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Family Happiness by Leo Tolstoy

Family Happiness (1859)

by Leo Tolstoy

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This is a story that begins as a fairy tale romance and ends in maternal happiness or sadness depending on your point of view.

Narrated by Masha, a teenage girl, the story tells of a courtship that has the trappings of a mere family friendship. Masha's falls in love with an older family friend, Sergey Mikhaylych whos is in his mid-thirties. Eros grips Masha and her love develops until she must reveal it to Sergey Mikhaylych and discovers that he also is deeply in love. If he has resisted her it was because of his fear that the age difference between them would lead the very young Masha to tire of him. He likes to be still and quiet, he tells her, while she will want to explore and discover more and more about life. Is Masha naive? Perhaps, but she may merely be willful. Her view of their "love" is idealized and she is unsure about her own consciousness of the world she has entered at such a young age. Nonetheless the couple are apparently passionately happy, so they engage to be married and move to Mikhaylych's home.
Masha soon feels impatient with the quiet order of life on the estate, notwithstanding the powerful understanding and love that remains between the two. She thinks to herself, "I began to feel lonely, that life was repeating itself, that there was nothing new either in him or myself, and that we were merely going back to what had been before."(p 62) To assuage her anxiety, they decide to spend a few weeks in St. Petersburg. Sergey Mikhaylych agrees to take Masha to an aristocratic ball. He hates "society" but she is enchanted with it and She becomes a regular, the darling of the countesses and princes, with her rural charm and her beauty. Sergey Mikhaylych, at first very pleased with Petersburg society's enthusiasm for his wife, frowns on her passion for "society"; but he does not try to influence Masha. She is not unaware of his feelings but tells herself that "If the relation between us has become a little different, everything will be the same again in summer, when we shall be alone in our house at Nikolskoe with Tatyana Semenovna."(p 74)

Out of respect for her, Sergey Mikhaylych allows his young wife to discover the truth about the emptiness and ugliness of "society" on her own. But his trust in her is damaged as he watches how dazzled she is by this world. Finally they confront each other about their differences. They argue but do not treat their conflict as something that can be resolved through negotiation. Both are shocked and mortified that their intense love has suddenly been called into question. She notices, "His face seemed to me to have grown suddenly old and disagreeable".(p 80) Her idealism has faded and with it the romance of her relationship. Because of pride, they both refuse to talk about it. The trust and the closeness are gone. Only courteous friendship remains. Masha yearns to return to the passionate closeness they had known before Petersburg. They go back to the country. Though she gives birth to children and the couple has a good life, she despairs. They can barely be together by themselves. Finally she asks him to explain why he did not try to guide and direct her away from the balls and the parties in Petersburg. The novella ends with a suggestion that she has accepted maternal happiness. Will this carry them forward together? And at what price--the loss of Romance?

Tolstoy deftly depicts nature throughout the story and uses music as a motif as well. Masha loves to play Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata", especially the darkly romantic first movement. But there is a chilling scene near the end of the story when she plays the sonata:
"At the end of the first movement I looked round instinctively to the corner where he used once to sit and listen to my playing. He was not there: his chair, long unmoved, was still in its place: through the window I could see a lilac-bush against the light of the setting sun: the freshness of evening streamed through the open windows . . . I recalled with pain the irrevocable past, and timidly imagined the future. But for me there seemed to be no future, no desires at all and no hopes."(p 97)
While this seems bleak, there is hope by the end of the story with the suggestion that maternal love could be the foundation for a different kind of "Family Happiness". ( )
  jwhenderson | Apr 15, 2015 |
The young woman Masha falls in love with a former friend of her deceased father. They marry and at first they are happy together.

But soon she’s bored, bothered and bewildered in her new married life. Does she really love her husband - does he love her? Is this all there is to married life? He’s all kindness yet it’s not enough for her - specially not when she’s introduced to the exciting social life in Sct. Petersburg. They drift apart and she flirts with an Italian adventurer.

What, Tolstoy seems to ask, was the reason for the unhappiness that crept into this seemingly perfect marriage? And is there a way back to the former state of happiness?

The novella works best in the beginning with all the youthful hopes and dreams, desires and delights. It was difficult for me to understand Masha and her unhappiness. This is not one of Tolstoy’s best stories - but still a fairly good read. ( )
2 vote ctpress | Apr 7, 2015 |
I believe this short story to be an illustration of the relationship of the church to Christ. We are the unfaithful bride looking for joy in cheap pleasure over the everlasting joy of being united with Christ. We've lost sight of the covenant love of Christ. ( )
  erinjamieson | Jan 3, 2013 |
Family Happiness is about a young woman who marries an older man and the trials and tribulations of trying to remain in love while wanting different things out of life due to their age differences. It is psychological in its approach and is told in the first person from the perspective of the young wife. This serves to give the reader the opportunity to get a deeper understanding of the inner turmoil of the character, Masha, and her struggle to understand herself and her husband better.

I thought that it was a good book, but I was a little let down. This was my first Tolstoy but not my first nineteenth century Russian novel, as I have read three Dostoevsky novels. I was expecting this book to be more like those, but it never packed the punch for me that those did. If anything, it was more similar to a novel like Jane Eyre than anything by Dostoevsky. ( )
  fuzzy_patters | Jan 9, 2011 |
Family Happiness was first published in 1859, and it marks one of the first of Tolstoy's fictional explorations of the theme of family happiness. It is autobiographical to a large extent and was written after his engagement to his ward was broken off. It explores what might have happened had the marriage taken place.

Tolstoy searched for family happiness his entire life. He did not know it in its complete form as a child as his mother died when he was about 18 months old and his father when he was nine. After his father's death, little Leo and his three brothers and sister were shifted around among other relatives. First his paternal grandmother had guardianship of the children, but she too died 11 months after his father's death. Guardianship then passed to a paternal aunt, who also died. There was then a custody battle between another paternal aunt and a paternal cousin (the model for Sonya in War and Peace) with the paternal aunt winning.

None of the five children ever found family happiness in their adult lives.

Tolstoy was obsessed with trying to understand what family happiness consists of and how to achieve it. This obsession is evident in the fictional marriages he portrayed in War and Peace, Anna Karenina, The Kreutzer Sonata, and The Devil. Some believe that Tolstoy did achieve family happiness in the early years of his marriage, but I would argue that the relationship between husband and wife was volatile from the beginning, disintegrating over the years until his celebrated flight from home ending in his death from pneumonia in 1910.
1 vote cmcarpenter | May 10, 2009 |
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» Add other authors (16 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Leo Tolstoyprimary authorall editionscalculated
Dole, Nathan HaskellTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Maude, AylmerTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Maude, LouiseTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Trottenberg, DorotheaÜbersetzersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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I have lived through much, and now I think I have found what is needed for happiness. A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one’s neighbor — such is my idea of happiness.
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Each of the tales in this collection exhibits the rich detail, vivid narration, and startling truths that characterize Tolstoy's famous novels. two unusual, intriguing short stories - "Three Deaths" and "The Three Hermits" - appear here, along with four powerful short stories: "Family Happiness", "The Devil", "Father Sergius" and "Master and Man". "Family Happiness", the first story in this compilation, features a recurrent Tolstoyan theme": "The only certain happiness in life is to live for others." Written over a period of 40 years or more, these works display the author's evolving perspectives on love, marriage, temptation, goodness and redemption. They offer an eclectic introduction to the great Russian writer's fiction as well as a feast for those already acquainted with the pleasures of reading Tolstoy.
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