Family Happiness

by Leo Tolstoy

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 469

Marya (Masha) Alexandrovna

Marya (Masha) Alexandrovna (ah-lehk-SAN-drov-nah), the narrator, a young noblewoman. She tells about her life from the age of seventeen, shortly after the death of her widowed mother, until she is about twenty-three, some four or five years after her marriage. A modest, intelligent woman as yet unaware of her great beauty, she lives with her sister and a governess on the family estate, Pokrovskoe. She falls in love with her legal guardian, Sergey Mikhaylych, a man more than twice her age. In time, he returns her love, and their romance culminates in marriage. Living with her husband and his mother on their estate, Nikolskoe, proves confining to the young woman. On a trip with Sergey to St. Petersburg, she is introduced to high society, becomes fully conscious of her attractiveness to men, and gradually is drawn to the worldly vanities of the capital. Three years later, while spending the summer in Baden, Masha only barely resists committing adultery with a handsome foreigner. Frightened, she returns to her marriage, which, after all, she had not meant to test so severely. Although her life with Sergey will never be quite the same, the marriage, now with two children to strengthen it, will be a sufficiently happy one.

Sergey Mikhaylych

Sergey Mikhaylych (sehr-GAY mih-KHAY-lihch), a serious, responsible landowner of the noble class. Already thirty-six years old at the time of his engagement to Masha, he is a tall and robust man with a perfectionist personality. He understands that his young wife is likely to find the demands of marriage difficult; therefore, he sets out deliberately to allow her as much freedom as possible. In learning her limits, so to speak, she is better able to become a reliable partner in marriage. It is also true that Sergey’s “granting” of freedom is merely part of the overall control exercised by an older husband over a young wife. Sergey is able to forgive his wife’s flirtation, knowing that the end of idealized romance in their marriage is by no means the end of the marriage itself.

Katerina (Katya) Karlovna

Katerina (Katya) Karlovna (kah-teh-REE-nah kahr-LOV-nah), the elderly governess who has brought up Masha and her sister. She is given a place in the Nikolskoe household.

An Italian marquis

An Italian marquis, a visitor at the resort of Baden. He is bold, handsome, and passionate, but coarse and “animal” as well. Attracted to Masha at the resort, he nearly succeeds in seducing her.

Tatyana Semyonovna

Tatyana Semyonovna (tah-TYAH-nah seh-MYOH-nov-nah), Sergey’s mother. She dies about two years after the marriage of her son to Masha, thereby suggesting the promise of greater independence for Masha in the future.


Sonya, Masha’s younger sister. She remains at the end of the tale as she was at the beginning, a companion to Masha.

The Characters

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 486

For a male author to write a first-person narrative from the woman’s point of view was something of a tour de force for Tolstoy, as it was a feat never attempted by his rival and model, Turgenev (nor, indeed, ever again by Tolstoy). The consensus is that he succeeds remarkably well, especially in the first part. The complex and often contradictory emotions experienced by a girl on the verge of womanhood; her lost and helpless feeling as the senior surviving member of her family, to some extent responsible for her younger sister yet at the same time filled with the exuberance of youth and the desire to have a fulfilled life of her own—all this Tolstoy renders with acute psychological insight. To be sure, the form presents some difficulties. Like most...

(This entire section contains 486 words.)

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reminiscential narrators, Masha, recalling these events in later years, is credited with a mnemonic capacity that far exceeds the limits of plausibility. More important, her understanding is necessarily limited; the reader has only her inferences about the inner life of Sergei Mikhailych, rather than the full revelations Tolstoy was able to provide when he used the perspective of the omniscient author (as he did in his great novels).

Masha’s development in the second part of the novel is, for the most part, handled convincingly. It is a process of maturation, as she outlives the romantic ecstasy of the honeymoon period, passes through what amounts to a “wild oats” phase, and finally settles down into a more realistic version of “happily ever after” (the title given the story in one English translation).

The chief weakness of Family Happiness is Tolstoy’s rendition of the effect on Masha of motherhood. Here Tolstoy’s intuition failed him. He had not yet had any experience of paternity, and his description of Masha’s babies, and her feelings about them, remains quite unreal and seemingly introduced, at least in part, only to make Tolstoy’s polemical point about the corrupting effects of high society even on such a basic biological response as maternal love.

On the other hand, the characterization of Sergei Mikhailych has vitality. He is a vigorous, well-balanced, good-natured man with a strong sense of moral responsibility. He is both scrupulous and intelligent: He will not allow himself to take advantage of his privileged position as Masha’s guardian, and he also wonders, for both their sakes, whether it is wise for two persons so far apart in age and experience to marry. In the second part of the novel, Sergei is perhaps a bit improbably passive. Stating his view that people have to learn such things for themselves, he abandons entirely the mentor role he had earlier played and simply bides his time while Masha painfully discovers for herself the ultimate emptiness of high society and the danger of toying with sexuality. Not without reason, she reproaches him bitterly for thus casting her adrift.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 60

Bayley, John. Tolstoy and the Novel, 1966.

Christian, R.F. Tolstoy: A Critical Introduction, 1969.

Gustafson, Richard F. Leo Tolstoy, Resident and Stranger: A Study in Fiction and Theology, 1986.

Kisseleff, Natalia. “Idyll and Ideal: Aspects of Sentimentalism in Tolstoy’s Family Happiness,” in Canadian Slavonic Papers. XXI (1979), pp. 336-346.

Poggioli, Renato. “Tolstoy’s Domestic Happiness: Beyond Pastoral Love,” in The Oaten Flute, 1975.




Critical Essays