Family Happiness by Leo Tolstoy

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Summary

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 650 words.)