Monday, January 12, 2015


(13) Marriage and Family (con.)

Throughout the novel Tolstoy treats a huge variety of family relationships and quasi-relationships. There is even a veiled hint of a homosexual family, involving two officers in Vronsky's regiment. See Part 2, Ch. 19, p. 186-87. All sorts of incidental characters in "Anna Karenina" express various ways of viewing family relationships. E.g., Stiva Oblonsky mentions one of his Petersburg acquaintances, Prince Chechensky, who not only has a wife and family, but also maintains another, illegitimate family:

"Though the first family was very nice, Prince Chechensky felt happier in his second family; and he used to take his eldest son with him to visit his second family, and told Stepan Ardadievich that he thought it good for his son, broadening his ideas" (758). [More on Tolstoy's narrative voice later. Right here, if you have read much Tolstoy, you can hear the disapproval in that voice].

Other relationships of secondary characters and their families: (1) Lyovin's scapegrace brother Nikolai lives with a former prostitute (2) Petritsky, one of Vronsky's fellow officers, maintains a state of "cheerful adultery" (Nabokov's phrase) with the Baroness Shilton (3) The rich peasant family that Lyovin stays with overnight, on his way to visit the Sviazhskies (4) Old Prince Shcherbatsky and his wife (parents of Kitty and Dolly). Here is a good example of a long-term marriage, apparently solid but full, nonetheless, of strife. The princess is depicted as frivolous, tied to the vanities of high-society life. The old prince, like Lyovin, is down-to-earth and conservative. He wishes that Kitty would marry Lyovin, while the princess prefers the dashing Vronsky. (5) The bovine family, Pava the cow, and her "husband," Berkut the bull (p. 100-02). Tolstoy is interested in animal as well as human psychology. Lyovin's dog Laska, perhaps the most famous dog in all of Russian literature, has no "spouse," at least none that we are informed of.

Apart from these incidental characters, Tolstoy compares and contrasts, over the course of the whole novel, three main family relationships: (1) Stiva-Dolly (2) Kitty Lyovin (3) Anna-Karenin, which later turns into Anna-Vronsky. Which of these, in Tolstoy's view, represents the ideal marriage? Well, really none of them. Tolstoy knows better than to assert that there is any such thing as an ideal marriage. There certainly is no perfect marriage in this book.

In speaking to Lyovin of Anna's and Karenin's prospective divorce, Stiva says that after the divorce is finalized "their situation [Anna's and Vronsky's] will be as regular as mine and yours" (724). Surely this is ironic. Stiva's situation has very little stability, and what stability it has is due to Dolly's willingness to let him go on philandering for the sake of the children.

Is Lyovin's situation "regular" at this point (late in the novel)? Well, if it is, then why is he going about contemplating suicide all the time? There is no regular marriage or perfect family in this book, but Tolstoy would certainly prefer that if you had to pick the closest to the ideal, you would pick Kitty-Lyovin.

It's almost as if Tolstoy had set out to consider all possible male-female relationships and had ended up deciding that something like what he himself was living--traditional monogamy, in close communion with nature and with lots of children--was the best. Lyovin, of course, is Tolstoy's alter ego, and the Lyovin-Kitty relationship is very closely modeled on his own.

But toward the end of writing "Anna Karenina" it is almost as if Tolstoy had a premonition that his own semi-idyllic existence, which had sustained him through the writing of his two greatest novels, "War and Peace" and "Anna Karenina," was rapidly approaching its end. He wrote through a number of serious bouts of depression while working on the novel.

As he was writing the final part of the novel, the moralist and wishful thinker in Tolstoy was still saying to himself, "Yes, the Kitty-Lyovin relationship is the closest we can get to perfect marriage and near-perfect happiness." The artist in Tolstoy, however, was saying, more realistically, "There may be good marriages, and a modicum of happiness in life, but even the best of these relationships is often overburdened with strife or grief."

Here's a good line by one of the incidental characters, a woman who attends the wedding of Kitty and Lyovin:

"'I was married in the evening too. . . . " answered Madame Korsunskaya, and she sighed, remembering how charming she had been that day, and how absurdly in love her husband was, and how different it all was now" (477).

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