Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina, published in 1877, has been acclaimed “flawless as a work of art.” Even William Faulkner described it as “the best ever written” and in 2007, Time magazine’s J. Peder Zane polled 125 contemporary authors who declared Anna Karenina the “greatest novel ever written.”
Tolstoy sets the stage for his epic Russian novel with his very first statement: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” With one broad stroke of the brush, Tolstoy covers a huge portion of canvas. He introduces the concepts of perception as well as exception.
However, in order for it to be judged as a happy marriage, the relationship must succeed in many different respects: sexual attraction, agreement about the handling of money, discipline of the children, in-law influence, religion, and other vital issues. Failure in any one of the essential respects can doom a marriage even if the marriage enjoys a lot of other ingredients necessary for perceived happiness.
In real life we tend to seek easy, single factors to explain successes for the most important things, while success actually requires avoiding many possible causes of failure. Tolstoy’s parallel plots, covering nearly a thousand pages, give ample room for his many Russian characters to demonstrate how choices set into motion life-altering consequences. But it also makes the reader go back and consider just what does a happy family really look like, and what makes unhappy families unhappy in their own way?
Recently, we spent about ten days on a trip to Ireland. I have roots in the Ulster region, north of Belfast. While driving through the thinly veiled political partitions of Ireland, I began thinking about Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Is it possible that happy nations are all alike; every unhappy nation is unhappy in its own way? I believe that Ireland is closer to being a happier nation now than it was when we first started visiting the shamrock island thirty years ago. But the noisy, jovial clink of the Guinness Stout mugs, or the hearty toast with a shot of Jameson Whiskey, belies the subtly suppressed angst and the frustrated irritability that continues to exist. Ireland is not necessarily a happy nation: tired of bombs? . . . Yes; tired of terror? . . . Yes; tired of innocent civilians being murdered? . . . Yes; enjoying the present fragile peace? . . . Yes, but not happy.
So, just what makes for an unhappy nation? Just what makes for an unhappy family? Just what makes for an unhappy individual? Is it possible that each is unhappy in his or her own way, but based on some similar and universal factors?
After visiting all the economic and political hot spots in over 150 countries in the world in the past thirty years, I have become convinced that all global, national, corporate, and individual transformation takes place at the intersection of culture and economics. Those intersections are custom made, and each intersection has the equal possibility of conflict, and change, and happiness.
Strife in Northern Ireland can be traced back to the 17th century, when the English finally subdued the island after successfully putting down a number of rebellions. The English and Scottish (Protestants) settled in Ulster somewhat apart from the rest of Ireland, (predominantly Catholic). Through the 19th century, the north and south grew even further apart due to economic differences. In the north, the standard of living rose as industry and manufacturing flourished. But in the south, unequal distribution of land and unfavorable laws resulted in a low standard of living for the large Catholic population.
In the 20th century, Protestants and Catholics divided into two warring camps over the issue of Irish home rule. Most Irish Catholics desired complete independence from Britain, but Irish Protestants feared living in a country ruled by Roman Catholics. So, in 1920, the British passed the Government of Ireland Act, which divided Ireland into two separate political entities, each with some powers of self-government, and that is where the next eighty years of brawling and bloodshed began with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the British forces locked in bitter struggle. Even the creating of the Irish Free State in 1949 as an independent republic, and leaving the six counties in Ulster as part of the United Kingdom, quelled the violence and bloodshed only temporarily.
“The Troubles” as they are called, erupted in the 1960s, and terrorist violence tragically escalated until 2007. Peace efforts failed time and again. Finally, as recent as March, 2007, the leaders met face to face and worked out an agreement for a power-sharing plan. Tony Blair praised the historic deal. "Look back and we see centuries marked by conflict, hardship, even hatred among the people of these islands," he said. "Look forward and we see the chance to shake off those heavy chains of history.” But it took until February 5, 2010, to even get the Hillsborough Castle Agreement signed. “Happiness” is very recent and extremely tentative in the islands of the Irish.
Of course, novelist Leo Tolstoy was not Irish. He was Russian, and he wrote a treatise on his era’s Russia. But he writes universally, and paints with words his portraits of living, breathing characters that stood in their time at the intersection of culture and economics. They lived out their lives reaping the whirlwinds of consequences they themselves had set into motion by their life-choices. They dealt with hypocrisy, jealousy, faith, fidelity, family, marriage, society, progress, carnal desire and passion, and the agrarian connection to land in contrast to the lifestyles of the city. Tolstoy doesn't explicitly moralize in the book; he allows his themes to emerge naturally, as his main characters complicate their lives in a broad array of unthinkable situations, and then leaves his readers to come to their own conclusions. Tolstoy allows his characters to debate significant cultural-economic issues affecting Russia in the latter half of the nineteenth century, such issues as the place and role of the Russian peasant in society, education reform, and women's rights.
Leo Tolstoy wasn’t writing about Ireland . . . but in a sense he was. And he was intuitively writing about happy and unhappy families, individuals, and nations everywhere, including America.