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  • Stiva's Idiotic Grin
  • Stewart Justman


Recall if you will the stunning opening chapter of Anna Karenina. After laying down the principle that "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,"1 the narrative introduces us to one of the latter. The Oblonsky household is in turmoil. Having found out that her spouse is philandering with a former governess, Dolly has kept to her room for three days. For the first time since the discovery Stiva, the husband, now sleeps at home—on a leather sofa in the study. Turning "as though he would sink into a long sleep again," he suddenly awakens, sits up, and tries to recover the delights of wine, women, and song that were his in a tantalizing dream. "Yes, Alabin was giving a dinner on glass tables, and the tables sang Il mio tesoro—not Il mio tesoro, though, but something better, and there were some sort of little decanters on the table, and they were women, too." A man who has been playing Don Juan plays in a dream with an aria from Don Giovanni.

Incongruously for one whose household is in open revolt and whose wife flees the sight of him, as he recollects his dream Stiva's eyes "twinkled gaily, and he pondered with a smile." Awakening itself seems to be an act of escapism for Stiva. "Cheerfully" he feels about for the slippers embroidered for him by his wife. (It was when his attention was arrested by some beautiful embroidery on his robe and he fell to thinking "about how people get the idea in their heads to invent all these patterns and [End Page 427] ornaments of embroidery" that Tolstoy got the idea for Anna Karenina.)2 Only when he reaches for his dressing gown in the usual place and doesn't find it does Stiva return to reality, and as he does so, the smile disappears from his face. "'Ah, ah, ah! Oo! . . .' he groaned, recalling everything that had happened. And as he recalled every detail of his quarrel with his wife, he realized the hopelessness of his situation, and, most tormenting thought of all, that it was his own fault." But as if contriving an escape from a situation that permits none, he maintains that even though the crisis in his marriage and his household is undoubtedly his own doing, still he is not to blame. "And the most awful thing about it [he tells himself] is that it's all my fault—all my fault, though I'm not to blame." Like a lawyer producing an argument, Stiva invents a saving distinction between being at fault and being really at fault—in effect claiming that although he does engage in adultery, he can't be condemned for it as his wife has lost her charms and he was just following his nature. As Stiva clings to fantasy and reverie in this scene, so his belief that he isn't really to blame for his own deeds implies a defect in his sense of reality. (In Part Three of the novel we are told that despite Stiva's "efforts to be an attentive father and husband, he never could keep in his mind that he had a wife and children," p. 297.)

At this point in his musings Stiva thinks back to the terrible moment when he returned "from the theater" to find his wife brandishing an incriminating letter (whether from him to the governess or the governess to him), and demanding an explanation.

And at this recollection, Stepan Arkadyevich, as is so often the case, was not so much annoyed at the fact itself as at the way in which he had reacted to his wife's words.

There happened to him at that instant what happens to people when they are unexpectedly caught in something very disgraceful. He did not succeed in assuming an expression suitable to the position in which he was placed by his wife's discovery of his guilt. Instead of acting hurt, denying, defending himself, begging forgiveness, instead of remaining indifferent . . . his face utterly involuntarily (reflex action of the brain, reflected Stepan Arkadyevich, who was...


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pp. 427-434
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