The Moral Urgency of Anna Karenina

This is amazing, a clear and easily understood explanation of how a great writer accomplished his intentions. The writer is Tolstoy, the book is Anna Karenina, and the focus is Tolstoy’s understanding of the good life.

I knew this would be good at the very beginning, where the essayist looks at the very famous first sentence and tells us that it is generally misunderstood:

Often quoted but rarely understood, the first sentence of Anna Karenina—“All happy families resemble each other; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”—offers a paradoxical insight into what is truly important in human lives. What exactly does this sentence mean?

In War and Peace and in a variant of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy quotes a French proverb: “Happy people have no history.” Where there are dramatic events, where there is material for an interesting story, there is unhappiness. The old curse—“May you live in interesting times!”—suggests that the more narratable a life is, the worse it is.

With happy lives and happy families, there is no drama to relate. What are you going to say: They woke up, breakfasted, didn’t quarrel, went to work, dined pleasantly, and didn’t quarrel again?

Happy families resemble each other because there is no story to tell about them. But unhappy families all have stories, and each story is different.

Not only did I learn something new here about Anna Karenina, it dawned on me that Tolstoy had something to teach me about one of my own growing beliefs, namely that pursuit of the good life consists (or should consist) in large part of eliminating elements of drama from one’s life—despite what the folks championing significant, radical Christianity are telling us.

But how can this be true about one of the best novels ever written, which tells a very dramatic and unhappy story? The essayist continues:

We tend to think that true life is lived at times of high drama. When Anna Karenina reads a novel on the train, she wants to live the exciting incidents described. Both high literature and popular culture foster the delusion that ordinary, prosaic happiness represents something insufferably bourgeois, a suspension of real living. Forms as different as romantic drama, adventure stories, and tragedies suggest that life is truly lived only in moments of great intensity.

Tolstoy thought just the opposite. […]

That is the story Anna Karenina imagines she is living. As one of her friends observes, she resembles a heroine from a romance. But Anna’s sense of herself is not Tolstoy’s sense of her. He places his romantic heroine not in a romance, where her values would be validated, but in the world of prosaic reality, where actions have consequences and the pain we inflict matters.

Oprah Winfrey, who chose Tolstoy’s novel for her book club, followed many others in viewing Anna Karenina as a celebration of its heroine and of romantic love. That gets the book exactly wrong. It mistakes Anna’s story of herself for Tolstoy’s. Just as Anna Karenina imagines herself into the novel she reads, such readers imagine themselves as Anna or her adulterous lover Vronsky. They do not seem to entertain the possibility that the values they accept unthinkingly are the ones Tolstoy wants to discredit.

I’m running the risk of just reproducing the entire essay here, interjecting occasional approving noises. Please save me from this by reading it for yourself. Meanwhile, I need to somehow find time to go back and read Tolstoy’s book again!

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