As a sacrament mirroring Christ’s relationship with the Church, marriage truly is a profound mystery. But it is hardly less mysterious when considered simply as a human relationship between a woman and a man. Among writers who have grasped that fact, few have understood its implications—sometimes, at least—quite as well as the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy.
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Those are of course the famous opening words of one of the greatest works of fiction ever written, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
Whether what the sentence asserts is true or not remains in dispute. A friend of mine, a vehement Thomist, contends on what he insists are Thomistic grounds that it’s just the other way around: unhappy families are alike, happy ones are different. Be that as it may, however, there can be no doubt that Anna Karenina is a heckuva book.
It’s about many things. But as even many people who haven’t read it are aware, it’s especially about adultery and its destructive consequences. In a larger frame of reference, nevertheless, the book is about the relationship of men and women, and the vast number of variations this relationship can take within general categories like happy and unhappy, tempestuous and tranquil, ennobling and degrading, arena of complementarity and of bitter conflict.
Among its many subplots, the story of Anna Karenina is central. Anna is an upper-class Russian woman of the mid-19th century (the novel was published in 1876), at home in the elegant society of Moscow and St. Petersburg, married to a priggish high government official, mother of a young son, discontented but dutiful. Then she meets a dashing, unscrupulous nobleman named Vronsky. He pursues her and wins her, thereby setting in motion events that end in her tragic death.
The novel is extraordinary in tracing the deterioration of the relationship between the morally hollow Vronsky and the passionate, jealous Anna. At a key moment, she tells him, “For us, for you and me, there is only one thing that matters, whether we love one another. Other people we need not consider.” Here, the reader realizes, is a woman corrupted by eros gone bad.
But it isn’t only these two whom Tolstoy brings to life, and the psychological exactitude of his portraits is breathtaking throughout. As, for example, in the case of Darya (“Dolly”) Oblonsky, faithful wife of a faithless husband and one of the book’s most appealing characters, who daydreams about having a glamorous affair like that of her dear friend Anna. Is this shocking? Perhaps. But at a stroke, a century early, Tolstoy laid bare a swath of the inner lives of many soap opera fans and readers of romance novels.
Anna Karenina is a very long book—over 900 pages of small print in my old Modern Library edition. The Russian names make it hard to keep track of minor characters. The book has dull stretches where the author indulges in his penchant for theorizing about agriculture, the Russian peasant, and the weaknesses of provincial government. It is not everyone’s cup of tea.
But I wish that everyone in the Church who writes and preaches about marriage would read it and learn from it. The institution of marriage was already in trouble when Anna Karenina was published. Now it’s in crisis. Better than almost anyone else I can think of, Tolstoy in this novel shows where the stress lines in the man-woman relationship lie and what it takes to heal them.