys she cannot deliver to the son she cannot see--breaks my heart. Later on, Anna, mentally unraveling, regrets the choice she has made:
'...Seryozha?' she remembered. 'I also thought I loved him and used to be moved by my own tenderness. But I did live without him, exchanged him for another love, and didn't complain of the exchange as long as I was satisfied by that love.' And with disgust she remembered what it was she called 'that live.'
The "happy family" that provides a counterpoint to Anna and Vronsky is that of Konstantin "Kostya" Levin and Kitty Scherbatsky (sister to Dolly, who is the wife of Stiva, who is the brother of Anna...). Kitty at first rejects Kostya's proposal of marriage, because she is in love with no one other than Vronsky--that is, before he meets Anna and they become swept up in each other. They spend half the novel apart before the timid Kostya dares to renew his advances. In one of my favorite scenes, he renews his proposal by secretaire, a game in which one player writes the initial letters of sentence in chalk for the other player to guess:
He seized the chalk with tense, trembling fingers and, breaking it, wrote the initial letters of the following: 'I have nothing to forgive and forget, I have never stopped loving you.'
She glanced at him, the smile staying on her lips.
'I understand,' she said in a whisper.
He sat down and wrote a long phrase. She understood everything and, without asking him if she was right, took the chalk and replied at once.
For a long time he could not understand what she had written and kept glancing in her eyes. A darkening came over him from happiness. He simply could not pick out the words she had in mind; but in her lovely eyes shining with happiness he understood everything he needed to know! And he wrote three letters. But she was reading after his hand, and before he finished writing, she finished it herself and wrote the answer: 'Yes.'
Unless all happy families begin this way, they cannot be all alike. This, if I understand correctly, is how Tolstoy composed to his own wife, and Kostya resembles his creator in many other ways: A landowner, more comfortable on his farms than in the city, introverted and philosophical, shy but thoughtful and loyal. My favorite description of him comes when Tolstoy writes that "[h]e had heard that women often love unattractive, simple people, but he did not believe it, because he judged by himself, and he could only love beautiful, mysterious and special women." Anna and Vronsky are so volatile, so closed off to anyone but themselves, that it is impossible to really empathize with them; they can only be pitied. Kostya and Kitty, on the other hand, draw all of our empathy, and perhaps that too is part of the tragedy of Anna's life.
Anna Karenina is immense. I haven't even touched on a fraction of what it contains. Among other things, Tolstoy deals with the nature of art, the morality of 19th century Russian politics, the proper way to manage the farms on a country estate, the reality of death, and Kostya's slow conversion to the Christianity of his youth. Probably these last two things are what Tolstoy cared the most about. But the indelible impression left on me is of two loves, one impossibly unhappy, one impossibly happy, but neither one like anything else I've ever read.