By Anne Hruska
What, exactly, is a family novel? Actually, there's not much of a critical consensus on what the term means. Very narrowly defined, "family novel" refers to a group of novels written in England in the mid-19th century, usually both extolling the virtues of domesticity and chronicling the complications that can arise within family life. Dickens' Great Expectations is one such novel; Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre is another. But if you define the term more broadly, then it can mean any novel that explores the idea of family and the way that family works. This broader definition covers a range of vastly different novels, including many contemporary works, such as Toni Morrison's Beloved and the recently published A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by David Eggers. As a general rule, a family novel is a novel that does at least one of three things. First, it questions what a family is. It also usually looks at how relationships work within a family. And finally, a family novel tends to address the idea of family as part of the social world.
No Easy Answers
Anna Karenina and her characters wrestle with all these problems. Tolstoy calls family into question, especially since the bond of marriage is broken so often in the novel. The world in which Tolstoy's characters live is in a state of drastic change; old social structures have disappeared and it's unclear what will take their place. In such a world, does marriage have any meaning at all? Both Anna and Levin agonize over this question, trying to understand how they can reconcile their freedom as individuals with their need to love and be loved. In this way, the idea of family and its meaning is deeply personal for both characters, and yet it also has vast social implications.
Another thing to keep in mind about Anna Karenina is that it gives us no easy answers. Its first sentence tells us this: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." But Tolstoy doesn't show us any purely happy families. Perhaps they're all happy in the same way because they simply don't exist. The families Tolstoy describes as working well engage in constant and torturous compromise. Tolstoy depicts the family as a tottering institution, struggling to survive in the face of a crumbling social structure. And he never fully answers the questions that Anna Karenina, as family novel, addresses—and that's one of the things that makes it work. Anna Karenina doesn't tell us what a family is, how to live within one, or how families are connected to society. But it does push us, as readers, to examine these questions ourselves.
What to Read Next
Take your pick from among these favorite "family novels":