All happy families are alike…


“All happy families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Tolstoy’s opening line to Anna Karenina is among the most famous sentences ever written. There is even a statistics principle named after the sentence. But reading the sentence in context this week (and starting the road to completing the first of my 2014 reading resolutions) I began to wonder if I agree with Tolstoy’s statement. 

If you had asked me a few years ago I definitely would have said no. Although people can be sad for a million different reasons, I would have said the emotion itself it was boring. Happiness seemed much more exciting.

However, after spending a few years writing a novel, I think that in the literary world Tolstoy might be right. Chapters where I dwell on my characters being happy, while fun and personally-satisfying for me to write, are the ones I’ve had to cut in the revision process. The reason? As Tolstoy would say, because they were boring.

What’s funny about Tolstoy though is that (1) he makes the sentence seem like more a philosophical statement than a literary one by using the present tense and (2) a hundred pages in there are no happy families in this book so far.

I’m not sure if happy families can be interesting in literature, or if maybe Tolstoy is right and unhappy families are more unique in real life. What do you think? Also how have you been doing with your 2014 resolutions? Let me know in the comments!

And if you want to read some more of my favorite first lines from books click here.

9 thoughts on “All happy families are alike…

    1. Exactly! As much fun as I have writing the sunshine and rainbows, lovey dovey sections … I agree that for readers who haven’t spent years caring about the character the way I have it’s a snooze fest.

  1. If happy characters are happy all the time where’s the conflict? But you can have characters react to unhappy situations optimistically without making them seem like a Pollyanna.

  2. On a different but related note, I think you’d like this article “What’s So Bad About Likable Women”. It looks at likability from multiple angles but my favorite point was that we shouldn’t shy away from socially acceptable and pleasant women and dismiss them as unfeminist or uninteresting. In reality many women are socially acceptable and pleasant and their stories can coexist with the equally important complex and ‘difficult’ female characters. This made me think about your post because I see traditionally happy moments or stories as having matching depth to the unhappy moments in literature, just as they do in life. There is never a moment truly devoid of conflict, or at least layered emotions. Anyway, check out the article!

  3. I disagree with Tolstoy. The greatness of a novel like Leave it to Psmith comes from the fact it is littered with generally happy people. Authors and readers today confuse dramatic interest (and literary importance) with unhappiness.

    There is nothing interesting or important about unhappiness. If there were everyone would find depressed people the most fascinating in the world. Everyone would yearn to be in the most unhappy of circumstances.

    The real problem is that writers today have lost the ability write with wit, style, or beauty about normal families, who have their problems, but that is not the same as living in unhappiness.

    1. Very interesting point of view. I wonder if there is a distinction between happy people and happy families… I think happiness is certainly a more interesting emotion in real life, and so it is probably more interesting in fiction (although perhaps harder to write).

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