One of the most famous opening lines in literature comes from Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “All happy families are like one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Great literature causes us to think and ponder; it directs us to the significant questions of life. As such, it might have multiple meanings at different levels or with different applications. What was Tolstoy trying to say?
At face value, the line never quite made sense to me. Instead, one might argue that all unhappy families are the same, where all individuals seek their own selfish ends. Only happy families allow each other to be unique and different individuals. I think I can make a strong case for the opposite quote, “All unhappy families are like one another; each happy family is happy in its own way.”
But I’m glad to let Tolstoy write the quote; he is clearly a much better writer than I. But what does he mean? After I reread Anna Karenina a few years ago (I have a rule that no novel is allowed to be on my all-time favorite list until I have read it at least twice), I took advantage of modern technology, and conducted a word search of the book for the various forms of “happy” using a gutenberg.org online version. Personally, I prefer to read paper books, but electronic tools do allow for searches that would not otherwise be feasible. Also, I apologize, but I worked with an English translation. I would so love to be able to read Anna Karenina in the original language.
I (or rather my computer) counted 367 occurrences of happy, unhappy, happiness, unhappiness, happily, etc. The three best known, of course, are in the opening line. Less known, but perhaps the most telling use of the root “happy” comes well into the book, “A man who has faith cannot be unhappy, because he is never alone.”
A full understanding of the opening line requires that it be placed alongside this quote. Tolstoy was making a statement about faith.
Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina from 1873 to 1877 – during a time of personal depression and obsession with death; his conversion to Christianity came soon thereafter, in 1878. Although his Christian thinking was not always orthodox, and certainly not always Orthodox (with a capital “O”), Tolstoy made significant contributions to Christian literature through his later works, including The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Resurrection, and A Confession.
According to an essay by Philip Yancey in Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church, Yancey credits Tolstoy (along with Dostoevsky) for enabling a Soviet Christian revival during the 1970s. The Soviet government was able to restrict access to Scripture, but failed to limit access to these two great Russian novelists, who so often exemplified their Christian faith through their writings. It would seem that Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina changed his own thinking in the 19th century and that of many Soviets in the 20th century.
Tolstoy is suggesting that there is only one way to be a truly happy family, and that is through faith. Anna pursued selfish goals and discovered unhappiness. In contrast, Levin pursued faith and found happiness. The similarity of happy families is that they are families of faith. “All [genuinely] happy families are like one another [in that they are families of faith, faith in God]; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way [in that they find their own way to idolize self, and hence end up being alone].”
Anna Karenina failed to find this happiness, but Tolstoy became a man of faith. Certainly he would spend many years struggling with many issues, including guilt over his wealth, but happiness does not suggest an absence of struggle. Rather, it suggests a focus that is beyond the self. It requires that we find a way to fill our infinite void.
Certainly, there are many Christian families who experience unhappiness, sadness, even depression. It is easy for us to lose focus on our goal. It is easy for us to succumb to physical needs and illness. We are still living as aliens in this world. Nevertheless, Christian families do have more hope. They have a focus that guides them and gives them meaning and purpose.
When my colleagues and I asked more than 200 teens about their religious faith and about their contentment in life, we found a positive relationship. Teens who expressed greater religiosity tended to indicate more contentment. A life of faith does not in any way imply that your troubles will go away, but it does ensure that you are headed on the right road.
“A man who has faith cannot be unhappy, because he is never alone.”
Dr. Gary L. Welton is assistant dean for institutional assessment, professor of psychology at Grove City College, and a contributor to The Center for Vision & Values. He is a recipient of a major research grant from the Templeton Foundation to investigate positive youth development.