Exploring benches through the lens of ‘Anna Karenina’

Image courtesy of Catherine Phillips ’26.

Leo Tolstoy opens his famous “Anna Karenina” with the now iconic line: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This quote has evolved from a simple opening line in Tolstoy’s 1857 book to a novel philosophical concept that says in order to succeed in any area or discipline, a series of unavoidable conditions must be met. This idea, dubbed the Anna Karenina principle, has been applied across a wide variety of fields, from gender disparities in STEM to the stock market. It is with this principle in mind that I bring up a subject as wholly complex as family dynamics: relationships with benches. Specifically, relationships with the maze of benches dotting the Vassar campus. While it might be more fruitful to interact with Tolstoy’s claim in a substantial and scholarly way, is it more fun? I hope to persuade—through a series of bench-themed overtures, an interview with a fellow bench enthusiast and an unbridled passion for sitting on wood surfaces—that good benches and happy families are indeed, very much alike.

Descending the hill towards Sunset Lake is where we encounter one of many “good” benches, and my personal favorite. It sits quietly to the right of the road, just before a curious onlooker would traipse across the bridge. Why do I hold this particular seat near and dear, its splinters cloyingly plucking at my heartstrings? I believe it’s a perfect embodiment of Tolstoy’s “happy family”the only minute difference being that it’s not a family, let alone a person. The qualities that demand this label? First, its view of the lake, positioned so I barely spy people from my perch. This leads directly to my next reason: a desired level of privacy. I see nary a soul lugging packages from Central Receiving, but my ears twitch just enough at the crunching of gravel that I’m not completely detached from reality. 

Image courtesy of Catherine Phillips ’26.

As I daydream of a far-off spring break in Palm Beach, it’s of pressing importance that my butt isn’t fatigued. The contours of the wood or metal that make up any “good bench” must melt into my tailbone. I must sink into the structure, like I’m popping a squat in quicksand, melding into a grotesque pile of flesh and bench frame. Only then can one ascend into an almost heaven-like ecstasy. 

When evaluating the success of a bench, it is worthwhile to explore the bench’s purpose. Different benches serve different functions. What makes a good bench outside the library isn’t what makes a good bench on the boardwalk. Sadie Hammarhead ’26 is a strong believer in compartmentalizing benches that have different functions. “I have a favorite bench and I have a most-frequented bench.” One bench, on the side of the Nircle near Cushing, she holds close to her heart. “I like to cry there.” When searching for a good crying bench, Hammarhead prefers one material to make up the seat, saying, “I’m looking for wood.” As for another type of bench, of the “contemplative” variety, Hammarhead notes, “You don’t want a back ’cause you want to be able to sit up straighter and really connect with the world.” It is this attention to detail that cements Hammarhead as a talented bench connoisseur, with an eye for the essentials.

Image courtesy of Catherine Phillips ’26.

One final, paramount quality to consider for the success of a bench’s longevity is an untainted past. If one is dumped on a bench on Joss beach or caught crying as a tour walks by the Chapel, a bench’s aura is permanently changed. The little bench bubble you spent a semester blowing up could very well pop in your face. In these situations, it is important to stress the ebbs and flows of one’s college career, and the ebbs and flows of the presence of a certain bench in your life.

A great bench, that satisfies the conditions explored above, is an important refuge, but not an effective shield from turmoil. It is a great parallel to the way a “happy family” isn’t a shield from the events of life. Putting aside shallow standards, benches are places in our environment where healthy coping mechanisms can be put into action. A place to call your mom, to cry, to contemplate and to struggle through a close reading of “Anna Karenina.”

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