"All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" are the famous opening words of the tragic love story Anna Karenina (FP: 1877; 813) by Leo Tolstoy. This is perhaps the most famous first line one would read. Anna Karenina is a novel of many dimensions with ebbs and troughs. Set in Russia around the time of the liberation of the serfs, the novel deals with society: the people, the laws and the government. The main story revolves around Anna Karenina, the eponymous character of the novel.
Anna Karenina had returned from Moscow, where she had been to solve a problem between her brother, Oblonsky, and her wife, Dolly [Darya], after the former had cheated on the latter with his children's English governess and the marriage seemed destined for disaster. Initially, one would have thought that the story revolves around the Oblonsky family. However, it quickly settles on the Karenins. In Moscow Anna had met the playboy Vronsky, who had been considered and silently approved as the potential husband of Kitty [Katherine, Dolly's younger sister]. The two almost fell in love with each other and even though Anna took it lightly, initially, the symptoms of what would end tragically began to show.
The Pretentiousness of the Aristocrats: On Anna's part, things started looking bad and weird. It began with the ears of her husband, which she thought had grown larger or so, when she first noticed him at the train station where he had come to meet her upon her return to Petersburg. This was followed by her sudden disinterest in her husband's circle of friends; the very circle that launched Karenin's - the husband's - career and which she had previously revelled in. Anna rejected her moral society and immersed herself in the societies and circles where there was a higher probability of coming into contact with Vronsky. Thus, it was clear from the beginning that Anna knew, at least sub-consciously - even if she would deny it openly - what she was doing. That soon, a relationship would develop and something untoward would happen. And it did.
One major theme in this story is the pretentious lives the aristocrats lived. Their preference to keep up appearances to please society: the fear of living their lives in full and fully expressing their emotions; of having to do everything behind the curtains; of bottling up emotions, hurts, failures which could have been solved with just an vocal expression or their outward expressions. The hollowness of the made-up life of the aristocrats came through in this narrative. On the other hand, the Peasants lived a fulfilling life; at least they were themselves though they also had other problems. The need to please society was of such priority to them - the Aristocrats - that when Karenin suspected her wife's unnatural relationship with Vronsky, his problem was how society would take it. Thus, Karenin's problem concerning her wife's relationship with Vronsky was society's problem. So that instead of discussing the issue with her, ab initio, he was concerned more of that society's rule (the rule of the Aristocrats) that made any feeling of jealousy towards one's wife a degradation on the part of the husband. And so to avoid such degradation he refused to talk about it. The epitome of this classic pretentiousness was when Karenin completely feigned any knowledge or suspicion of Anna's adulterous behaviour and even when Anna blurted it out to him, Karenin was prepared to keep up appearances until a solution found.
Marriage and Divorce: This pretence, that seemed to up Karenin's virtuousness because of his willingness to forgive, and actually forgiving, Anna, created an intense hatred in Anna towards her husband. Though this hatred developed only after meeting Vronsky, it was clear that the relationship was bereft of love, at least not the kind that Anna sought. It could possibly also be an excuse to justify her adulterous behaviour; however, what was clear was that Karenin, especially, was trapped into marriage with Anna by her aunt. There was no natural development of love between the two and they just found themselves married. This situation spoke to the type of societal mores that existed at the time with regards to marriage and divorce. The two were both living for society and not for themselves. However, whereas Karenin was trapped and eternally so by society and by religion, Anna sought freedom and rescue. But there would be no such thing when everybody was living such a life. Karenin exuded no emotions, as required by a man of his status, and was a hypocrite; however, his was the hypocrisy of the aristocrats which was unconscious to the people living it.
Thus, Tolstoy through the marriage of Anna and Karenin addressed the problems that pertained to that particular institution and the process leading to it. This included parents marrying their young daughters away without recourse to love but to wealth and status. This almost happened to Kitty who was encouraged by her mother to marry Vronsky and not Levin, an aristocrat who had chosen to live in the countryside. Another aspect of marriage that Tolstoy discussed was divorce and how complex it was at the time to obtain one because of the religious view of marriage as a holy union between a man and a woman.
As a punishment to herself, Anna initially did not request to be divorced, and even refused it when Karenin, in the early period, had offered it. However, this was subsequently refused by the Karenin when Anna requested, based on his renewed belief in the role he ought to play in Anna's life. And since it was the offended person who could seek divorce, Anna was trapped in her relationship with Vronsky. It also meant that, in that illegal union, whatever issue that came forth, such as the daughter she had with Vronsky, belonged to Karenin. However, Karenin was mocked, initially, for not divorcing his wife; for allowing her to have her way and for acting different from what other people always did. Thus, he who did no wrong other than attempting to forgive her wife was himself crucified.
