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All happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way (Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, 1878)

11th March 2019

At the opening of his novel Anna Karenina, the Russian novelist Tolstoy writes ‘All Happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’

By this he seems to be suggesting that if a family is happy, there is nothing particularly interesting or insightful to observe about them. On the other hand, families that fail to thrive as a unit all have unique stories behind their struggles. He then goes on to illustrate this in his novel. But is the quotation true and what if anything might we learn from it?

Implicit in this quotation lies something of the belief that happy families are simple and really rather boring whereas the unhappiness of a family is a marker of complexity, depth and therefore far more interesting. The same trope is evident in the belief that a truly great artist should be a ‘tortured’ soul. While of course misery may lead to greater understanding and enlightenment, it may only lead to wallowing in self-pity and greater unhappiness.

Therefore I would disagree with Tolstoy’s quotation and agree with the philosopher Julian Baggini who suggests that the reverse is true and writes that, ‘unhappy families are characterised by either conflict or tension, or an emotional sterility beneath a surface of calm. Often common to both types is an absence of love. Happy families however, come in many sorts’.

They come in many sorts because a clear marker of a happy family would be one in which the diversity of the individuals within it, are mutually accepted and allowed expression.

The shape of a family does not determine its happiness but the love and concern for individuals within the family, ‘warts and all’. This level of acceptance and liberty is rarely observed in an unhappy family.

‘Family’ can also be extended to include all those with whom we live and work. This was the idea presented in an inspiring way by the Lower Transits in their form assembly on Friday. Wychwood is a family of diverse individuals, accepting of individuality and always seeking the best for everyone. Perhaps therefore happiness lies in not drawing too tight a boundary line around those we call ‘family’ but in a willingness to embrace the ‘other’ in our midst and find a place for them at our ‘table’.

Mrs Crossley