July 15, 2011

The Tolstoy Fallacy

        Leo Tolstoy famously wrote that "All happy families resemble one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."  This sound bite is representative of the rationale behind the current fashion for books about miserable people living miserable lives.  It is also, in my opinion, entirely backwards.
        It seems to me that falling into sadness or evil, or hanging out there, is always pretty much the same.  People suffer when people are selfish.  Whatever it is that a selfish person wants, whether it's power, riches, sex, or fame, their actions spring from the same small, closed, dark space inside them.  Unhappy characters are drearily predictable.  You know they'll always choose the path that leads to that same dark, boring hollow in themselves.  And really, don't all small, closed, dark hollows look the same?
        By contrast, the really interesting question in life is "How do you get to Happy?"  Or, to put it another way, "How do you hold on to Good?"  Because everyone gets to true happiness in his own way.  Happiness looks different to different people and there are many paths to reach it.  There are also many potential traps and detours and misdirections, so that which route any given person ends up taking is the very definition of her character.  What, out of everything in the universe beyond his own self, is important to someone?  Turning outward gives infinite possibilities, but turning inward has only one.  Why does someone choose to take the more difficult path instead of the selfish one?  How does someone resist the lures of selfishness?  What does she have to overcome to get to genuine happiness?  How will he hold onto goodness in a desperate world?  These are the really interesting questions, and the myriad different answers to these questions are what is original in each new story.
        I'm not saying Tolstoy couldn't write a compelling novel, but when it comes to this famous quotation I believe he had it dead wrong.  Unhappy families are interesting only to the extent that someone works to break out of the unhappiness by searching for a better path.  But every happy family gets to happiness in its own way, and every happy person holds on to goodness through his own unique story.  Those are the stories that pique my curiosity, draw me in, and ultimately satisfy me. What about you?

[Picture: Intertwined, rubber block print by AEGN, 2003.]


  1. Another fascinating post, Anne. It brought back fond memories of reading Tolstoy when I was in my 20s.
    I just awarded you the Irresistibly Sweet Blog award. You can check it out at Books of Wonder & Wisdom at http://readaloudsforallchildren.wordpress.com/2011/07/16/pass-the-sugar-please/

  2. I think you are on to something here, Anne. The question is, why do so many people seem endlessly fascinated with the sordid, miserable, selfish, cruel, mean, and impoverished characters, plots, and media "personalities"? Why are joy, love (other than mere lust), forgiveness, reconciliation, zest for life, creativity, unselfishness, and positive actions seen as "unsophisticated" or "unrealistic"? The answers may point to serious flaws in today's dominant culture. I prefer to read about characters that I would like to know, that I'd want to invite into my home for a cup of tea, people from whom I might learn how to improve my own search for the Good.

  3. Thanks very much, Janice! I'm honored. =)

    Pax, it's an interesting question for sure, and I wish I knew why negative images seem to get more attention than positive ones. But that's one more reason I've self-published: I don't believe that I'm the only person in this world who might enjoy stories that present more positive possibilities.