Tuesday, February 19, 2008

"Family Happiness" by Leo Tolstoy

I am reading The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Short Stories by Leo Tolstoy. The first short story in the book is "Family Happiness"--wow! What a profound and yet depressing story. I think in its day it was supposed to be some kind of social commentary about the role of women in society, but to me it was an eerily accurate portrayal of the way "love" blossoms in a woman (and to a lesser degree in a man, too).

"Family Happiness" is a short story from the perspective of a 17-year-old Russian girl (Marya Alexandrovna, aka Masha) who falls in love with an older friend of the family (Sergei) shortly after the death of her mother (her father having previously died, as well). The story traces their courtship and early days of their marriage until they have a young child. The depressing part of the story is the first-person narrative of Masha's thoughts on love.

At the beginning of the story, Masha is young, naive, and hopelessly romantic. She has dreams of her future husband sweeping her off her feet and carrying her off to eternal bliss ("wild delight," as she refers to it). She marries Sergei (the older friend of the family) and they move off to the country. The two of them live a happy, quaint, newliwed life, but she gets restless and wants to move to the big city. When they move, Masha gets active in the urban social scene, but Sergei prefers to stay at home and stick to his business. Over time, the two of them drift apart and Masha realizes that her childhood dreams of "wild delight" aren't going to happen. (The urban social scene brings her to the brink of an affair.)

At the end of the story, Masha and Sergei get into an argument over what went wrong with their relationship and where their newliwed bliss went. Sergei, the voice of wisdom, blames it on time. He says that love changes over time, and it's no use lamenting over the past--what's gone is gone. Masha has a hard time believing this, but as the two part, she sees her infant son and realizes that this is where she will find the love she wants. The story ends, "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." (Note how she no longer loved Sergei as her "husband" but as "the father of my children.")

Now, I am not a woman, and neither is Leo Tolstoy, but there is something sadly true about the theme of this story. I think both men and women are looking for "wild delight," though we might define it differently. Does anyone ever find it? Should we stop looking? Has God created us with this desire so that we will long for the kingdom of God--a place where we are perfectly loved? I don't know.

This is the first story I have ever read by Tolstoy. Maybe I'm way off base, but I feel that his narration from a female perspective was very believable. I think he's got some good insights into the human condition and I am looking forward to reading the next story, 'The Death of Ivan Ilych."

1 comment:

BlueParadigm said...

I know some woman who are just like this. They are totally obsessed with getting married. They gotta have the perfect wedding ceremony. The perfect ring. The perfect dress. They don't even seem to keep the 'husband' in focus at all. He's just the necessary means to getting all this other stuff. Oh, and love would be nice too I'm sure.
Anyway, they get married and the spot light fades from them. So they turn to children. Their focus entirely turns to all the stuff that goes into raising the kids. Like the husband, the kids end up the means to which the mother maintains attention and significance. And I think this mainly happens when they are being selfish. (Men do this too I know).
Later on, these women wonder why their marraiges aren't as strong or as 'love-filled' as they thought they were. But the whole time, love wasn't the main issue, but attention. Even when the 'romance' begins - it can quickly become a selfish thing. 'Oh he loves me.' 'Oh I am so special.' 'Look how my boyfriend compares to thou's.' On and on.
I think true love, the kind you mentioned looking for, does exist. But I think you can only get to it through serving the other person first.