3 of 4
By Leo Tolstoy
872 pages; Penguin Classic


Although readers often talk about the least happy marriage in Tolstoy's masterpiece—that between Karenin and Anna, destroyed by her doomed affair with the dashing Vronksy—I've always been most interested in the less-famous but far happier marriage between Levin and Kitty, which seems in many ways to refute Tolstoy's premise by being so utterly, beautifully joyful. There's the scene in which Levin proposes to Kitty in secret code, playing "secretary" during a dinner party, writing the first letters of each word on the table until it seems like they're speaking to each other through ESP—surely the oddest and most romantic marriage proposal in all of literature. And then there's the wedding itself, which captures the temporary insanity of one's wedding day like nothing else I've read: Levin's nearly missing the ceremony because he doesn't have a clean shirt to wear, and then both of them so demented with euphoria during the ceremony that they can't figure out which ring is supposed to go on whose finger. But the real brilliance of Tolstoy's portrait, for me, comes later in the book, after Levin has started a family and achieved domestic bliss with Kitty on his estate; despite getting the girl of his dreams, or perhaps because of it, Levin often finds himself blinded with despair, wondering "what he was and why he was living in the world." If anything, his happy marriage has opened his soul to these questions, and made them more pressing. Why? Perhaps now that he has solved the problem of his loneliness—and found someone to share his life on earth with—he is free to wonder about his place in the universe. It's as if Tolstoy is trying to show us that, no matter what Levin might believe, marital happiness and personal happiness aren't the same thing. My takeaway: It's a mistake to think that finding the perfect mate will answer your deepest existential doubts (why am I here?), or to think that a marriage that fails to do so is a failure.