Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Unsettling Contrasts: Reflections on Tolstoy's Family Happiness

“A truly great book,” wrote Robertson Davies, “should be read in youth, again in maturity
and once more in old age, as a fine building should be seen by morning light, at noon and by moonlight.” I’m sure I could pull countless other quotations from writers on the joys—and sometimes disappointments—of returning to novels one has read at a previous point in life. But I recently had such an interesting experience re-reading Tolstoy’s novella Family Happiness that I couldn’t resist analyzing what made it so.

Family Happiness is written from the first-person point of view of a teenaged country girl whose parents have both died. The estate’s guardian, an old family friend and a man in his late thirties, comes to manage the household’s affairs and gradually he and the teenaged girl fall in love. At first, much is made of their age difference and difference of experience—that life is just opening to her, while he has had plenty of worldly experience. In fact, he tries to hide his love for her because he believes he’s not the right match for her, but their love prevails and they marry.

But the novella doesn’t end there. Instead, it follows through the first contented year of marriage and into the slightly more discontented period to follow. Sergey (the hero) believes Masha (the heroine) has grown bored, and so he takes them to St. Petersburg where Masha comes under the thrall of society life. Sergey is afraid all along that her pure, innocent ways will be corrupted by society life, and he is proven right—or so he believes—when they have a severe falling-out over a ball Masha wishes to attend over Sergey’s desire to leave Petersburg.  Then comes the painful ruin of their love and the bitter loneliness of an estranged couple. When Masha finally confronts Sergey over their estrangement, he tells her that he does still love her but that the first phase of romantic love can never last, so they might as well settle in to this new phase of steadier though more distant love. Masha sees that he’s right, sees that the intensity of romantic love would be a plague if it continued on and on, and she and Sergey unite in love for their child.  Family happiness indeed.

The novella is a love story, and in my first reading of it four years ago, I was along for the ride, even in the portions where love causes heartache and alienation. But this time around, all I could feel, even in the first part of the novella where there is indeed abundant happiness and love, was an overwhelming sense of menace—a sense of menace that makes the reading wonderfully painful. I suppose it’s partly because I knew more or less what was in store. But to attribute this second reading experience to knowing the plot would be to miss the novella’s genius, for in fact what I picked up on this time was Tolstoy’s use of what Joyce Carol Oates identifies in Jane Eyre as a “dialectic” approach.

Oates’s introduction to the Bantam Classics edition of Jane Eyre is a pithy but meaty introduction to that novel’s greatness. She points out that the book moves by setting up conventional ideas or statements and then almost immediately subverting them. Oates uses the book’s opening as an example. Jane Eyre begins with “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day,” and goes on to describe the gloomy weather conditions. But where this seems like the usual childish lament that the rain should go away and come again some other day, we get instead Jane’s bold, straightforward statement, “I was glad of it.”

In a similar way, Tolstoy announces up front that this novella is about Family Happiness. And yet, look at the novella’s the first sentence: “We were in mourning for my mother, who had died in the autumn, and I spent all that winter alone in the country with Katya and Sonya.” Sounds a lot more like family unhappiness, especially since Masha falls into a broody adolescent depression. Granted, that unhappiness in many ways sets the stage for why Sergey’s entrance brings comparatively much happiness. But it’s hard to ignore that Masha’s initial feeling at the thought of Sergey as a potential husband is one of fear.

The trend continues throughout their courtship. Just as Masha begins to feel close to Sergey, he purposely keeps his affairs from her. “This hurt me at first,” narrator Masha says, “but I soon grew accustomed to confining our talk to my affairs, and felt this to be quite natural.” Huh. I’m not so convinced, especially given that the very next sentence is, “There was another thing which displeased me at first and then became pleasant to me. This was his complete indifference and even contempt for my personal appearance.”

So, even Masha recognizes that things are moving forward by contrasting elements—what first displeases her soon pleases her, or so she says. There are many more examples I could raise, but since this is a blog post and not a thesis paper, I’ll let you search them out for yourself when you read Family Happiness. The effect of these contrasts is to put the reader in a state of being constantly unsettled, to the point that even when Masha is declaring how happy she is, the reader is cringing at the contrast that is certainly to come. Even the title, Family Happiness, plays tricks on us—is it to be taken in good faith? Or is there a sly undertone? Family happiness. The book ends with the very picture of it, husband and wife at peace with their baby. And yet, the resolution comes quickly; the pain that preceded it is far more vivid and detailed, even simply in terms of the pages devoted to it; and we are left wondering, was the sacrifice too much? The only answer the novella seems to offer is that it is inevitable.