Study Guide

Anna Karenina Part 1, Chapter 1

By Leo Tolstoy

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Part 1, Chapter 1

We halt this programming to bring you a brief word about Russian names: all Russian names come with a patronymic, or father's name, in the middle. For example, Oblonsky's full name is Prince Stepan Arkadyich Oblonsky, which means that his given name is Stepan (or Stephen), his father's name was Arkady (hence, Arkady-ich), and Oblonsky is his family name. 

It's a little different for women: Anna Karenina's full name is Anna Arkadyevna Karenina. Anna is her given name, her father's name is Arkady (so, Arkady-evna; which makes sense, since she and Oblonsky are siblings) and Karenina is her married last name, with an "a" attached because she's a woman. Complex, we know, but sometimes in the novel you might see characters using both the first name and patronymic, and we wanted to get our explanation out there before things get too confusing.

This book is already complex enough: trust us.

  • We start with the famous first line: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." This—along with Moby-Dick's "Call me Ishmael" and Pride and Prejudice's "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife"— is one of the best-known first lines ever.
  • Everything is a mess in the Oblonsky household: Stephen Arkadyevich (a.k.a. Oblonsky, a.k.a. Stiva to his friends) has been having an affair with a French governess, and the novel opens with his wife having just found out about it.
  • His wife, Dolly, is seriously unhappy, and the entire household is a mess.
  • The third day after the news breaks, Oblonsky wakes up in his study, which we're guessing is currently doubling as the proverbial doghouse.
  • He's just had a great dream, but then he remembers why he's not sleeping in his own room.
  • He flashes back to the day his wife Dolly discovered the incriminating note, and questioned him about his relationship with the governess. His reaction? He just smiled stupidly.
  • Dolly has refused to see him ever since. Oblonsky has no idea what to do next.

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