Fatherhood According to Tolstoy

May 24th, 2010  |  by  |  Published in Uncategorized  |  2 Comments

AnnaKareninaTitleThis was a long trip I just got back from, and I needed a thick book to keep me company–in this case, because I had plenty of driving to do, a lengthy audiobook. And few are longer than the 32-hour English translation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

I’ve had a fitful relationship with Russian literature. I studied it a bit, even in Moscow at one point, although I spent much more of my time engaged with Russian bars and British journalists. But Tolstoy is one of those writers who awaken even the dilettante. Just to be able to read the first line of Anna Karenina–Все счастливые семьи похожи друг на друга, каждая несчастливая семья несчастлива по-своему–in Russian makes my years of sweaty fumbling with the dative case and locational prepositions seem almost worthwhile.

But now, when I read that first line, one of the most famous in literature here or there, I have a new reaction. The line roughly translates to: All happy families look alike, while each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. As a throat-clearing introduction to a savagely detailed 800-plus-page critique of the foppishness and provincialism of nineteenth-century Russian aristocracy, I had always thought the reference to family more of a general one, as in a royal lineage (Karenina herself traces her roots from Rurik, the legendary founder of the Rus Dynasty, and her brother regrets the modern circumstances which have him, an heir to Rurik, waiting two hours at one point to see a Jew about getting a job).

But reading it (or listening to it) now, it seems clear to me that Tolstoy starts his novel with a line about families because the book is, in large part, about children and parents. When I read it a dozen years ago, Anna Karenina seemed all about sex and God and death. Now–and maybe this shows how dull my imagination has become–it’s all about fathers.

The complaints of the fathers in Anna Karenina seem to me almost the same as we here at DadWagon obsess over, in our own shrill and barely literate way. There are the issues of custody between separated parents, of bonding with newborns, and, importantly, of children being too coddled and catered to. “Nowadays, parents aren’t allowed to live and everything is for the children,” says one father, while another says that fathers “can hardly breathe.” Any father who has been forced to sit through an entire Baby Einstein DVD because its supposed to make baby smart knows what he’s talking about.

But 135 years after Anna Karenina came out, what amazes me isn’t his descriptions of what fathers do for their children, but what children do for their fathers. This is particularly true with the character Konstantin Levin, an introspective country landholder whom Tolstoy largely based on himself. While Karenina spent much of the book tormenting herself and others over questions of love, Levin glowered endlessly about his own lack of faith, both in God and man. But then Levin had a child, and became attached to that child, and fatherhood became an unexpected path to enlightenment. Especially in the final chapters, where Levin looks at some misbehaving children and sees a reflection of his own vain rebellions against God:

The children, left to themselves, had begun cooking raspberries over the candles and squirting milk into each other’s mouths with a syringe. Their mother, catching them at these pranks, began reminding them in Levin’s presence of the trouble their mischief gave to the grown-up people, and that this trouble was all for their sake, and that if they smashed the cups they would have nothing to drink their tea out of, and that if they wasted the milk, they would have nothing to eat, and die of hunger.

And Levin had been struck by the passive, weary incredulity with which the children heard what their mother said to them. They were simply annoyed that their amusing play had been interrupted, and did not believe a word of what their mother was saying. They could not believe it indeed, for they could not take in the immensity of all they habitually enjoyed, and so could not conceive that what they were destroying was the very thing they lived by.

“That all comes of itself,” they thought, “and there’s nothing interesting or important about it because it has always been so, and always will be so. And it’s all always the same. We’ve no need to think about that, it’s all ready. But we want to invent something of our own, and new. So we thought of putting raspberries in a cup, and cooking them over a candle, and squirting milk straight into each other’s mouths. That’s fun, and something new, and not a bit worse than drinking out of cups.”

“Isn’t it just the same that we do, that I did, searching by the aid of reason for the significance of the forces of nature and the meaning of the life of man?” he thought.

“And don’t all the theories of philosophy do the same, trying by the path of thought, which is strange and not natural to man, to bring him to a knowledge of what he has known long ago, and knows so certainly that he could not live at all without it? Isn’t it distinctly to be seen in the development of each philosopher’s theory, that he knows what is the chief significance of life beforehand, just as positively as the peasant Fyodor, and not a bit more clearly than he, and is simply trying by a dubious intellectual path to come back to what every one knows?

I can’t subscribe to the conclusion that Levin comes to. I liked him better when he was a pure cynic. I enjoy overthinking religion and do not believe in submission to universal articles of faith. But I do agree with Tolstoy on this: hints at the answers to all of the big questions, the hardest ones about the meaning of life and our place in it, can be probably found somewhere in the process of having and raising children. Most of never find those answers, and stumble through fatherhood like we do through the rest of life. But even in small ways, our children are always teaching us, if we choose to listen. This was as true in Russia in the 1870s as it is in New York today.


  1. Chris (Tessasdad) says:

    May 24th, 2010at 8:16 pm(#)

    I studied this novel at Purchase, but never made this connection. I wonder if I would as a father now. Not sure if I can tackle this monstrosity again, but love your insights.


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