“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Beginning with this famous opening line, Anna Karenina is an exploration of the complications of family life. Early nineteenth-century Russian novels often featured idealized portrayals domestic bliss. Family life and individual freedom might seem initially to be contrasting forces throughout the novel, but even though characters may think they will have more freedom if they reject all of the conventions of family life, these choices can ironically give them the least amount of personal control and autonomy.
Anna Karenina challenges the conceptions both of individual freedom and of marital bliss, showing how complex family life can be by offering parallel portraits of several intertwined families. The three main family units in the novel are the Oblonskys, the Karenins, and the Levins. Each of the three main family units offers a very different option for the evolution of family life: the fulfilled, happy marriage; the marriage that sticks together in spite of troubles; and the dissolved family.
The Levins begin unattached but end in marriage and a stable family life. Kitty is initially in love with Vronsky and refuses Levin’s first proposal, which crushes him, but then Kitty is crushed when Vronsky rejects her to pursue Anna. However, they eventually reconcile and wed. Levin’s second proposal to Kitty is at the structural and emotional center of the novel. Levin and Kitty communicate through code, showing that they are already united before they even need the words to prove it. Although in the initial period after they marry, Levin is afraid that his individual freedom has been compromised when Kitty comes to live with him on in the country, they develop a deep, tender family life together, first by caring for Levin’s dying brother and then through the birth of their child.
The Oblonsky family is a story of sticking together: even though their relationship is shaken by infidelity, the Oblonsky family remains constant throughout the novel. Like the Levins, the Oblonsky family also ends happily in that it remains intact, but this intactness comes at a steep price, and many tensions remain. At the beginning of the novel, the Oblonsky family appears to be at the breaking point. Oblonsky Oblonsky, Anna’s brother, is married to Dolly but has an affair with the governess. But even though Dolly knows that Oblonsky has been unfaithful, she decides not to leave him––she salvages the marriage for the sake of the family. The Oblonskys reconcile themselves through compromise.
The Karenin family comes to a tragic end over the course of the novel as their initial family unit falls to pieces. Anna runs away with Vronsky, but Karenin refuses to grant her a divorce. Even though she has been unfaithful and her reputation is eventually ruined, Karenin does not want to compromise his own position in society. Eventually, both her relationships as well as her position in society crumble. After Anna’s suicide, Karenin accepts custody of Annie, Anna’s daughter by Vronsky, thus providing a glimmer of hope for the shattered family to rebuild in the future.
Marriage and Family Life ThemeTracker
Marriage and Family Life Quotes in Anna Karenina
In that brief glance Vronsky had time to notice the restrained animation that played over her face and fluttered between her shining eyes and the barely noticeable smile that curved her red lips. It was as if a surplus of something so overflowed in her being that it expressed itself beyond her will, now in the brightness of her glance, now in her smile.
And the son, just like the husband, produced in Anna a feeling akin to disappointment. She had imagined him better than he was in reality. She had to descend to reality to enjoy him as he was.
“Don’t you know that you are my whole life? But I know no peace and cannot give you any. All of myself, my love...yes. I cannot think of you and myself separately. You and I are one for me. And I do not see the possibility of peace ahead either for me or for you. I see the possibility of despair, of unhappiness... or I see the possibility of happiness, such happiness!...Isn’t it possible?” he added with his lips only; but she heard him.
She strained all the forces of her mind to say what she ought to say; but instead she rested her eyes on him, filled with love, and made no answer.
And he felt as a murderer must feel when he looks at the body he has deprived of life. This body deprived of life was their love, the first period of their love... Shame at her spiritual nakedness weighed on her and communicated itself to him. But, despite all the murderer’s horror before the murdered body, he had to cut this body into pieces and hide it, he had to make use of what the murderer had gained by his murder.
“Not a word more,” she repeated, and with an expression of cold despair on her face, which he found strange, she left him. She felt that at that moment she could not put into words her feeling of shame, joy, and horror before this entry into a new life, and she did not want to speak of it, to trivialize this feeling with imprecise words. But later, too, the next day and the day after that, she not only found no words in which she could express all the complexity of these feelings, but was unable even to find thoughts in which she could reflect with herself on all that was in her soul.
