Anna Karenina, Explained

A contemporary look at Chapters 1-5 of Tolstoy’s beloved drama, Anna Karenina.

“All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

With a starting line like this, audiences of the epically long Anna Karenina (one of two epically long novels Tolstoy penned in nineteenth-century Russia, because he was maybe kind of a show off and also what else was there to do in long Russian winters?), get an immediate taste of the nearly thousand pages to come. If, dear reader, you were looking for a story that will transport you out of the quarantine bubble you’re currently trapped in to a blissful, forgetful paradise…this is not that book. If that is your desire, and it is a reasonable one, please return to the Library/Barnes & Noble/Amazon page from whence it came, demand a refund, or try again.

If, on the contrary, you’re looking to be swept along in a tale of intrigue, romance, and darkness that echoes the one currently permeating our lives, then congratulations! This is the bleak book for you. In the immortal catchphrase of Saturday Night Live’s Stefon, this book has everything: Class issues, love affairs, poorly parented children, and that thing where women are engulfed in depression and scandal when indulging in the same activities and affairs as men. See? So much existential fun to be had!

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Like all stories, both happy and tragic, we have to start at the beginning.

We come upon Prince Stephen Arkadyevich Oblonsky (here-to-fore he shall be called Steve, because that is what other characters call him, and also, spelling out all these Russian names? Every time? In this pandemic?) waking up in his drawing room. His wife Darya Alexandrova (Dolly), has banished him from their bedroom, after discovering his affair with their children’s governess.

Steve, I imagine, will test the patience of other modern readers as thoroughly as he tested mine, with his whining, woe-is-me attitude. He expresses remorse for hurting his wife, but not, you know, the actual act of cheating on her with another, younger woman. In his opinion — though he privately admits to not having given his wife’s feelings much thought in the first place — his wife, the mother of his children, ought to be more lenient and forgiving of his indiscretion. He is still young and handsome and vital, while she—though a year younger than him—is now old, tired, and dull. Not at all like the young mademoiselle he carried on with; the one with shiny eyes, a “roguish” smile, and complete lack of emotional baggage.

Nice to see some things never change, I guess?

Steve’s valet Matthew, who in my head is a combo of Batman’s Alfred and Downton’s Mr. Bates, gets him ready for the day, gently teasing and encouraging his master over the domestic dispute, while also informing him that his sister, Anna Karenin (!!!) will be visiting tomorrow, in an effort to help repair her brother’s marriage. Why this is her job, I don’t know, but family visits are nice.

The household staff, though amused by the antics of their employers and siding with the man who signs their checks, beg Steve to apologize to Dolly, as the household apparently falls apart the minute she takes a break from ordering milk, her children, and her servants around.

After having some breakfast and doing minimal work, for a job we find Anna’s husband secured for him, Steve goes to his wife in an attempt to repair the damage. It, to say the least, goes very badly. He finds her trapped in a vicious cycle, packing and unpacking her bags, unable to decide whether to stay or to take their children to her mothers. After failing to talk Dolly into preparing a room for his sister’s arrival – which, personally, I don’t see as a great strategy for talking your wife into forgiving your painful affair, but to each their own — Dolly insists she won’t life a finger to help. This won’t last, cause social pressure and history and gender roles, etc, but for now, go Dolly! After a lot of her crying and his placating, she forces him to leave. Sinking down in exhaustion and pain, she curses her remaining love for him. The she pulls herself together and goes to check that her children do indeed have enough milk. A woman’s work is never done, even when she catches her husband in a scandalous affair.   

After this horrendously miscalculated fight, Steve retreats to a private men’s club of which he is a member, only to be informed that someone is waiting for him. Who should he find but Constantine Dmitrich Levin (Levin, and also, can you imagine spelling that to a customer service rep over the phone?) an old, close friend from childhood. Steve and Levin’s friendship, we find, is molded in the tradition of friends who met as children and remain so even though they have nothing at all in common. While Steve is genial and gay, Levin is serious. You can tell this because of the tone of his voice, his severity, and because he never smiles.

Levin and Steve talk some, but Levin is adamant that they need to leave the club and talk more, later. Steve, who again, has known Levin for a very long time, deduces that it’s not him Levin wants to see more of, it’s his sister-in-law, Princess Kitty Alexandrova (a name short enough to type frequently.) Steve, knowing Levin wants to ask for Kitty’s hand in marriage, encourages the idea, but also warns him of attention from another suitor. He arranges for Levin to meet him at a famous Russian garden with an ice-skating rink, where wouldn’t you know it, Kitty skates every day. This sends Levin into twin rushes of happiness and nerves. It’s never easy to ask out (or propose to) the person you like, even if you’re a kind, serious, rich Russian landowner who would make her a proper suitor. Love hurts, man!

Next Week: Anna arrives, fixes Steve’s marriage, and is obnoxiously charming to everyone!

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