Sunday, February 26, 2012

Opening lines to Anna Karenina

I love the epigraph to Anna Karenina (Мне отмщение, и Аз воздам, Vengeance is mine, I will repay) because it gives the reader a lot to think about. Who is “I,” first and foremost? God? Tolstoy? Karenin? Anna?

The oft-quoted opening sentence to Anna Karenina, however, does little for me as a reader.  The sentence reads, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I will never understand the appeal of this sentence and why it is quoted so frequently.  It’s not even remotely true.
What say you?


  1. I wonder if Tolstoy is perhaps aware of the black and whiteness of the opening line--maybe he's challenging us to see past the simplicity of it? Just as he may want us to see past the "categories" he uses in characterization.

  2. I kind of liked the opening lines. They remind me a little of the opening of Pride and Prejudice, "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." I feel like there's a sense of irony there that can easily be lost. People, I believe, are prone to thinking that their misfortunes are greater and more dismal than anyone else's, whereas for the most part people consider the sources of happiness to be largely the same: wealth, power, love, health, etc. Anna Karenina is not a unique story in that adultery and love stories have been the bread and butter of literature since its inception, but I think Tolstoy could be playing with the vanity of unhappy people by making such a binary opening sentence.

  3. I fall into Lane's camp in regard to the opening line. I can't exactly explain why that sentence is so appealing to me, but there is something catchy about it - catchy enough that I read it twice when I first opened the book to start reading. It may not be remotely true in real life, or even in the novel, but after reading Book One it does seem that all the families in the novel are unhappy in their own ways. After all, each has a unique combination of circumstances that results in their unhappiness.

  4. In my mind, Tolstoy signals in his first line that what interests him is not the smooth edges of a tranquil existence, but rather the rough, messy, disorderly tangle of lived experience that is far and away the rule, not the exception (and much more worthy of a novel!). The perfectly happy family is an abstract ideal, a goal, perhaps, but a rarity in the normal course of Life. I’m reminded here of the painful realization Swede Lebov has at the end of Philip Roth’s novel, American Pastoral: “He had thought most of it was order and only a little of it was disorder. He’d had it backwards. He had made his fantasy and Merry had unmade it for him.” His fantasy had been a happy, pastoral life, the American dream—destroyed by his beloved daughter Merry, who becomes a radical against the Vietnam war, ultimately bombing their rural New Jersey country store and post office, killing a man, and setting into motion the unhappy story that becomes Roth’s novel—a novel that the narrator, the writer Zuckerman, had hesitated to take on, since surely the Swede was, as a happy, successful man, not much of a story. So I guess this means that Anna Karenina will be pretty exciting!

    --Todd Armstrong

  5. After reading that first line, I was curious about Tolstoy's family and personal life. After a little bit of research (read: wikipedia), it became obvious that he had a very troubled relationship with his wife. Maybe Tolstoy was just so bitter that he truly believed that "happiness" is just some static perfection while unhappiness is multi-faceted and complicated.