Analysis Of Family Happiness By Leo Tolstoy

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Family Happiness is one of Tolstoy’s first works. Published and set in 1859, this novella narrates the love and marriage between the young protagonist, Mashechka, and a friend of her fathers, Sergey Milkhaylych. The book explores the idea of falling in and out of love as well as the transition from having a fanciful concept of love to a relatively mature one. The couple both belong to the Russian upper-class and once they marry, Mashechka is eager to explore high-society life after having lived in a rural setting most of her life. She quickly becomes dazzled by it, and the countesses and princes grow fond of her rural charm and her beauty. Sergey, on the other hand, frowns on her passion for society but does not try to influence Masha. He wants her to discover the ills of society on her own. Later on in the novella, the couple fights, confronting each other about their differences. Masha yearns to return to the way things were before; a sweet and innocent first love. She is aware that the trust between them has broken but even so, they move back to their idyllic life and make a family. On paper, Masha and Sergey have a happy family life but they can barely stand to look at each other in the eyes. Finally and out of frustration, Mashechka asks her husband why he let her go to all those balls and parties in Petersburg if it was slowly corroding their relationship. Sergey’s answer, although it is not what she expected, it settled her down; he did it for Family Happiness.

“With that day ended my love-story with my husband, the old feeling became a precious memory never to return; but the new feeling of love for my children and the father of my children laid the foundation of another life, happy in quite a different way, which I am still living up to the present moment.”

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Mashechka is the protagonist and the narrator. She is a 17-year-old girl with a fairy-tale-like idea of love. The novella begins with her mourning the death of her mother. She tells us that she cannot find the motivation to do anything other than to cry. She then starts to receive frequent visits from a family friend, Sergey, and falls in love. Her life is suddenly tinted rose and she starts picking up old hobbies again like playing the piano to please him.

She is young, naive, and hopelessly romantic and dreams of her future husband sweeping her off her feet and carrying her off to “wild delight”. This naivety often blurs her judgement. For example, she doesn’t understand why Sergey doesn’t want to admit that the feelings are reciprocated. The reasons are obvious to Sergey and the reader, she is almost half his age. Due to their previous relationship, Sergey needs time to learn to regard Masha as an equal and not a child, and Masha must learn not to see him as a fatherly figure.

Her infatuation with the glamorous lifestyle that Sergey is accustomed to is proof of her immaturity. She doesn’t see the past superficiality of her newfound friends who are all about appearances and never discovers the truth about the emptiness and ugliness of ‘society’ on her own like her husband expected her to. Like Sergey rightfully says; “I can’t praise a young lady who is alive only when people are admiring her, but as soon as she is left alone, collapses and finds nothing to her taste–one who is all for show and has no resources in herself”.

As a result of the parties, she becomes fully conscious of her attractiveness to men and only barely resists committing adultery. Frightened, she returns to her marriage. She was quick to be influenced by the people she was surrounding herself with. Masha at the end of the novella is a different person, but not necessarily a better one. After returning to her simple country lifestyle with her husband, she has learnt to settle down but slowly realises that it is impossible to put things back to the way they were; “Don’t let us try and repeat life”.

Sergey is a responsible upper-class landowner who feels sorry for his friend’s recently orphaned daughter. A romatic relationship slowly forms between them, and although Sergey is hesitant at first, he gives in and marries Masha, who is less than half his age. Thirty-six at the time of the engagement, Sergey is aware that he needs to reconsider the way he treats her to not make the marriage difficult. For that reason, he intentionally gives her all the freedoms possible, fulfilling her every wish and not commenting on her elegant lifestyle. Sergey’s perfectionist personality and trust in Masha prevents him from talking to his wife and telling her how he truly feels since it would break the compromise he made with himself at the beginning of the relationship. Throughout the short story, Sergey never speaks much about himself or his family. He mainly keeps to himself and is presented by Tolstoy as the voice of wisdom.

Sergey treats his wife with inferiority due to her age and status as a woman; “…especially you women, have to go for themselves through all the nonsense of life to come back to life itself”.

Despite the aforementioned supposed freedom, it is also true that it could merely be part of the overall control exercised by an older husband over a young wife. This freedom could also be interpreted as indifference and contempt as Masha reproaches him;

“I should not now be punished, for no fault at all, by your indifference and even contempt, and you would not have taken from me unjustly all that I valued in life.”

This work by Tolstoy is a beautifully written 100-page novella in which he captures with eloquent accuracy the society and setting of the time. The characters’ development, Masha in particular, are scarily realistic. Tolstoy takes the ‘spoiled girl, turning into a beautiful mademoiselle in society’ cliché and creates a fabulously gripping story.

He tries to capture the thoughts and emotions of falling in love and those first few fights and misunderstandings from a young girl’s point of view but there are times where it is clear that it is a middle-aged man who is writing and not a 17-year-old girl who is madly in love. Although I don’t agree with his unnecessarily depressing conclusion, I do not think it is farfetched or unrealistic.

The book does handle sexism of the time very well although it is not clear if it is intentional or not. The moral of the story is essentially to settle and be a good mother and devoted wife, forgetting about your will to be free and your childish ideas of love. Overall, this book is conflicting to read but it is written stunningly. I’ve always wanted to read something by Tolstoy, and now it’s pretty clear to me why. His use of words is elegant but smooth and not over the top. This is my first Tolstoy, it certainly won’t be my last. 


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