Family Happiness is divided into two parts. In the first, Masha, a girl of seventeen whose mother has just died, relates the story of her romance with her guardian, Sergei Mikhailych, a man of thirty-six and a former friend of her father (who has died some years earlier). The romance culminates in their engagement and marriage. The second part concerns Masha’s married life. The couple’s relationship temporarily deteriorates, as Masha is corrupted by the false values of high society in St. Petersburg but is eventually restored on a new, “realistic” plane of serenity (or perhaps merely resignation and habit).
The first part of the novel is lyrical and evocative, as it proceeds with acute psychological subtlety to depict the growth of an intense man-woman relationship. There are formidable obstacles to be overcome, since the problem here, unlike that in the conventional boy-girl encounter, is not the formation of an entirely new relationship but the transformation of an old one. Masha must cease to think of Sergei Mikhailych as a surrogate father and must substitute him for the youthful, melancholy, romantic hero of her fantasies; and Sergei correspondingly must learn to regard Masha as his equal and no longer as a child. Sergei must also abandon his mocking and suspicious attitude toward “romance” itself and take Masha seriously as a woman, at the same time as he learns to view himself as an acceptable suitor for her de-spite the gap in their ages. These adjustments take considerable time. The underlying sexual attraction is impeded, mainly by Sergei’s strong sense of moral responsibility and by his belief that he is too old for Masha, but she too has to outgrow negative feelings, those engendered by her rebellion against his paternalism. There are many stops, starts, hesitations, and misunderstandings, all handled by Leo Tolstoy with great delicacy in a poetic, summer atmosphere learned from Ivan Turgenev, complete with gardens, nightingales, and music. Even after their mutual love has been acknowledged, Sergei continues to play the role of Masha’s mentor, while she finds herself more and more his “creature,” thinking his thoughts and sharing his emotions. At last, Masha, now thoroughly in love, breaks down Sergei’s scruples; they become engaged and soon afterward are married. Their relationship is strongly marked by male dominance, but Masha seems to like marriage that way. “I felt,” she says after the wedding, “that I was completely his, and that I was happy in his power over me.”
The marriage is at first idyllically happy, though Masha feels some twinges of guilt that their happiness is too self-absorbed, too lacking in social usefulness. Since they are living in his mother’s house, Masha has in fact no responsibilities and very little to do. She begins to grow bored, especially since Sergei refuses to allow her any share in his business affairs. They quarrel, and eventually he agrees to take her to St. Petersburg as a diversion. In the city, she displays a talent for social life and becomes caught up in it, enjoying the excitement and the attention she receives. Sergei is now bored in turn, but their return to the country is repeatedly postponed. Quarrels occur more and more frequently, and they sense a gulf opening between them.
Three years pass and a baby son is born. At first, Masha is absorbed by maternal feelings, but after she begins to go into society again, she loses all feeling for her child. Sergei and Masha go abroad to take the waters in Germany, where Masha flirts with a sexy Italian marquis but pulls back, frightened, from the brink of adultery. The couple return to their estate in the country (Sergei’s mother has died), another child is born, and slowly they settle into a tranquil, contented life. This new serenity lacks the intense happiness of the honeymoon period but is seemingly destined to last.