Tolstoy’s Family Happiness: A Disappointment.

After finishing Oblomov (post), I read Dostoevsky’s 1859 Дядюшкин сон (Uncle’s Dream), which was silly but fun; as I said here, “the scene between the mother (who is trying to get her daughter Zina to marry the half-dead prince) and Zina (who thinks the whole idea is vile and repulsive) is masterly, and a clear template for the more consequential struggles in later works.” I went from that to Tolstoy’s Семейное счастие (Family Happiness), published a month later. It wasn’t fun at all; in fact, it annoyed me almost as much as the Second Appendix of War and Peace, so here I am to complain.

The first thing I noticed when I started reading was that it was told from a female point of view (in an odd coincidence, the narrator is named Marya Aleksandrovna, just like the domineering mother in the Dostoevsky), and I thought “That’s interesting, I wonder how he’ll handle it.” The second thing I noticed was that the female point of view was utterly unconvincing, unless you’re a male who doesn’t know much about women. And the third was that the story was mind-bogglingly tedious and clichéd. Here’s my summary, eighty pages boiled down to a paragraph:

I’m a pure teenage girl whose mother has just died. I feel sad, and yet somehow my spirit is bursting within me — I am young and crave life and adventure! Oh, my guardian, Sergei Mikhailovich, has come; I always liked him and looked up to him. Now he looks at me in a strange, intense way — I think I love him — I’m sure he’ll propose to me! He did! Now we’re married, and I’m unbelievably happy, all I want to do is settle down with him here in the country and lead a life of service to other people. But wait, I’m strangely dissatisfied; I am drawn to life in Saint Petersburg, even though my beloved Sergei finds it repulsive and says I should avoid it. But he loves me, so he’s taking me there. Whee, this is fun! Balls, music, high-class people telling me how wonderful and pretty I am — Sergei is grumpy about it, but who cares, he wants me to be happy, doesn’t he? What a stick-in-the-mud! Now we’re in Baden for the waters, and there’s a younger Englishwoman who’s suddenly getting all the attention I’m used to getting, the only one who’s still fixated on me is a smarmy Italian guy who looks kind of like my husband only younger and handsomer, and he’s insisting on walking with me in the woods and holding my arm and I feel afraid and yet drawn to him… OMG, he kissed my neck!! Now I see the folly of my ways and am running to my husband to throw myself at his feet and confess and ask forgiveness, but he’s receiving me coldly, he’s not embracing me and weeping like I expected, so the hell with him. Now we’re back in Russia, back at the country estate since we can’t afford Petersburg, and I’m enchanted with my little boys (did I mention I had a couple of little boys?), and I’ve decided to give up on my childish ideas of love and just be a good mother and devoted wife.

(Oddly, the end comes up as a plot point in Philip Roth’s wonderful novel The Counterlife; the whole last section is quoted on p. 186 of my paperback edition.) The first part, up to the move to Petersburg, takes up fifty pages, and the entirety of it should have been cut and replaced by a one-sentence summary to set the scene. The rest contains what actual plot there is, but really, the whole thing reads like a moral sermon (of the kind Tolstoy was so drawn to all his life): “Hey, young women! You have all these crazy ideas about love and happiness, but that’s all nonsense! Listen to me and give up your childish fantasies before it’s too late and you ruin yourselves and your families!” What’s especially amusing/irritating is that Tolstoy at the time was only thirty and had never been married; furthermore, he presents his hero Sergei Mikhailovich as a worn-out old codger who’s had his fill of social life and just wants to sit at home and tend his estate… at thirty-six! But I recovered my faith in Tolstoy when I read in the Russian Wikipedia article on the story that he hated it so much he wanted to give up writing (“оказалась такая постыдная гадость, что я не могу опомниться от сраму, и, кажется, больше никогда писать не буду” [it’s such disgraceful filth that I can’t come to my senses from the shame, and I don’t think I’ll write anything else]). Good man! Just give it a few years and you’ll be writing War and Peace, and all will be forgiven.


