“All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
The opening line of Tolstoy’s famous novel of a fallen society woman in late Czarist Russia touches on a question that greatly exercises family scholars today: what makes married people happy or unhappy? On the answer to this question rests the future of the family. In the West, anyway, few people are likely to marry today for purely institutional reasons (to continue the family name or unite family fortunes, for example); everyone wants happiness, and if they do not find it with one partner they are increasingly likely to try with another.
Tolstoy’s epigrammatic statement frames the issue in a way that includes children – he speaks of “families” – who were an inevitable consequence of most marriages 120 years ago, before modern contraceptives arrived on the scene. Today, childless marriages are on the increase, sometimes by intention. However, then, as now, children were hostages to their parents’ happiness, in particular the happiness of their mother. “Happy wife, happy home,” the saying goes.
Anna Karenina opens with a household in turmoil because the wife has discovered her husband’s infidelity. Prince Stepan Oblonsky has been having an affair with their former French governess; Princess Darya, or Dolly, is beside herself with grief and anger and preparing to leave him. Oblonsky is only upset that she is taking it so hard. He is a shallow sensualist who thinks his behaviour is perfectly compatible with being a respectable married man who loves his children and respects (but no longer loves) their mother.
That Dolly does not leave him is due in the short term to the arrival of Anna, who is Oblonsky’s sister and a dear friend. She makes excuses for her brother and persuades Dolly to forgive him. With great irony, in view of her own imminent infidelity, Anna tells her: “These men may be unfaithful, but their homes and their wives are sacred to them. They despise these women and draw a line…between them and their families that is never crossed.”
Anna herself is unhappy in her marriage to Count Alexei Karenin, a senior statesman twenty years older than her who cannot satisfy her emotional needs. Her love for their young son, Seryozha, is intense, but between her and her husband there is a distance signified by the ironic tone in which he characteristically expresses his affection for her. Manipulated into the marriage by Anna’s rich aunt, he is a poor match for Anna in both age and feeling.
In Count Alexei Vronsky, however, she finds all that is lacking in Karenin. A cavalry officer who has already swept Dolly’s younger sister Kitty off her feet (yet has no intention of marrying her – or anyone) Vronsky is himself conquered, virtually enslaved, from the moment he first meets Anna at a ball. Her beauty and charm, heightened by a passionate nature, in fact captivates men in general, but there is nothing to restrain Vronsky, a bachelor, from pursuing her and before long she yields to her intense desire for him.
In doing so she makes herself happy, at least for the time being, at the expense of the happiness of her husband and son. Alexei is scandalised by Anna’s adulterous affair, her rejection of social norms, duty, religion; but he is also deeply wounded and resentful, wavering between divorcing her and forgiving her. When she finally leaves him and goes to live with Vronsky, taking with her the baby girl who is the fruit of their affair (and whom Karenin loves as his own) she makes a conscious if painful decision to abandon Seryozha, whose attachment to his mother is as strong as hers to him. Subsequently the boy keeps a lookout for her during his walks, but she is almost never to be seen. As time passed, we are told, “she rarely thought of her son.”
At the point where Anna and Vronsky begin their life together she says to him: “Is it really possible that we two shall be like husband and wife, alone together, with our own family?” Vronsky reassures her, but it becomes increasingly clear that the answer is no. Their attempt at imitating family life on Vronsky’s estate fails to satisfy her, happiness is undermined by society’s rejection of her and gradually eclipsed by jealousy, paranoia and despair. Her children, of course, lose their mother, definitively.
Soulmates vs family centred marriage
Anna and Vronsky are, in today’s parlance, “soulmates”, whose romantic feelings for each other come before any other consideration. Through their fate (which follows naturally from their own characters and is not simply imposed on them by the author) Tolstoy shows us the emptiness of romantic passion divorced from marriage and the family and the unhappiness it brings.
In contrast he presents us with the evolution of the happy family founded by Konstantin “Kostya” Levin, a wealthy landholder, and Princess Kitty. Vronsky, we are told early in the piece, had no time for marriage and “did not like family life”. Levin dreams of nothing else but marrying Kitty and creating a family in his ancestral home in the country. He and Kitty represent the child- or family-centred model of marriage.
