Anna Karenina – Part 1

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Oh, the unhappiness. We start with chaos in the Oblonsky household, with Stiva’s affair with the governess having just been discovered by his wife Dolly. While presented like a central storyline, but by the end of Part 1 it becomes clear that is is instead a foreshadowing of larger marital stife and affairs to follow.

He went down trying not to look long at her, as though she were the sun, but he saw her, as one sees the sun, without looking.

Anna Karenina is well-known as a novel of romance and passion. But it is not a happy, shiny kind of romance. Levin is rebuffed in his proposal to Kitty. Kitty is in love with Vronsky – who is quite enamoured with her until he meets Anna. Anna is of course, married and off-limits, but this does not mean she does not enjoy his attentions (at this point in the story, his attentions are all she is enjoying).

But how marriages were made now, the princess could not learn from any one. The French fashion–of the parents arranging their children’s future–was not accepted; it was condemned. The English fashion of the complete independence of girls was also not accepted, and not possible in Russian society.

The Russian fashion of match-making by the offices of intermediate persons was for some reason considered unseemly; it was ridiculed by every one, and by the princess herself. But how girls were to be married, and how parents were to marry them, no one knew.

Set among the Russian nobility in the 1860s (I believe?) there are also deeper themes than love & romance: urban vs. rural living, aristocracy vs. peasantry, and the overarching questions of what it meant to be Russian. Our characters speak in French and English, read English books, and follow European traditions. Levin is the odd one out, leaving his post on district council and returning to a rural life in an attempt to discover his identity and purpose. The rest accept their society without question, happy with their elevated status and ignorant of or indifferent to the problems around them.

Considering she is the title character, at the end of Part 1, which my Kobo tells me is 14% of the novel, we know very little about Anna Karenina. A friend who recently read the book pointed out that the novel could easy have been named for at least one other character, so I was somewhat prepared for that.

I have thoughts on the character of Anna (intriguing and mysterious), Levin (the most ‘real’ so far) and Stiva (amusing but borderline contemptible) –  the others I don’t feel we know well enough yet to comment on – but would prefer to stop now and ask other readers what they think: Are you enjoying or annoyed by the characters? Is the story what you expected so far? Other thoughts?