  1. Yes, but why did he hate it? Was it because it represents (poorly, as may be) the inner life of a flibbertigibbet? You make it sound like he hated it because it was a bad piece of work, but I suspect even pretending to be this woman made him feel as if he were supporting immorality.

  2. That’s possible, of course, but makes me feel itchy, so I reject it out of hand.

  3. I agree that Marya Aleksandrovna is even more unconvincing than Emma Bovary when it comes to pining and impressionable literary heroines of the 19th century. I nonetheless think Family Happiness is a great work of wisdom literature which contains some harsh truths about the contingent and ephemeral nature of amorous love, the general incompatibility of man and woman, and perhaps also the folly of long-term conjugal arrangements. It makes a great companion piece to The Kreutzer Sonata.

    I love Oblomov – both it and Madame Bovary of remain eminent relevance to the effete and decadent middle classes of the modern era. What a pity that Goncharov was too preoccupied with the duties of a civil servant to write more.

  4. I nonetheless think Family Happiness is a great work of wisdom literature

    Ah well, my interest in wisdom literature is minimal, hence our different reactions. Plus I don’t believe in either the ephemeral nature of amorous love or the general incompatibility of man and woman.

  5. Amen.

  6. “Ah well, my interest in wisdom literature is minimal”

    Oh well – I feel It’s the apogee of long-form narrative prose, and truly what the Russian masters did best.

  7. marie-lucie says

    MKH: the contingent and ephemeral nature of amorous love, the general incompatibility of man and woman, and perhaps also the folly of long-term conjugal arrangements

    These topics are prominent in European literatures of past centuries because most marriages were arranged (formally or not) and while men were usually allowed some choice, most women did not, and were often stuck for life in loveless unions. My own mother (who married her chosen partner, as did her parents in spite of considerable opposition from their own parents) told me when I was a teen-ager, Un homme épouse qui il veut, une femme épouse qui elle peut ‘A man marries whom he wants, a woman marries whom she can’.

  8. Well you know, if you come into literature looking for “feel-good” stories, you won’t like Tolstoy. If on the contrary you read literature to wallow on the lowest lows of humanity and to feel good knowing that some people is even worse and more depraved than you (the reason why people like Game of Thrones), you won’t like Tolstoy either. If you read literature looking for validation of your feelings, idea, prejudices and way of life, you will hate Tolstoy. If you don’t have moral conscience, you will dislike Tolstoy.
    Tolstoy is the person who will told you the truth no matter what, a passionately moral man with a message who tells what is right no matter how uncomfortable and different from the degraded rules of our society it is. And finally Tolstoy is that writer who sees reality as no other writer does, and yet always has a positive and optimistic message, that a person can progress and become a better person. Tolstoy appeals to a person with moral conscience and enough humility to be self-critical, and hopeful enough not to fall into nihilism and wallowing in moral degradation to (unsuccessfully try to) forget her own faults.
    You said you don’t liked Tolstoy, so I recommend you to think at least for moment about why you did.

  9. You don’t read very carefully, do you? I didn’t say I didn’t like Tolstoy, I said I didn’t like this particular work. And I don’t have to “think for a moment”; I described in the post why I didn’t like it. You’re welcome to disagree, but talking about “wallowing in moral degradation” makes me roll my eyes.

  10. That said, Tolstoy would definitely have appreciated your comment; in fact, if he were still alive I’d think he might have written it himself, shaking his shaggy humorless head in moral indignation.

  11. I absolutely agree, the female PoV is very poorly developed, and you can tell immediately it is just a man that has no idea about how women think or feel, he pictures her as dramatic and unstable but without really going into why she would act like that.

    I feel that in the book it is forgotten that she was a 17 year old girl that just lost her mom and this old guy took advantage of her and uses his power to make her act and think like he pleases, modelling her to his preference.

    She is just as any teenage girl insecure and craving for attention, and the guy that is depicted as a romantic hero is in fact a pedophile and took her youth, dreams and hopes away by manipulating her.

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