Tolstoy’s great novel Anna Karenina begins with a strangely comic scene. The house has been thrown into confusion, because the wife, Dolly, has discovered that her husband Stiva (Prince Stepan Arkadyevich Oblonsky) has committed adultery with their former French governess. Dolly has threatened to leave. The entire house is in turmoil and the children are running about wild.
It is the sort of scene which should be painful and sad, but Tolstoy manages to make it seem ridiculous because the emotional weight in the story is on Stiva. We watch the progress of events from over Stiva’s shoulders. Stiva is not the narrator, but Stiva provides the point-of-view. And Stiva, as we will learn, feels no moral compunction over his conduct; only some distress that his wife is so worked-up.
We pick up Stiva three days into the quarrel and find him waking in his study having had a marvelous dream of a splendid evening. He is disappointed to find himself in a problem with his wife, but he is not described as moral broken.
When he thinks over his quarrel, he chides himself — not for adultery — but for a smile which slipped on his face while responding to his wife. Stiva think the trouble was the smile — he did not manage his wife correctly. That he should not have cheated on his wife is not a concern.
In the second chapter, Tolstoy underscores the distance and irony by stating that Stiva was “incapable of lying”.
This is a brilliant statement: I have known businessmen who were scrupulous in their business dealings and who had a mistress who was a secret to his wife. He considered himself perfectly honest and yet the primary relationship in his life was beset with a lie. Here is Stiva, certain he is utterly truthful — and yet he has betrayed his wife.
He then repents of not doing a better job of hiding his affair from his wife. But after all it could not be his fault because he was a desirable 34 year old man and his wife no longer attracted him sexually. How could he blamed for such a circumstance? Why was his wife so unreasonable?
Then as he considers the matter further, he realizes that he was not even the primary actor — how could he help it?
And everyone in his household was on his side — even though it was his fault.
But a ray of hope falls on Stiva when he learns his sister Anna will come visit and she can fix everything.
Tolstoy has never said, Love or hate any of these people. What he does do is draw out the moral compass of the reader. By forcing the scene through Stiva’s perspective, we are kept at bay from Dolly’s emotional world. Caring about adultery — after you’ve had five children — sounds unnecessary, perhaps in bad taste.
But the reader must do something with this conflict between the horror experienced by Dolly and the lightheartedness of Stiva.
If Tolstoy had started with Dolly, it would be easy to see Stiva as villain. But Stiva cannot possibly be a villain and be so happy. And all of the staff is on his side. Stiva is only following his heart, and Dolly is trying to limit his happiness.
The scene is comic because it is from Stiva’s perspective, but that only makes it more troubling if we consider Dolly. Now to feel sympathy for Dolly, we’ll need to know more of her. At present she is only upset and distant. She will have nothing to do with her husband. She is going to leave to her family.
I don’t know how Tolstoy is going to unfold this tension; I have only read two chapters.