Love and Other Catastrophes: Tolstoy’s Systems Theory of Love

by Liam Heneghan

From my book in progress Fields of Love: Themes of Romance and Agricultural Reform in the Work of Leo Tolstoy (this volume is not yet under contract).

Happy family

Leo Tolstoy started Anna Karenina, arguably his finest novel, with a hypothesis. “Happy families”, he conjectured, “are all alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This is the first general systems theory of love. Tolstoy investigated his thesis by means of a set of rather elaborate case studies: principally those of the troubled marriage of Stiva and Dolly Oblonsky, the crumbling marriage of Count Alexei and Anna Karenin (Oblonsky’s sister), the ill-fated romance of Anna Karenin and Count Alexei Vronsky, and starting the cycle over, the courtship and marriage of Konstantin Levin and Kitty Shcherbatskaya. My task here is to translate Anna Karenina from this series of informative but ultimately idiosyncratic case studies into a more precisely formulated theory of love, one that might be helpful to any one of us in navigating the vicissitudes of love.


The novel starts with consternation in the Oblonsky household. Stiva’s dalliance with the French governess (Mademoiselle Roland of the roguish black eyes and that smile!) has been discovered and Dolly wants him out of the house. Assuming that his wife was aware and had turned a blind eye to his shenanigans, Oblonsky, despite his feelings of guilt, concludes that an injustice is being perpetrated on him. The upset in the home is precipitous, coming as it does somewhat out of the blue. A situation deemed tolerable before is tolerated no longer; a full-blown crisis has emerged. Those forces that had held the family together function no longer and Stiva is propelled out the door.

Stiva is everyman. Likable, thoroughly average: his newspaper, by way of illustration, is Liberal but not extreme. He is not however a self-deceptive fellow. The incompatibility of his corporeal needs and his obligation to family consigns him to a life of deception and lies that run contrary to his generally open and affable nature. His wife is no longer attractive to him and he is not yet prepared to retire to a life without frolics. He will fornicate again one suspects.

Dolly is everywoman, though she is less mitigatingly described than her husband, at least in the opening scenes. Her once lustrous hair is knotted into thin plaits. Her face is gaunt. On the morning when we join them Dolly receives her husband in her chambers from which he had been expelled. It is but a few days after the discovery of his indiscretion. He weeps, she spurns. “Your tears,” she exclaimed, “are water.” There is apparently no turning back. So seemingly small a catastrophe – after all, the tryst with the smiling Mlle Roland was by no means Stiva’s first infidelity – has sundered the mechanism that had previously bound their home together.


Let us, for the purposes of theory-making, call the Oblonsky family a system. We will simply define a system as a set of elements that have a pattern of interrelations.

The Oblonsky family consists of Stiva, Dolly, their six children, Tanya, Grisha, Alesha, Masha, Nikolenka, and Lily, their governess (an English one is in place by the time we meet them), a nurse, servants and so forth. The interactions between elements within this system are generally more frequent and intense than are those, on average, between them and elements found in adjacent systems. Family members may well have all sorts of commerce with the outside world; nevertheless, they primarily deal with one other. The borders of a family are more comprehensively delineated by family-member interaction strength than they ever are by the very walls of the house that physically contains them.

Complex adaptive systems are a special form of system that can adapt, learn or evolve. They oftentimes are characterized as maintaining internal models gleaned from data on their environment that may be put to use in adapting the system to the future contingencies. In evolutionary systems this internal map is the genome. In the case of families it is the family self-description: their story, how they members see their history that helps them cope with change while holding certain core values constant. We can see why Stiva’s dalliance may be dissolutive for the family. Dolly does not see their story the way she did before and can no longer maintain the sham.

Complex systems supposedly self-organize in a manner that results in the emergence of properties, typically adaptive ones, that are not readily found by inspecting the properties of individual elements. In the case of water, for example, properties of flow emerge that might not be expected from a compounding of one part hydrogen, two parts oxygen; in the case of families what emerges is a type of domestic felicity that is demonstrably good for the physical and mental health of all family members. Some of you may disincline to accept emergence as a forceful challenge to reductionism. Perhaps if one just knew enough about hydrogen and oxygen we’d predict that ice floats and that humans can daintily pirouette on it. However, it is undoubtedly convenient to inspect a system at the organizational level where the phenomena of interest to us are most conspicuously expressed.

A characteristic of families is that they stick around. Even the shitty ones. Men and women may clamor and fret to find life partners – there are apparently industries based upon facilitating this endeavor. And sure enough some are sundered very rapidly. But most families do not fall apart, at least not immediately. The endurance of coupled humans can be attributed to the set of homeostatic feedbacks that develop to stabilize them. The uxoriousness of men, the doting of women, the clandestineness of their intimacies, the inextricability of their shared tasks, the loftiness of their originary vows, and the damp conjugations of the bedroom: all helming the established couple along the straight and narrow. And when the satisfactions have stopped, heedfulness of the pocketbook, solicitude for the kids and maybe even the steely comforts of a dependable foe can keep the relationship on the tracks even as the furnace of love sputters out. Of course, in the worst circumstances unhappy families are maintained by unspeakable acts being perpetrated upon those who dare not speak of them.

