The very first sentence of Count Leo Tolstoy's burgeoning novel of ideas establishes the framework of family as a way to read, question and understand the complex interrelationships between the characters and the actions they take. The author says, to begin, "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
Suddenly, we become flies on the walls in the homes of a host of unhappy families, all of which are mired in some crisis of misunderstanding or misconnection. It's such a tangled web, it's nearly impossible to keep the families and characters in order and figure out how they are related. We meet the Oblonskys struggling with the aftermath of infidelity; the Shcherbatskys attempting to marry off the eligible Kitty with varied success; Levin's interesting family dynamic with his brothers; Vronsky's apparent disdain for family life and his mother; Anna Karenina's hollow and unfulfilling marriage to the distant Karenin.
It is through this dynamic lens of familial commitment that we begin to take a close look at each of the characters we meet. How Stiva approaches his wife Dolly after she has discovered his affair tells us a great deal not only about these two, but also about the culture in which they live and what is considered accepted practice. In Prince and Princess Shcherbatsky's desire to facilitate a successful match between Vronsky and their youngest daughter, we begin to understand more about how parents view their children in this society. In their case, the Prince thinks Levin is an upstanding man and finds Vronsky lacking in gravitas while the Princess is taken by Vronsky's charms and thinks Levin is full of pride.
The way that these families interrelate with each other—the marriages and sibling relationships between them—also creates a tight-knit community within the larger community of Moscow and St. Petersburg. It gives us as readers a stage with distinct boundaries upon which to judge the play that unfolds. Keep an eye on it: In the end, this focus on family helps to bring about some of the most powerful and meaningful lessons in the universe that becomes Anna Karenina.
If there is a happy family among them, we have yet to meet them by the close of Part One.
Part Two Plot Point: Adultery and Sexuality
More on Anna Karenina...