These famous opening lines of Anna Karenina hearken back to the genre of the family novel, a type of work that had been popular in Russia several decades earlier but was already outmoded by the 1870s. Tolstoy revisits this old genre in order to give his own spin on family values, which were a popular target of attack for young Russian liberals at the time. Moreover, this opening sentence of Anna Karenina sets a philosophical tone that persists throughout the work. It is not a narrative beginning that tells a story about particular characters and their actions. Rather, it is a generalization, much like a philosophical or scientific argument. It makes a universal statement and is set in the present tense rather than the novelist’s preferred past tense. Tolstoy thus announces that he is more than just a novelist, and that his aims are greater than simply weaving a tale for us. He wants us to philosophize about happiness, in the grand tradition set by the philosopher Plato two thousand years earlier.
Yet it is no simple matter to relate this statement about family happiness to the novel as a whole. It is difficult to test the validity of the straightforward assertion that all happy families are alike, as we do not encounter any ideally happy families in Anna Karenina. The Oblonskys are torn apart by adultery and financial problems; the Karenins separate in scandal; and even Levin’s happy marriage suffers jealous fits and frequent quarrels. Moreover, Tolstoy’s statement produces mixed reactions in us: we want to be happy but we do not wish to be exactly like everyone else. The only way to preserve one’s uniqueness—in one’s “own way”—is by accepting unhappiness. This double bind is the same dilemma that the newly married Levin feels when he struggles between domestic satisfaction on one hand and the need for independence and individualism on the other. It is Tolstoy’s version of the Christian idea of original sin: what makes us unique and human is also that which exiles us from happiness.