When Stiva weeps and asks for forgiveness, he is attempting in systems terms to restore a local equilibrium. But the old homeostatic rules are no longer in play. Stiva looks at Dolly and sees her hatred. Dolly looks at Stiva and sees pity for her in his eyes and hates him all the more. Reflecting on the state of affairs later to Anna Karenina, her sister-in-law, Dolly reported it was awful that her heart has “turned”. “Instead of love and tenderness,” she reported, “I have nothing but hatred for him; yes hatred. I could kill him.”

Feedback within the system now pushes them apart. They have, in other words, passed a critical threshold and, to use the full lexicon of systems thought, they have now entered a new regime, a new stable state. The route back to family accord, if it is possible at all, will be no simple retracing of those steps that tipped them over the edge. Forgiveness calls in such circumstances for strenuous intervention. Before talking of reconciliation though, let us examine a second of Tolstoy’s case studies. This time we examine love blossoming rather than witnessing it wilt about the family stem.


Anna Karenina is famously a novel of two halves. In the eyes if its critics these two halves were never fully united. It is the tale of the fall of Anna and the coming to romantic maturity of Levin. The case of Dolly and Stiva is merely the bunny hop of this monumental tale, preparatory to the grander themes of intense love, intense betrayal, and death; death which alone suffices without adjectives. Though we will say a little more about Anna in a moment, I present a quick précis of Levin’s story before examining those soft explosions that bring people together.

Levin is in love with Kitty, Dolly’s younger sister. At the start of the novel Levin is in Moscow to court her. He learns that she is at the Zoological Garden skating, and off Levin goes. He witnesses a youth performing a new trick on the ice, attempts it, loses his balance ever so slightly, rights himself, laughs! Kitty is charmed. Kitty has another partner in mind though, namely Alexei Vronsky, a dashing military man. So when Levin proposes she informs him that it cannot be. The wounded Levin retreats back to his country estate. The trifling Vronsky, however, does not in fact propose and Kitty goes into a decline as she realizes her mistake.

Levin has been displaying all the symptom of the love-struck mammal. He had selected his special other. For him there could be no one else. Her virtues are incomparable, her flaws indiscernible. Around her he pirouettes. He changes his routine for chance encounters with her. She intrudes upon his thoughts – other than his agricultural schemes, and the peasantry, she is all he can think of. He sizes up the competition. And, when it comes, Kitty’s rejection of him lays him low. When back at his estate he blushes to himself. Later that spring Levin spends a night on a hayrick and during those hours of beautiful contemplation he images for himself a simple life of renunciation. Perhaps he’ll take a peasant wife. His fate, he self-announces, has been decided. And just then as he walks away from the hayrick of fate he glimpses his beloved being whisked along in a four-horsed carriage towards her sister Dolly’s estate. His resolution dissolves, his love for her blazingly returns! The poor boy, as they say, has it bad!

The Oblonsky’s are trapped in their newly disjointed life; Kitty and Levin are pitched into the lover’s hell of vacillation and harsh introspection. But the road to love, and to its repair, is manifestly non-linear. Love and its reconciliation does not slowly unfurl like a flower, it explodes like a mushroom from the nightsoil. Nor will it come about without a little tremor to the system.

It is only fitting that Anna Karenina restores and much as she wrecks. She is about to become embroiled in a set of intrigues that form the core of the novel. Shortly after her arrival by train from St Petersburg, coinciding ominously with the death of a railroad worker under the wheels of a train, Anna is taken back to the Oblonsky household to mediate. This from our systems perspective is a critical moment. Can Anna serve to flip the system back to its former state?

Though Anna’s strategies might appear somewhat lubricious, nonetheless as a demonstration of how an intuitive understanding of human systems can be applied, it is a marvel. Anna softens the forlorn Dolly by doting on the Oblonsky children. The way to a mother’s heart, it seems, is by way of mothering. Once the talk of the disaccord commences, Dolly braces herself preparing to rebuff Anna’s conventional sympathies. Anna assails these homeostatic mechanisms by claiming not to want to either speak for Stiva or even to comfort her. She expresses her sorrow and takes Dolly’s hand. Anna asks Dolly to recount her side of the story. After all it is stories, those most potent of feedback mechanisms, that Anna must change if she wishes to help her brother and reconcile the couple. Dolly provides three stories: the big picture story of the marriage, her perceptions of the recent infidelity, and her assessment of the current situation. Anna to be an effective agent of re-equilibration must work on the ductile element in each, mollify Dolly’s broken heart and furnish a compelling new narrative.

