I think the first chapter of Anna Karenina would be stronger without its iconic opening line.
Am I even allowed to say this? Will lightning strike the minute I click ‘Publish’? It’s hard to find a novel more beloved and more firmly entrenched in the canon than Anna Karenina. Does anyone even dislike this book? I’ve known people – reputable scholars, even – who dislike To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, even The Great Gatsby. I may well be the only person who has ever lived who is willing to go to bat against the first sentence of Anna Karenina. Well, me and that kid who sits in the back of English class and disagrees with everything the teacher says. You know – the kid in the sweatshirt.
I got very little out of the one literary theory class I took in college, but I do remember identifying with the ideas in Derrida’s “Aphorism Counter-Time.” Derrida’s general idea in this essay is that aphoristic language – and Tolstoy’s “All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion” (13) certainly qualifies – slows down and in some cases completely impedes the forward momentum of narrative writing. As much as I love The Great Gatsby, I do admit to being a little bit perturbed every time Nick Carraway tosses off something like “Americans, while occasionally willing to be serfs, have always been obstinate about being peasantry.” I read a line like that, and next thing I know I’m annoyed at Daisy and Klipspringer and who-the-hell-ever else for walking around and doing things while I’m trying to make sense of this piece of cryptic wisdom. Characters in novels are supposed to walk around and do things; aphorisms jam their gears, slowing down both characters and reader.
I’ve been carrying Tolstoy’s opening line around in my head since the summer of 1993, and I still haven’t figured out if I think it’s true or not. I’ve heard someone say that this opening statement is actually a roundabout way of saying that there is no such thing as a happy family, and I can imagine a syllogism of some kind that could make this logic work: something along the lines of “All people are unique. All happy families are alike. Therefore, there is no such thing as a happy family.” (I know this isn’t truly a syllogism and isn’t logically watertight. Bear with me.)
On this read-through (my fourth, I think), this opening line made me think of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” There may be no happy family that we can observe, but perhaps there is an ideal Platonic form that embodies the perfection of a happy family, and we look around us and mistake the shadows on the wall for happy families, unaware of just how poor these imitations really are in comparison with the real thing. But here’s the thing: the first line of a novel shouldn’t make us think about Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. It shouldn’t make us think about Plato at all, or about allegories – though it could make us think about a cave if it happens to take place in one. The first line of a novel is supposed to grab us and carry us somewhere. It’s supposed to do something, come to think of it, very much like this:
Everything had gone wrong in the Oblonsky household. The wife had found out about her husband’s former French governess and had announced that she could not go on living in the same house with him. This state of affairs had already continued for three days and was having a distressing effect on the couple themselves, on all the members of the family, and on the domestics. They all felt that there was no sense in their all living together under the same roof and that any group of people who met at a wayside inn would have more in common than they, the members of the Oblonsky family, and their servants. The wife did not leave her own rooms and the husband stayed at home all day. The children strayed all over the house, not knowing what to do with themselves. The English governess had quarreled with the housekeeper and had written a note asking a friend to find her a new place. The head-cook had gone out right at dinner-time the day before. The under-cook and the coachman had given notice. (13)
THAT is how Anna Karenina would begin if Tolstoy had omitted the first sentence. (It also sounds a lot like a cross between a plot sketch of an episode of Downton Abbey and one of Mad Men – but hey, those are good shows. Tolstoy has no reason to be offended at the comparison.)
The opening chapters continue in this vein – full of sprightly sentences that often surprise and occasionally stun. There’s the fact that Oblonsky was carrying a fat, juicy pear in his hand when his wife confronted him about his adultery (14). There’s Oblonsky waking up in the morning – on a couch, not in bed with his wife – and reaching out with a groping hand to the place where he assumes his bathrobe will be hanging, characterizing him as entitled and still fundamentally unaware of how badly he has damaged his family (14). There’s Oblonsky’s smirking butler, Matvey, who strikes me as Bates from Downton Abbey to a tee. There’s this strange fragment of Tolstoy’s relentlessly omniscient point of view: “Although Oblonsky was entirely in the wrong as regards his wife, as he himself admitted, almost everyone in the house, even the nurse, Daria Alexandrovna’s best friend, was on his side” (17). There’s the page-long paragraph explaining the troubles Oblonsky goes through in order to appear to have opinions on national and world events, in spite of the fact that he has no interest in these matters at all (19-20). And then there’s the description of Oblonsky’s dream: “Alabin was giving a dinner on glass tables – and the tables were singing Il mio Tesoro. No, not Il mio Tesoro, something better; and there were some little decanters that were women” (13-14).
There were some little decanters that were women. Try getting THAT unstuck from your head.