Tolstoy with His Family, Yasnaya Polyana, 1892
(4) Stiva, Monogamy, and Oysters
"Anna Karenina" treats a wide variety of themes, but its central theme is Marriage and Family. Taken as a whole the novel represents a lengthy defense of the monogamous marriage, but Stiva Oblonsky, while he certainly believes in marriage, does not believe in monogamy.
In accord with liberal thinking of his time he sees marriage as an archaic institution. "Family life certainly afforded Stepan Arkadyevich little gratification, and it forced him into lying and hypocrisy, which were so repulsive to his nature" (p.9). As he tells his friend Lyovin, "A man must be independent; he has his masculine interests. A man has to be manly," and the family should not get in his way while he is, so to speak, "being manly": out eating well and pursuing servant girls, governesses, and ballet dancers (p. 617).
Late in the novel, in speaking of his attempts to secure a divorce from Karenin for his sister Anna, Stiva speaks of the marriage rite as that "stupid old ceremony," with its "walking round and round and singing Rejoice, O Isaiah! that no one believes in and that stands in the way of the happiness of people" (p. 723-4). This argument, this refutation of the institution of marriage is still around today. In fact, in many ways this nineteenth century novel is highly contemporaneous with our times, since it raises issues that have never been resolved.
In Stiva's final appearance in the novel he is in a train station, with all the characters in the novel, minus one, who were present in the first train-station scene (p. 63-71--much more on this later). His beloved sister Anna is dead, he has squandered a good deal more of his wife's assets, but he is still beaming with happiness.
We can look at the unchanged Stiva in one of two ways. First, his incorrigible personality, his inability to learn the error of his ways and change for the better demonstrates the perpetual continuity of human vulgarity and philistinism. After all, don't we know people like Stiva who are living around us today?
But then, perhaps, we prefer the second way of viewing Stiva. He walks around beaming, jutting out his chest, wafting goodwill. He revels in life, enjoys it to the hilt. In some ways Stiva is a figure who arouses more optimism than any other character in the book. We condemn his amorality and his selfishness, but, simultaneously, we enjoy having him around. We enjoy watching people enjoy life. We take pleasure, as Lyovin does early in the novel, in the very act of watching Stiva eat oysters. Stiva is the kind of person people enjoy watching eating oysters:
"Stepan Arkadyevich crushed the starchy napkin, tucked it into his vest, and, settling his arms comfortably, started on the oysters.
'Not bad,' he said, stripping the oysters from the pearly shells with a silver fork and swallowing them, one after another.'"Not bad,' he repeated, turning his dewy, brilliant eyes from Lyovin to the Tartar [the waiter].
Lyovin ate the oysters, though white bread and cheese would have pleased him better. But he was admiring Oblonsky. Even the Tartar, uncorking the bottle and pouring the sparkling wine into the thin, wide glasses, glanced at Stepan Arkadyevich and settled his white cravat with a perceptible smile of satisfaction." (Part One, Ch. 9, p. 39)
Tolstoy is a master at depicting sensual pleasure. Yet, simultaneously, he frowns upon indulgence in the sensual. Ever the sensual anti-sensualist and the the anti-sensual sensualist, Tolstoy, as we shall see, goes round and round inside his mind.