“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
This opening sentence sums up the main theme of this great work: family relationships. Tolstoy has chosen three families to work on the different aspects of this theme. The first family is that of Anna and the second family is that of Levin and Kitty. The third and a little less prominent than the other two is the family of Dolly and Stepan.
Anna’s story, for which the book is well known and loved, occupies a greater part of the book. Anna is young. Having married a man nearly twenty years elder to her at a very young age, Anna is not exposed to the feelings of love and passion a woman would feel for a man. Alexey, an ambitious man who treats her wife to every material comfort, fails to give Anna the care, attention, and love which she needed. Anna’s later reference to her husband as “he is not a man but a machine…”shows how unfeeling he has been towards her. The comforter and saviour of her life was his son, Seryozha, for whom she had devoted her life while being a dutiful wife. But the fateful meeting with Count Vronsky changes her path of life. Anna’s realization of what is missing in her life coupled with the newborn feelings of love and passion for Vronsky takes her through a destructive and tragic path.
The widespread view on Anna’s story is that of a woman’s infidelity in carrying out an adulterous affair. While this view is correct, there is more to it than that of mere adultery. The relationship between the threesome is complex. Anna is bound by duty and honour to her husband while she passionately loves Vronsky. She is torn between wronging her husband and her desire to live happily with the man she loves. Moreover, Anna is worried about the consequences that her action would have on her relationship with her precious son. Her son and Vronsky are the love of her life but one excludes the other. For this reason, she refuses a divorce thus willingly demoting her to a humiliating position by living as an “immoral woman” in the eyes of the society. Her self-sacrifice of character simply to retain her relationship with her son is to be admired and pitied. And though at times, Anna was infuriating, the story is written in such a way that it was difficult to blame her. This is why Anna has become a tragic heroine.
Vronsky and Alexey (either could be seen as the villain in this tragic story according to the personal views of the reader) on the other hand are both victims in their own right. Both are to be sympathized, perhaps Vronsky a little more than Alexey, as he gave up all his life ambitions for his love for Anna.
In contrast to Anna’s tragic story, a “happy” conventional family is provided by Levin and Kitty. Despite the differences of character, temperament, views, and beliefs Levin and Kitty manage to carry on a successful and loving marriage. The family relationship between Levin and Kitty is modeled on Tolstoy’s own convictions on marriage.
The relationship between Dolly and Stepan comes between these two extremes. In the light of Stepan’s infidelity and his expensive way of living, Dolly and her children suffer considerably. Dolly would like to walk out of the marriage. But her children, convention, and her religious beliefs all contribute to her indecision on the course of action. A vain belief that her husband’s conduct is not “infidelity of the heart” keeps her going on with her “sham” marriage.
The book consists of two separate yet interconnected plots: One is the plot woven around Anna and the other is the plot woven around Levin. Former, with its complex emotions, social conventions coupled with women’s position legally and socially, provides for the excitement and life of the entire work. The latter, more or less modeled on Tolstoy’s life, provides for the political, philosophical, social, and religious views of the author as well as an insight into the author’s life struggles. I liked both plots. Each has complemented the other to produce a complete work in every sense. And the characters which were modeled by Tolstoy’s observance of society were felt real. There were no characters that one could call artificial.
Above all what is most striking is the beautiful writing of Tolstoy. His use of metaphors is very clever and marvelous. Reading the book was like eating a rich and thick layered piece of cake. No matter how many layers are peeled, its taste does not diminish.
Words would not do justice to say how much I loved this work. It is one brilliant and marvelous piece of work. A work can be a great classic, but to become a masterpiece, the author has to steer it above common ground. And Tolstoy has achieved this end quite brilliantly.