Sunday, December 7, 2014


Lev Tolstoy, Moscow, 1862, photo by M.B. Tulinov


Citations are from the Modern Library Edition, Constance Garnett translation, revised by Leonard Kent and Nina Berberova

Part One, Ch. One

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Everything was in confusion in the Oblonsky household. The wife had discovered that the husband was carrying on an affair with their former French governess, and she had announced to her husband that she could not go on living in the same house with him. The situation had now lasted three days, and not only the husband and wife, but also all the members of their family and household, were painfully conscious of it. Every person in the house felt that there was no sense in their living together, and that people who met by chance in any inn had more in common with one another than they did, the members of the Oblonsky family and household. The wife did not leave her own room; the husband had not been home for three days. The children ran wild all over the house; the English governess quarreled with the housekeeper, and wrote to a friend, asking her to look out for a new position for her; the chef had walked out the day before just at dinnertime; the servants' cook and the coachman had given notice.

Three days after the quarrel, Prince Stepan Arkadyevich Oblonsky--Stiva as he was called in society--woke up at his usual hour, that is, at eight o'clock in the morning, not in his wife's bedroom, but on the morocco leather sofa in his study. He turned his plump, pampered body on the springy sofa, as though he would sink into a long sleep again; he vigorously embraced the pillow on the other side and buried his face in it; but all at once he jumped up, sat up on the sofa, and opened his eyes.

"Yes, yes, how was it now?" he thought, going over his dream. "Now, how was it? To be sure! Alabin was giving a dinner at Darmstadt; no, not Darmstadt, but something American. Yes, but then Darmstadt was in America. Yes, Alabin was giving a dinner on glass tables, and the tables sang Il mio tesoro--not Il mio tesoro, though, but something better, and there were some sort of little decanters on the table, and they were women, too," he remembered.

Stepan Arkadyevich's eyes twinkled gaily, and he pondered with a smile. "Yes, it was nice, very nice. There was a great deal more that was delightful, only there's no putting it into words, or even expressing it in one's thoughts once awake." And noticing a gleam of light peeping in beside one of the wool curtains, he cheerfully dropped his feet over the edge of the sofa and felt about for his slippers, a present on his last birthday, embroidered for him by his wife on gold-colored morocco. And, as he had done every day for the last nine years, he stretched out his hand, without getting up, toward the place where his dressing gown always hung in his bedroom. And thereupon he suddenly remembered that he was not sleeping in his wife's room but in his study, and why. The smile vanished from his face; he knitted his brows.

"Ah, ah, ah! Oo!" he groaned, recalling everything that had happened. And as he recalled every detail of his quarrel with his wife, he realized the hopelessness of his situation, and, most tormenting thought of all, that it was his own fault.

"Yes, she won't forgive me; she can't forgive me. And the most awful thing about it is that it's all my fault--all my fault, though I'm not to blame. That's the point of the whole situation," he reflected. "Oh, oh, oh!" he kept repeating in despair, as he remembered the acutely painful sensations caused him by this quarrel.

Most unpleasant of all was the first minute when, on coming, happy and good-humored, from the theater, with a huge pear in his hand for his wife, he had not found his wife in the drawing room, to his surprise had not found her in the study either, and saw her at last in her bedroom, holding the unfortunate letter that revealed everything.

She, his Dolly, forever fussing and worrying, whom he considered rather simple, was sitting perfectly still with the letter in her hand, looking at him with an expression of horror, despair, and indignation.

"What's this? This?" she asked, pointing to the letter.

And at this recollection, Stepan Arkadyevich, as is so often the case, was not so much annoyed at the fact itself as at the way in which he had reacted to his wife's words.

There happened to him at that instant what happens to people when they are unexpectantly caught in something very disgraceful. He did not succeed in assuming an expression suitable to the position in which he was placed by his wife's discovery of his guilt. Instead of acting hurt, denying, defending himself, begging forgiveness, instead of remaining indifferent (anything would have better than what he did), his face utterly involuntarily (reflex action of the brain, reflected Stepan Arkadyevich, who was fond of physiology)--utterly involuntarily assumed its habitual, good-humored, and therefore foolish smile.

This foolish smile he could not forgive himself. Catching sight of that smile, Dolly shuddered as though in physical pain, broke out with her characteristic passion into a flood of cruel words, and rushed out of the room. Since then she had refused to see her husband.

"It's that idiotic smile that's to blame for it all," thought Stepan Arkadyevich.

"But what's to be done? What's to be done?" he said to himself in despair, and found no answer.


I have cited the whole first chapter because it tells the reader, one who has never read Tolstoy, so much about Tolstoy's methods of characterization. Here too, there are so many nice little touches, all providing inside information on the character of Stiva: his amorality (the affair with the governess), his innate guiltlessness ("it's all my fault, though I'm not to blame"), his serene good humor and fondness for his wife (comes home bringing her a huge pear). The way he has, at any cost, a knack for rationalizing away his bad behavior ("it's the idiotic smile that's to blame").

Stiva will be with us for another 850 pages, but this first chapter already tells us almost everything we need to know about him. It presents a bon vivant whom everyone--reader and writer and all the other characters--should be censuring for his behavior, and whom no one, ultimately censures. Note, e.g., that everyone in the Oblonsky household will be on Stiva's side in this quarrel (see p.8), although they all realize that he is the culprit.

One of the main points here is that Tolstoy is incapable of drawing a totally one-sided character, and this is one of his strengths in everything that he writes. Despite his faults Stiva has a way with people; he makes people feel good. The fact that he is insincere seems not to matter in the least. In the first chapter his main leitmotif of character has not yet appeared: IT IS CHEST JUTTING AND SMILING. He walks about through the novel always jutting out his chest and smiling. When people see that chest and that smile coming at them they feel good.

The obvious contrast in characters is that of Karenin, who, as we later find out, radiates a chill that benumbs anyone in the immediate vicinity. Note the passage in Part 4, Ch. 9 (p.402), when Karenin's presence throws a pall over an entire social gathering. Then Stiva arrives, and within a matter of moments he has removed that pall and changed the whole social aura.

"Ah," you may say, "but Stiva is an unprincipled man, a rake and adulterer. At least Karenin is an honest man, faithful to his moral principles and duties." Maybe, but which of the men do you LIKE better? [more on Karenin later]

Certainly anyone would be justified in condemning much of Stiva's behavior. He lacks not only any concern for his long-suffering wife. He is, in addition, so obsessed with living for his own personal pleasures that he ignores the problems in store for his children.

[Footnote: At one point in the novel Stiva demonstrates the typical Russian nobleman's condescending attitude toward Jews. See the episode where he is attempting to worm his way into a new sinecure, a job with the railways (p. 751-52). Modern readers might see Stiva as Anti-Semitic, but Tolstoy probably would had been surprised if readers of the time condemned Stiva for anti-semitism. The condescending attitude toward Jews here could very well be Tolstoy's own, and that of any Russian nobility of the late nineteenth century. If you accused Tolstoy of hating Jews he could remind you that he worked to help Jews when they were persecuted and came out strongly against government-sponsored pogroms.]

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