Gender Discrimination: Though this story is about love and unlove, adultery on both sides of the gender equation (Anna cheating on Karenin with Vronsky, Anna's brother Oblonsky cheating on her wife Dolly (Darya) with his children's governess), it is also about the unequal treatment of the genders for similar offences. A cheating wife was more certain to be shunned both by her peers and society at large than a cheating husband. This was clear in the lives of Anna and Oblonsky. Though society barred Anna from coming out, from associating with people because of her status as a fallen undivorced woman living with a man she was not married to, this same society allowed Vronsky entry and participation. Sometimes even Vronsky himself prevented Anna from going out, citing society's perception and reception of her.
However, Anna's decision - leaving her husband to live with a man she loved - though repulsive to society at large, resonated with some women like Dolly whose husband had cheated on her and who sometimes doubted or questioned her love for him. Thus, in a sense Anna was a revolutionary; the leading figure in women empowerment of the time. To the extent that she took total control of herself, including decisions as touchy as childbirth, is testament to her resolve.
Consequently, the first part of the book where Anna was married to Karenin and the relationship was coming to an end could be described as the period of Anna's bondage; whereas the second part where she was travelling in Europe with Vronsky could be described as the period of her freedom or empowerment.
Vanity and Duality: But Anna was enigmatic. She was dual, embodying both evil and love in their extreme and it was in the absolute expression of this duality that led to her tragic end. She loved and hated in equal measure. Her insecurity and her decisions were extreme. She created imaginary problems of Vronsky deserting her; forgot that Vronsky had given up his career and had also nearly died for her sake. For Anna Karenina everything depended on love and if there was love enough nothing else mattered. Consumed by her love for Vronsky she considered everything peripheral to it unnecessary and not worth considering including the their daughter whose status in that murky scheme of things was itself undefined at best.
She had refused to divorce Karenin only because she saw nothing wrong in the relationship with Vronsky even though she knew it would affect her daughter, whom she expressly did not love, and Vronsky who would have no heirs. Her vanity and perhaps the extreme manifestation of her duality of love and hate was when she took that unilateral decision to undergo hysterectomy in order that she would remain young and beautiful to earn Vronsky's love alone without regards to whether he would want children or not. Could this be love in all its forms? Could self-love be absolute? These sides to Anna was unsettling. She was like the desert, nothing could satisfy her, which worried Vronsky because nothing he did was enough. She needed nothing in halves.
Belief and Unbelief: The story is also about blind faith and the effects of religion on the people - as depicted in the life of Karenin, who, because of his belief, would not divorce his wife and let her be free even though she had deserted him; and who would consult with mediums in order to make such decisions. This religious angle was pitched against the free-thinkers like Dmitri and Koznyshev and those betwixt like Levin, who unstable in his thoughts, was later Christianised. The religious beliefs of Karenin and Lydia Ivanovna were the epitome of all beliefs.
Communism and Capitalism: In addition to the story of Anna, there were discussions that dealt with the economic system of the time. This discussion is prevalent in most of the 19th Century Russian literature I have read. And it could be a precursor to the introduction of Communism in the 20th Century in Russia. It is more likely that the shift to Communism as a form of government was predicated on the extreme slavery and oppression of the Peasants - the labourers of the land - who formed the masses by the few capitalists: land owners and merchants. Most of the novels set in this period discuss the gains that could be derived from sharing and the need to fight the oppression of the masses. For instance, Nicholas' views on capitalism were scathing as he proposed Communism to solve these defects:
You know that capitalism oppresses the workers. Our workmen the peasants bear the whole burden of labour, but are so placed that, work as they may, they cannot escape from their degrading condition. All the profits on their labour, by which they might better their condition, give themselves some leisure, and consequently gain some education, all this surplus value is taken away by the capitalists. And our society has so shaped itself that the more the people work the richer the merchants and landowners will become, while the people will remain beasts of burden for ever. And this system must be changed. 
These landowners and merchants and those in sinecure political offices were the aristocrats. For instance, Levin to poke fun at Oblonsky and to show how useless the aristocrats had become redefined it as not only people of noble birth with educated parents but people who depended on their own labour and hard work and were not dependent on government grants or others to survive.
Anna Karenina deals with the absurdities of rigid societal laws and principles at the time and the hollowness of life lived in pretence. It also captures the life of a people at a point in time. Tolstoy masterfully and subtly shifts the reader's allegiance from Karenin to Karenina to Vronsky to Karenina. This is a book that is worth the read even though the beauty is not the same throughout the novel. The story of Anna Karenina proved to be stronger and more interesting than the others. However, it is worth one's time to read this book.
_________________________*Version translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude and published by Wordsworth Classics