Family Happiness is the last work in the series that might be called early Tolstoy, extending from Detstvo (1852; Childhood, 1862), his first published work, through Otrochestvo (1854; Boyhood, 1886) and Yunost (1857; Youth, 1886), and several short stories. He had dealt with a wide range of themes: the subjugation of the Caucasus, the Crimean War, agriculture, art and the artist, death. In Family Happiness, he took up the classic literary subject he had not yet treated, love. Of necessity, this change of subject put him in competition with Turgenev, whose specialty was “first love.” Tolstoy, however, had no sympathy with Turgenev’s minor-key poetry of lost loves, being skeptical in general of romantic exaggerations and idealizations and having a strong sense of biological imperatives. Nature cares nothing for lost loves,he insisted; nature wants fertilization, babies. He would therefore write a Turgenevesque idyllic love story, but unlike Turgenev, he would carry it past the altar into married life, shown with both its warts and its nightingales. Even in the courtship phase, despite the book’s genuine lyricism, Tolstoy debunked some romantic cliches.
The aftermath of Family Happiness marked a crisis in Tolstoy’s career. The enormous success of Childhood and the Sevastopol sketches had not been sustained, and his later stories attracted little attention. Tolstoy was becoming disgusted with the literary life in St. Petersburg, with its factions, it politics, and its vanities. Family Happiness itself was hardly noticed by the critics, who at that time were interested primarily in muckraking exposes of social evils. Tolstoy himself lost confidence in his capacities as a writer and in the validity of the literary profession. “Family Happiness,” he wrote in his diary, “is a shameful abomination,” and in a letter to a friend he stated, “I am buried as a writer and as a human being.... There is not a live word in the whole thing. The ugliness of language, which derives from the ugliness of thought, is inexpressible.” He retreated to his estate at Yasnaya Polyana, resolving to have nothing more to do with literature, and for four years he did not publish another line of fiction.