Thursday, October 08, 2009

"Family Happiness" Lev Tolstoy

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

A young woman, brought up in the country, falls in love with her neighbour, a former friend of her deceased father, a man somewhat older than her. They are married and she leaves her home to live in his with his old mother. At first, they are blissfully happy and united. However, she begins to experience boredom and he takes her to St Petersburg to bring her out in Society. He warns her about the dangers of doing so, but she ignores him and becomes sucked into a whirl of social life, including trips to Europe and longer and longer stays in Petersburg and Moscow. They begin to drift apart. Finally, one day, on an excursion in Baden, an Italian adventurer tries unsuccessfully to seduce her, and she desires to return to Russia to recapture the lost happiness of her early married life with her husband. She returns to his estate, and in a final climactic scene, begs for his forgiveness, which he grants, equivocally. She reaches a new understanding of her life and of love and of the acceptance of the passing of youth.

In addition to its thematic and plot similarities with Anna Karenina, this 1859 tale foreshadows many of the concerns of Tolstoy’s later period, and gives the lie to those critics who see a radical split between his early work, and the work after 1879.
The depiction of marriage in this tale is fully in line with Tolstoy’s later moralising. The man is fully in control, a master, mentor, guide and teacher of the woman, who remains subservient to her spouse. The man has full knowledge of his wife’s soul, more, in fact , than she herself does: at that time you had not yet got near the end of that charming nonsense which I admired in you. So I let you go through it alone, feeling that I had no right to put pressure on you...., while he has areas of his life and being which are forever closed to her: there was a special department of his mind into which he was unwilling to admit me. However, the gap between them is as much a generation gap as a gender gap, in which innocence is guided by experience. Goncharov in Oblomov and Turgenev in his tale Faust fuse the gender gap and the generation gap in the same way. Concomitant to this depiction of marriage is the powerful feeling of repressed sexuality, especially in the seduction scene, which is also a characteristic of Tolstoy’s later period. Tolstoy was a fierce sensualist, and much of his puritanism comes from his dislike of this side of himself.

The privileging of the country over the city is another later Tolstoyan trope that finds expression here. The later Tolstoy regarded the cities of Russia, especially Petersburg, as representative of everything that had gone wrong with Russia under the influence of the West, as it was in the cities where Westernising influence was of course strongest. The descriptions of the Russian countryside are detailed and loving here, while the descriptions of cities are sketchy and not visualised at all. In fact, this is one of the key differences between Tolstoy’s and Dostoevsky’s work generally: the former is the poet of the Russian countryside, while the later is the poet of the city. Linked to this is the importance of Russia as a salvation for the soul. When Masha has her crisis abroad it is to Russia that she instinctively turns, and to the Russia of the country estate, not Petersburg. The European countryside is ‘cold’ compared to the Russian.

The chief delight for the reader lies in the early part of the tale, which describes the protagonist’s youth and courtship. This is Tolstoy at his most Turgenevian, with limpid, sparse, haunting descriptions of the country estate, and psychologically detailed descriptions of the relationships between the protagonists, and of their inner states. The tale then increases in intensity as the boredom of country life seeps into the protagonist’s soul. The climatic scene which takes place on the veranda during a spring shower is blisteringly intense and electrifying, with writing of great concentration and power. Even the weather contributes to the meaning of the scene and the depiction of their marriage: The sun had set, it was growing dark, and the little spring rain cloud hung over the house and garden and only behind the trees the horizon was clear, with the fading glow of twilight, in which one star had just begin to twinkle.

The great weakness of the tale, however, is the choice of narrative voice. The first person narrative is not entirely convincing for two reasons. First, there is an uneasy conflation of Tolstoy’s voice with Masha’s. Indeed it is something of a shock to discover towards the end of the first paragraph that the narrator is a woman and not a man. Masha has no real independence of her own as a voice apart from how she is intended to operate as a didactic symbol for Tolstoy. This is not a problem that one finds in Esther’s narrative in Bleak House for example, or in Jane Eyre, to name two influential female 19th century bildungromans. Secondly, questions of narrative provenance are unsatisfactorily left unanswered, and Tolstoy seems to be unaware of or just simply uninterested in the problems inherent in first person narratives, problems such as how the narrator withholds vital evidence from the reader and how this information is released, the problems in other words of the bildungsroman. Tolstoy’s privileging of morality, of didacticism over questions of narrative provenance fatally weakens the verisimilitude of the tale. He was to learn from this and tell roughly the same story again, with roughly the same aims in mind, but with much greater effect, 20 years later in Anna Karenina, but this time from an external viewpoint with a 3rd person, omniscient narrator.

This apart, there is much wisdom and beauty in the tale. The depiction of how love changes throughout the long years of a marriage are very true, and there is much wisdom too in reflecting on the whole of the relationship when it is in trouble, and not just on the period which is causing the trouble.

Each time of life has its own kind of love. I weep for that past love which can never return. Love remains, but not the old love.

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