Family in Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina

Alicia Vikander and Domnhall Gleason as Kitty and Levin in Joe Wright’s 2012 adaptation of Anna Karenina, a fun, if unsuccessful reworking of Tolstoy’s novel.

The notion of family plays a significant role in Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. The novel portrays many distinct and interrelated family units over the course of its nine hundred pages, each of which has its own composition and situation and brings a new angle to bear on Tolstoy’s understanding of the family. Though Tolstoy’s famous opening line seems at first simply to be an observation which primes the reader for the scenes of marital and familial chaos of the novel’s opening, it soon becomes a yardstick by which to measure the events of the book. As the reader meets family after family and grows more and more intimate with a select few, the question raised by that first sentence (and which goes unanswered and unmentioned in the pages immediately following it) lingers: if all happy families alike, what is it that they are like?

A casual reader glancing back at the first page upon finishing the novel might remark to himself that if all happy families are alike, then Anna Karenina can contain at most only one such family, given the variation in family portraits the novel provides. A moment more consideration in this reader would probably turn up only one family as a candidate for this honor of being Anna Karenina’s happy family: the Levins. This, however, is not quite the case. While the novel does indeed contain a portrait of a happy family and that family even has a Shcherbatsky daughter in the role of the mother, it is not the Levin family, but the Lvov one which is the novel’s model for happiness. This is not to say, however, that the Levins are an unhappy family or that they are incapable of attaining the status of a happy family. Rather, for Tolstoy, the issue is not a black and white one; instead, happiness in a family is a single point and unhappiness an entire spectrum leading up to that point. In the portrait of the Levins, Tolstoy provides an account of a family moving towards happiness, rather than an account of a family in the midst of unhappiness or moving towards it. In the Levins is the potential to become like the Lvovs and thus become happy, proof that indeed all happy families are alike. 

The Lvovs are hardly more than background characters in the novel and yet the impression they make when they appear together near the end is striking. Though Levin spends not even four pages in the Lvov house, the reader gets a complete sense of the family’s life  since Levin is so interested in their state and interrelations. When Lvov begins to talk of his children, Levin gladly picks up the subject “which always interested [him]” (772), to the extent that he “even forget[s] the commission entrusted to him” (774) and the reason for his visit. Levin admires Lvov and his dedication to his wife and children—a dedication so strong that he has given up his work in the foreign service and returned to Russia (despite having been raised and lived his whole life abroad) in order to see that his sons get a good education, rather than being allowed to “run wild abroad” (772). As Lvov talks about his involvement in his sons’ education (he reads the books his sons are assigned along with them) and as Levin praises them and their bringing up, Lvov futilely seeks to “restrain” his “delight,” but betrays himself in that “he [is] positively radiant with smiles” (772). For Lvov, his children are at least equally as important as his work (“my official work and the children leave me no time” (771, emphasis my own)), portraying a relation starkly contrasted to those we have seen earlier in the novel. Lvov has none of Karenin’s cold ambition, which leads him to neglect family life; nor does he neglect his affairs to the extent that Oblonsky does, realizing that they are necessary to the upkeep of his family. Rather, he achieves a balance between work and family which allows for the happy continuance of the family.

The portrait of Lvov family life does not simply come from the father, though, as we also meet both Natalie and the children—an important fact in that it allows Tolstoy to portray all the relations necessary for happiness. Though Natalie comments at Kitty’s wedding that “we’re all obedient wives” (518), speaking of herself, Dolly, Kitty, and her mother, it’s clear that her relation to Lvov is not the hierarchical one of rigorous unquestioning obedience. Rather the relation which Levin witnesses is a loving, comfortable, and equal one, wherein Natalie feels free to challenge and tease her husband, as she does about the extent to which he dotes upon their children. “Arseny goes to extremes,” she confides to Levin as if her husband is not there, “he assures me our children are perfect, when I know that they have many defects” (773). Her gentle mockery reveals that the two are on an equal plane whereupon she feels comfortable in contradicting and teasing her husband, without fear that she will be misunderstood. That Lvov replies in kind, accusing her of behaving more like “a step mother, and not a true mother” (773), demonstrates the stability of their relation and the degree to which they understand one another. Lvov knows Natalie loves their children and feels no insecurity about her relation to them and so he knows how she will take his remark. The same is true for Natalie’s knowledge of Lvov, to the extent that this playful exchange of jabs becomes for them their own language reminiscent of the the silent language of Kitty and Levin, which allows them to understand one another on a deeper level than that of normal speech.

