Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Romance or Happiness?

Family HappinessFamily Happiness 
by Leo Tolstoy

"He said little to me throughout the evening, but in every word he said to Katya and Sonya and in every look and movement of his I saw love and felt no doubt of it." (p 28)

This is a story that begins as a fairy tale romance and ends in maternal happiness or sadness depending on your point of view.

Narrated by Masha, a teenage girl, the story tells of a courtship that has the trappings of a mere family friendship. Masha falls in love with an older family friend, Sergey Mikhaylych who is in his mid-thirties. Eros grips Masha and her love develops until she must reveal it to Sergey Mikhaylych and discovers that he also is deeply in love. If he has resisted her it was because of his fear that the age difference between them would lead the very young Masha to tire of him. He likes to be still and quiet, he tells her, while she will want to explore and discover more and more about life. Is Masha naive? Perhaps, but she may merely be willful. Her view of their "love" is idealized and she is unsure about her own consciousness of the world she has entered at such a young age. Nonetheless the couple are apparently passionately happy, so they engage to be married and move to Mikhaylych's home.
Masha soon feels impatient with the quiet order of life on the estate, notwithstanding the powerful understanding and love that remains between the two. She thinks to herself, "I began to feel lonely, that life was repeating itself, that there was nothing new either in him or myself, and that we were merely going back to what had been before."(p 62) To assuage her anxiety, they decide to spend a few weeks in St. Petersburg. Sergey Mikhaylych agrees to take Masha to an aristocratic ball. He hates "society" but she is enchanted with it and She becomes a regular, the darling of the countesses and princes, with her rural charm and her beauty. Sergey Mikhaylych, at first very pleased with Petersburg society's enthusiasm for his wife, frowns on her passion for "society"; but he does not try to influence Masha. She is not unaware of his feelings but tells herself that "If the relation between us has become a little different, everything will be the same again in summer, when we shall be alone in our house at Nikolskoe with Tatyana Semenovna."(p 74)

Out of respect for her, Sergey Mikhaylych allows his young wife to discover the truth about the emptiness and ugliness of "society" on her own. But his trust in her is damaged as he watches how dazzled she is by this world. Finally they confront each other about their differences. They argue but do not treat their conflict as something that can be resolved through negotiation. Both are shocked and mortified that their intense love has suddenly been called into question. She notices, "His face seemed to me to have grown suddenly old and disagreeable".(p 80) Her idealism has faded and with it the romance of her relationship. Because of pride, they both refuse to talk about it. The trust and the closeness are gone. Only courteous friendship remains. Masha yearns to return to the passionate closeness they had known before Petersburg. They go back to the country. Though she gives birth to children and the couple has a good life, she despairs. They can barely be together by themselves. Finally she asks him to explain why he did not try to guide and direct her away from the balls and the parties in Petersburg. The novella ends with a suggestion that she has accepted maternal happiness. Will this carry them forward together? And at what price--the loss of Romance?

Tolstoy deftly depicts nature throughout the story and uses music as a motif as well. Masha loves to play Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata", especially the darkly romantic first movement. But there is a chilling scene near the end of the story when she plays the sonata:
"At the end of the first movement I looked round instinctively to the corner where he used once to sit and listen to my playing. He was not there: his chair, long unmoved, was still in its place: through the window I could see a lilac-bush against the light of the setting sun: the freshness of evening streamed through the open windows . . . I recalled with pain the irrevocable past, and timidly imagined the future. But for me there seemed to be no future, no desires at all and no hopes."(p 97)
While this seems bleak, there is hope by the end of the story with the suggestion that maternal love could be the foundation for a different kind of "Family Happiness".

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Brian Joseph said...

This sounds like a terrific story and character study.

The passage the you quoted is indeed dark but it is so effectively written. It really makes me want to read this book.

James said...

Thanks for your comment. This is one of Tolstoy's best stories both for his insights on consciousness and for his treatment of happiness and romance.
The latter is the most thought-provoking issue I culled from my reading.

Stephen said...

It always thrills me when elements of culture combine, as you've indicated music and literature have done here. The Moonlight Sonata was one of the first pieces of classical music that ever stayed with me so much I had to find out what it was called. There's a melancholy about it to me, as I suppose fits a story about the disillusionment of maturity.

James said...


I share your feeling regarding the intersection of music and literature. I love to sit at the piano and play the opening movement "Moonlight Sonata".
Tolstoy used music effectively here and in "The Kreutzer Sonata", and elswhere.