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Want to Be Happy? Read, and See, Anna Karenina

Want to Be Happy? Read, and See, Anna Karenina


Dec 14 2012
Tolstoy's vision of happiness still resonates in a world starving for real contentment.

Mexican children must be reading Tolstoy. In a recent study titled "The New Definition of Childhood," a global brand agency headquartered in Chicago found that the happiest kids in the world live in Mexico—despite its many social ills and widespread poverty. The study asked 4,000 children ages 6 to12 in 12 countries what it's like to grow up today. According to the first-ever Global Kids Happiness Index, kids in Mexico were the happiest in the world, followed by Spain, Brazil, and Germany. American kids scored fifth. Across almost all countries, the most important source of happiness for kids is close family and friends.

Leo Tolstoy must be cheering from his grave.

The search for happiness is as old as time, and there's no end to where we've looked for it: love, work, home, family, friends, having everything, having nothing. This season, director Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement) has brought to the big screen his adaptation of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy's tale of how two very different people seek happiness.

Tolstoy was a Russian nobleman who shunned his aristocratic heritage for the simple life of a peasant. He published Anna Karenina in serial installments from 1873 to 1877. During this period, Tolstoy was going through a deep spiritual struggle, one clearly depicted in the character Levin. It's impossible to call Tolstoy a Christian in the truest sense; he rejected the miraculous events in Scripture as well as Christ's atonement. He had his own "Thomas Jefferson Bible," scrapping the miraculous events recorded in Scripture and keeping the moral teachings. But his morality finds much resonance with Christian tradition. And nowhere is this more apparent than in Anna Karenina, where the moral life leads to happiness and the immoral life, to unhappiness.

Anna Karenina contains two parallel stories: the story of married aristocrat Anna Karenina and her affair with Count Vronsky, and the story of Konstantin Levin, a country landowner. Both Anna and Levin grapple with pervasive dissatisfaction, but answer it in radically different ways. Anna chooses to be disloyal to her family, leaving her husband and young son for the dashing Vronsky; Levin plunges himself into a life of simplicity and fidelity to his family.

For Tolstoy, there is a certain beauty to fidelity, to a life lived rightly before God, however unattractive and boring it may seem. By contrast, sensual desire, a life lived "by the belly," is irresistibly alluring, but will bring putrefying decay. Nowhere does Tolstoy illustrate this more strikingly than by comparing teeth (yes, teeth): the faithful husband's and the illicit lover's. The teeth of Karenin, Anna's husband, are ugly and discolored but strong, with no cavities; Count Vronsky's are even and white, but cause him excruciating pain because of inner decay.

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