Lvov’s comment flags a truth about Natalie, however: she does not fit the stereotype of the “ideal mother” as someone like Dolly does. In Lvov and Natalie, Tolstoy portrays something of a reversal of traditional gender roles in a marriage—Lvov centers his life around the children, Natalie teases him for his extreme dedication—in order to emphasize the equality of their relationship and their hand in bringing up the children. In Natalie and Lvov, Tolstoy makes a plea for the rescue of the mother from the drudgery that constant, unrelenting motherhood becomes when the wife is forced to bear the burden alone, as Dolly is. While Dolly is younger than her sister, she appears emaciated and has lost her beauty as a result of the tolls of her motherhood, whereas Natalie’s shared duties and responsibilities and happy relations with her husband have left her still “beautiful” (772). In the Lvovs we see a family which works because its parts work together towards the same goal. The family is truly a unit and not fragmented as in the Oblonsky household, where the goals of mother and father are, if not diametrically opposed, so distant as to be utterly foreign to one another.

However, there is one final element to the Lvov happiness which Tolstoy subtly emphasizes in preparation for Levin’s discovery of that same element and movement towards happiness with Kitty. Lvov tels Levin that “no father could bring children up relying on his own strength alone without that help [of religion]” (772). This line, which Levin does not comment upon as they are interrupted by the entrance of Natalie, is easily passed over as over-tired parent’s way of expressing the magnitude of his duty, however it becomes apparent that it is much more when read in connection with the last few pages of the novel and Levin’s revelation of faith as being the means of generating meaning for life (923). Faith is the final element which Tolstoy believes a family needs in order to achieve happiness, binding husband, wife, and children together. For a family to be happy, it must center on children (an idea jokingly summed up by Natalie’s “parents are not expected to live at all, but to exist altogether for their children” (773), an idea which Lvov, Levin, and Tolstoy appear to take seriously), the mother and father must be equal and working together towards the same goal, and they must have faith.

That these are the central tenets of happiness makes clear Levin and Kitty’s potential for the achievement of a happy family, though they are not there yet. As the novel ends, Levin’s relation to his son is in process. Initially he had felt nothing but “disgust and compassion” (812) for him, but following the incident of the storm, he is surprised by his ability to be “delighted” (920) by his son, the word recalling Lvov’s relation to his own children. We know from Levin’s interaction with Dolly’s children that he has the potential to achieve a Lvovian father figure status and his shift towards his son reveals that his process towards that state has begun. Kitty and Levin, too, are in process in terms of their relation to one another as the novel ends. Though we have long known their ability to understand one another intimately, the start of their marriage is colored by disagreement and mutual incomprehension. Levin discovers that he wants to be obeyed (as when Kitty disobeys him in the storm incident (906)) and that Kitty does not necessarily always want to obey him. However, where earlier in their marriage her disobeying him might have led to a quarrel, when he sees that all is well he apologizes and admits that he doesn’t really know what he’s saying, and, in penitence walks “beside” (918) her on the way home, the word indicating a growing equality and respect. In the last pages of the novel, Levin is struck by Kitty’s smile, which is “radiant” (920), recalling again Lvov’s happiness and indicating the potential for Kitty and Levin to achieve the same thing. Thus, by the last page of the novel, the processes of happiness have been set in motion and the Levins are well on their way to achieving that elusive sameness of the happy family.

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