Monday, 27 January 2014

Happy and unhappy families

"All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." *
(1st sentence of "Anna Karenina", Tolstoy)

"All happy families are more or less dissimilar; all unhappy ones are more or less alike."
(1st sentence of "Ada or ardor: A family chronicle", Nabokov)

Here, Froma Walsh argues for Nabokov:;+all+unhappy+ones+are+more+or+less+alike&source=bl&ots=IsAsr76GKo&sig=ReOEhbYZzC8ije0xJgsMX7Iz0oE&hl=en&sa=X&ei=tZTmUvvmDvH7yAOpj4DQCw&ved=0CFMQ6AEwCQ#v=onepage&q=All%20happy%20families%20are%20more%20or%20less%20dissimilar%3B%20all%20unhappy%20ones%20are%20more%20or%20less%20alike&f=false

I disagree. Strongly disagree.
1st, Froma Walsh attempts to refute the 1st clause in Tolstoy's sentence by saying, Tolstoy contends that families must conform to 1 model, which has been challenged in the 21st century. Then she goes on to redefine the idea of a normal family, breaking it into various types. This is problematic right from the beginning because Tolstoy's talking about happy families, not normal families, and she's replacing his word with another, twisting the meaning.
2nd, let's say Froma Walsh has a point, that Tolstoy thinks of 1 model and that families have become diverse and complex over time. It's true that many different models may function well: families with same-sex couples, adopted children, single parents, multi-ethnic/ multicultural parents, unmarried couples, step families, ...; in this sense they're not alike. However, if this is true, she may refute the 1st clause without refuting the 2nd clause. There are also numerous different models of an unhappy family.
3rd, I moreover believe what Tolstoy has in mind is not a model of a happy family, but the common elements of a happy family such as love, trust, understanding, compatibility, harmony... These elements, characteristics are both causes and signs of their happiness, whatever model the family is.
On the other hand, unhappy families may be unhappy for a variety of reasons: incompatibility, cultural barrier, jealousy, paranoia, ill temper, alcoholism, addiction, lack of love, new love, infidelity, deception, gap between parents and children, spoilt children, lack of understanding between husband and wife or between parents and children, financial problems, physical abuse, sex, violence, incest... ** They also have different forms, different manifestations such as family members arguing all the time, contradicting and disagreeing with each other over trifles, not talking, not seeing each other, not sleeping in the same bed, hiding things from each other, speaking ill of each other to outsiders, doing exactly what the other hates... Once in a while, an unhappy family may very much resemble a happy one, but it's all pretence, and this bubble may pop any moment.
I do not know Nabokov's arguments, how he gives examples to back up his point and attack Tolstoy's. But according to my way of seeing it, it's Tolstoy that is right.

*: This is called the Anna Karenina principle:
**: And sometimes, because of "horrifyingly ugly children":

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