“What was that? What? What was that terrible thing I saw in my dream? Yes, yes. The muzhik tracker, I think, small, dirty, with a disheveled beard, was bending down and doing something, and he suddenly said some strange words in French. Yes that’s all there was to the dream,” he said to himself. “But why was it so horrible?”
“And this something turned, and I saw it was a muzhik with a disheveled beard, small and frightening. I wanted to run away, but he bent over a sack and rummaged in it with his hands...” And she showed how he rummaged in the sack. There was horror on her face. And Vronsky, recalling his dream, felt the same horror filling his soul.
“I cannot forgive, I do not want to, and I consider it unjust. I did everything for that woman, and she trampled everything in the mud that is so suitable to her. I am not a wicked man, I have never hated anyone, but I hate her with all the strength of my soul, and I cannot even forgive her, because I hate her so much for all the evil she has done me!”
“Here,” he said, and wrote the initial letters: w, y, a, m: t, c, b, d, i, m, n, o, t? These letters meant: “When you answered me: ‘that cannot be,’ did it mean never or then?” ... She wrote, t, I, c, g, n, o, a ... And he wrote three letters. But she was reading after his hand, and before he finished writing, she finished it herself and wrote the answer: “Yes.”
All that night and morning Levin had lived completely unconsciously and had felt himself completely removed from the conditions of material life. He had not eaten for a whole day, had not slept for two nights, had spent several hours undressed in the freezing cold, yet felt not only fresh and healthy as never before but completely independent of his body.
Often and much as they had both heard about the belief that whoever is first to step on the rug will be the head in the family, neither Levin nor Kitty could recall it as they made those few steps. Nor did they hear the loud remarks and disputes that, in the observation of some, he had been the first, or, in the opinions of others, they had steps on it together.
The sight of his brother and the proximity of death renewed in Levin’s soul that feeling of horror at the inscrutability and, with that, the nearness and inevitability of death, which had seized him on that autumn evening when his brother had come for a visit. The feeling was now stronger than before; he felt even less capable than before of understanding the meaning of death, and its inevitability appeared still more horrible to him; but now, thanks to his wife’s nearness, the feeling did not drive him to despair: in spite of death, he felt the necessity to live and to love. He felt that love saved him from despair and that under the threat of despair this love was becoming still stronger and purer.
But even without looking in the mirror she thought it was still not too late. She remembered Sergei Ivanovich, who was especially amiable to her, and Stiva’s friend, the kindly Turovtsyn, who had helped her take care of her children when they had scarlet fever and was in love with her. And there was also one quite young man who, as her husband had told her jokingly, found her the most beautiful of all the sisters. And Darya Alexandrovna pictured the most passionate and impossible love affairs.
He knew and felt only that what was being accomplished was similar to what had been accomplished a year ago in a hotel in a provincial capital, on the deathbed of his brother Nikolai. But that had been grief and this was joy. But that grief and this joy were equally outside all ordinary circumstances of life, were like holes in this ordinary life, through which something higher showed. And just as painful, as tormenting in its coming, was what was now accomplished; and just as inconceivably, in contemplating this higher thing, the soul rose to such heights as it had never known before, where reason was no longer able to overtake it.
“Respect was invented to cover the empty place where love should be. But if you don’t love me, it would be better to say so.”
“No, you’re going in vain,” she mentally addressed a company in a coach-and-four who were evidently going out of town for some merriment. “And the dog you’re taking with you won’t help you. You won’t get away from yourselves.”
And just at that moment when the midpoint between the two wheels came even with her, she threw the red bag aside and, drawing her head down between her shoulders, fell on her hands under the carriage, and with a light movement, as if preparing to get up again at once, sank to her knees.
“I’ll get angry in the same way with the coachman Ivan, argue in the same way, speak my mind inappropriately, there will be the same wall between my soul’s holy of holies and other people, even my wife, I’ll accuse her in the same way of my own fear and then regret it, I’ll fail in the same way to understand with my reason why I pray, and yet I will pray – but my life now, my whole life, regardless of all that may happen to me, every minute of it, is not only meaningless, as it was before, but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which is in my power to put into it!”