She rejects him at first in favour of Vronsky (her mother’s idea of a good match) but his rebuff, which she takes very hard, teaches her a few things, including her real affection for Levin. They declare their love to each other coyly through a word game at a soiree in Kitty’s home, marry in church, and settle down on the farm, where Levin’s search for the meaning of life begins to yield answers.
They have their ups and downs, jealousies and reconciliations, and Levin is still spiritually restless, not sharing Kitty’s religious faith. But the birth of their first child, the miracle of new life, opens him to the transcendent and ultimately to God. Happiness, he discovers, is living for others — something that eludes Anna and Vronsky as they fall back on their own interests and needs.
So what else, according to Tolstoy, makes for a happy family?
In the first place some obvious things:
* A genuine love match, free of social pressures but surrounded by family and social support, including that of the Church. One happy home, in turn, serves the happiness of others: Kitty and Levin’s home is a haven of stability and good cheer for Dolly and other members of their extended family.
* Fidelity, and when that is breached, forgiveness, which in turn is facilitated by faith – as in the case of Dolly, who is a religious woman, while Anna is not. Where there is genuine religion (and there is a lot of superficiality and vagueness, as well as atheism, in Tolstoy’s religious landscape) it helps individuals live the virtues necessary for family life.
* The presence of children, who demand self-giving (sacrifice) on the part of their parents and so increase their capacity for love. Not all parents rise to this call – Oblonsky, and Anna when it comes to the test, put their own desires first – but Dolly in her troubles never loses sight of her five children. “She loves my children,” Oblonksy observes when his wife is distracted from berating him.
Perhaps less obvious is Tolstoy’s belief in the complementarity of the sexes.
In his happy family husband and wife complement each other, both as to their individual natures and their roles in the home. Levin is attracted to what is feminine in Kitty, her slim beauty, gentleness, calmness and general goodness. He “knows”, however, that he is “more intelligent than his wife.” He is interested in philosophical ideas and she is not.
He oversees the farm, shares the manual work with peasants and loves hunting. Kitty’s sphere is the home. Her interests revolve around people – she takes over the care of Levin’s misfit brother Nikolai, transforming the fetid hostel room in which he is dying, while Levin is in despair at the meaninglessness of death. Where her love for their baby son is instinctive, it is something he has to learn – from her.
This all adds up to what Betty Friedan in the 1960s would call “The Feminine Mystique” and has been under attack in Western society ever since. Certainly Tolstoy’s version of it is informed by his philosophy of nature and man’s place in it, and, despite his awareness of “the woman question”, may be exaggerated. All the same, efforts to abolish complementarity in sexual and social relationships have not produced more happy families, judging by the number of divorces.
(A much-cited study of 2009 by Harvard-trained economists Betsy Stevenson and Justin Wolfers found that since 1970 there has been a marked decline in women’s self-reported happiness. Not only that: whereas once women reported being slightly more happy than men, their happiness level had fallen slightly below that of men, which had stayed the same. )
There is one more thing worth mentioning. Tolstoy himself had a very happy childhood and remained attached to the family estate he inherited. Levin, a character rather like himself, has a similar attachment to his family home. A happy experience of family life obviously gives one a head start in the project of creating a family of one’s own.
It is notable that Alexei Karenin was orphaned as a child and brought up by an uncle. He made no real friends and arguably found his greatest happiness in fulfilling his civic duties. He had no experience of family love to bring to his own marriage. Similarly, Vronsky’s father died when he was young and he grew up with a mother who was famous for her many romances – not surprising then that “marriage had no attractions for him” initially.
Tolstoy would want to add that the country is far kinder to family life than the city, with its artificial social life and many temptations. And of course there is much, much more to a work that the great Dostoevksy called “perfection”. That does not mean it contains a perfect recipe for a happy family, but one could do worse than consider the master novelist’s ideas about what makes, or breaks, one.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.