In relating her stories Dolly confesses that it had been unrealistic of her to think that Stiva had never been with another woman. She had been more than innocent. Stiva had not, as many betrothed apparently did, shared information about his amorous life before they wed. For the duration of their eight year marriage Dolly could not even imagine Stiva in the arms of another. What a shock to unlearn this: “Yes, but he has kissed her…” she sobs. In it broad strokes Dolly’s story is naïve and Dolly realizes it. In imagining the infidelity, Dolly supposes, as I assume most do in these circumstances, that she, Dolly, had been the subject of discussion. Dolly declared Stiva incapable of understanding her present situation. She complains, “He’s happy and contented.”

Anna responded on all fronts. Stiva had always regarded his wife as a “divinity”; there had been no infidelity in his heart. Anna shared stories from the early days of the marriage: those times when Stiva would come to Anna “all poetry and loftiness” as he cried and talked of Dolly. There were times, Anna confessed, when she laughed at how much Stiva talked about his wife. As for Dolly imagining her husband now all happy and content, on the contrary he was miserable and stricken by what he had done. And yes above all, Stiva now repented. Anna explained the fundamental nature of adulterous men. Their home, she insisted, is sacred to them and in turn they regarded their lovers with contempt. No, Stiva would not have talked about Dolly to the governess. Anna makes a grand fuss about the sacredness of their commitments. After all, what is the sacredness in marriage other than a powerful tool for homeostasis? Finally, Anna introspects and in imagining herself in similar circumstance, conceded that she would forgive. “I don’t know, I can’t judge…Yes I can […] Yes I can, I can, I can. Yes I could forgive it.” Forgiveness is that voluntary decision to revert a human situation to its former state. It is the equivalent in human affairs of a first order transition in thermodynamics. Forgiveness, that is, is a boiling point in the liquid medium of human soul. By evening Stiva Oblonsky is back, seated at his own dinner table.

The reconciliation of Konstantin Levin and Kitty Shcherbatskaya can be more rapidly told. The couple find themselves alone during a supper party at the Oblonsky’s. Oblonsky, by the way, has by this time taken up with a pretty ballerina. Together again for the first time since his failed proposal, Kitty and Levin find their connection is irresistible, mystical even. In one of the most adorable scenes in literature Levin writes with chalk on the game table the following letters: W, y, a: i, c, n, b; d, y, m, t, o, n? Kitty comprehended. “When you answered: it cannot be, did you mean then or never.” She retorted: T, I, c, n, a, o. “Only then?” asked Levin knowing that the letters meant “Then I could not answer otherwise”. The letters laid side-by-side are like the unzippered strands of DNA, and they inexorably reanneal our couple. A few more scribbled and intuited letters later, Kitty said “Yes”. They were to be married. A critical transition from a state of misery to one of bliss accomplished by the revolutionary heft of a few specks of chalk!


Love begins, love ends; but there is only one system of love. It’s why we write poetry. Anna Karenina, the novel, is a study of those little seismic events that punctuate the landscapes of our romantic affairs. Viewed like this we can see that Anna Karenina is a more unified novel than critics have allowed. Re-inspecting Tolstoy’s hypothesis concerning happy and unhappy families we might conclude that what the statement gains in mnemonic force it loses in accuracy. Less memorably we might recast it as “All happy families, once they are stably established, resemble one another in being maintained against tribulation by a set of feedbacks, whose idiosyncrasies are less relevant than their homeostatic power; each unhappy family when it becomes undone unravels in strikingly non-linear ways.” By way of supplementary test, for example, Tolstoy recounted how Levin’s revelations to Kitty of his manly life before they met (mirroring the journal that Tolstoy showed his betrothed Sophia Andreyevna Behrs) horrifies Kitty, but their cemented love is now resilient enough and she forgives.

Tolstoy’s case studies show more however that the differences between happy and unhappy families. The critical points in relationships, the ones that may determine their unfolding are beginings and endings. And if we want to manage our relationships, and even heal our rifts, it is important to appreciate the degree to which small disruptions can be helpful. This insight may not stun us, of course. We have intuitions of this already. In reference to timid men who disincline to ask girls out on a date people in Ireland at times use the unfortunate expression “you’d have to put a bomb under him” (times of war do violence even to our proverbs!) What Tolstoy shows, however, is that the sage advice of a sister-in-law or a few motes of chalk lettering may be explosion enough.

There is more to be said of course. I have left aside the analysis of Anna’s story. Perhaps a reader might incline towards providing a systems account of that sad tale. I intend when time permits to put a graphical-mechanistic model of Tolstoy’s systems theory of love on my website. Certainly it’ll be up before next Valentine’s Day.

[This essay had its genesis in a conversation with my sixteen year old son, Oisín, in Killarney, Ireland in July 2013. My thanks to him for his cogent remarks.]

Photograph “Happy Family” is by Randall Honold. Follow me on Twitter @DublinSoil for 140 character updates on my columns. Links to previous 3QD columns here.