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By Leo Tolstoy
New York: A Signet Class from New American Library, 1960
304 pages

Bob Corbett
September 2014

FAMILY HAPPINESS (1859) Pp. 7 – 93

Marya Alexandrovna narrates the story of her life and love for Sergey Mikhaylych. This is one of the most touching and real-life pieces of fiction I have every read. She begins her narration as a 17 year old girl. Her mother has recently died, her father earlier. She has inherited a modestly large estate in Russia, and is in the uncertain place of not knowing how things are financially with the estate and how this all works in the Russia of her time.

Sergey Mikhaylych is a middle aged fellow, a much younger friend of her deceased father. He has come to the house to help with the finances of the mother’s death and he does work out a very satisfactory arrangement for Marya who, effectively, inherits all of her parents’ estate.

She is impressed with Sergey, and develops a bit of a crush on him. He is encouraging, but somewhat distant and a bit too fatherly for what she thinks may be there, but he keeps suggesting things. Encourages her.

Very slowly things develop and they fall in love, though it is never spoken of for some time. We, the reader, hear all of what is going on in Marya’s heart, but like her, we really don’t know his heart.

In any case, things develop almost idyllically; they slowly fall in love and eventually marry. The first move is to his family home, still run by the strong hand of his mother, and they seem to have a nearly perfect marriage and love.

Eventually, however, the go off to Petersburg to experience the city and the impressionable young Marya is profoundly moved by the social season there. She is, in fact, the most attractive and vivacious woman in their social circle and this is so new to her that she is just astonished and delighted by it all. She relishes her place as the woman that all the men desire and seek out.

She is always faithful to Sergey, but he has absolutely no use for the social circle they travel in and eventually just stops attending any social affairs with her; she, however, utterly enamored with her new position, continues on without him. She sees it as completely innocent and delightful fun.

Little by little the two drift apart in their love, though they continue to live together, he, from her perspective, becomes more and more distant, seemingly no longer in love with her. She, as she sees his perspective, doesn’t really love her any longer, but tolerates her. He remains polite, an accepting husband, but rather distant and unloving. She is both angry with him and deeply saddened by her own needs that seem to so hurt him, but unwilling to give them up.

Eventually things come to a head and they, while living together as husband and wife, are almost fully estranged.

Finally she can’t stand the current situation and begs him to take them back to the countryside to their estate. He does this but things don’t much change, even after two children are born to them and whom they both love very much. They just don’t communicate well, and she has hidden much in her heart as he has in his.

Not being able to go on, one day she finally forces the issue into the open. He develops his position that there is no possible return to those initial days of the fire of emotion and love. They have moved on and, while still definitely in love, it is a more “mature” (meaning less passionate and fiery) love, and say this is not a negative thing that has happened. As the story ends we know they will just move into this new world, seemingly successfully.

I was just astonished at how real this love story seemed to me. I see it in my own life; I see it in the lives of many of my friends and acquaintances. In our time, however, I think fewer people take the path of Marya and Sergey. Rather, they do separate and seek other partners or avenues. There is a certain beauty in the outcome which Tolstoy chooses. I can’t help wonder how many modern couples might well have remained together were they to have had the sentiments which Tolstoy expresses in this tale.


This is a story which moved me powerfully, in great measure because of the marvelous telling of it by Leo Tolstoy, in part for very personal reasons. In any case Ivan Ilych, husband of Praskovya Fedorovna, died at the age of 45 on Feb. 4, 1882.

Tolstoy then spends some time pointing out how the living so very often don’t respond to the death of even a fairly close friend. Peter Ivanovich, described as a close friend, does go to meet with and console the widow. But Tolstoy makes clear that he is not happy to have to go to the wake and never could face the notion that he too could ever die, and he mainly doesn’t want to miss any of his bridge game.

Having established this fact that Ilych’s death is mainly an inconvenience to his friends, Tolstoy turns to a quick summary of Illych’s life, sickness and death.

Ilych was a bon vivant in college. A good student, well-liked and followed the views of the majority of his class. After college he spent five years in the provinces, and then moved to a better position as an examining magistrate. He was there for two years and met his wife there.

They had a rather dreary married life, but it was necessary social. He tended to disappear into his work. He lived 17 years after marriage. Had a good job in Petersburg making 5,000 rubles a year. With this promotion he settled into a routine life with his wife and children and in general life became better if routine.

However, a relatively short time before his death he began to have a sore area in his side. He went to several doctors; none really helped nor gave him a solid and sure diagnosis. He begins to worry a great deal about his health and his temperament gets worse. He even begins to suspect he is dying and his wife is more and more upset with him.

He comes to believe strongly that he is dying and can’t really face it. He is constantly trying to lie to himself about it, but simply can’t escape the awareness of his approaching death and the senselessness of his continued suffering.

His doctor recognizes that the mental tortures were worse even than the terrible physical pains. Yet he is never straight with Ilich and in the end his death is a relief to almost everyone, including himself.

The story is brilliantly written, carefully crafted and developed and crystal clear on this process of death as Tolstoy saw it in his own time.

However, for me there was a dimension to the story which might well not have been there for most readers. This added dimension is my own attitude toward death and especially my own experience with my father’s death. Since that is not a part of commenting on this book, I will give a link to an essay I wrote for . . . for what or whom? I would guess the essay, which is on my own father’s death, is really an essay for myself. This Tolstoy story brings back vivid memories of those days, and I will just include a link here to any who might wish to read that short essay.



I was complete taken by the first two stories in this collection. While the title story, The Death of Ivan Ilich, seems to be the most famous and celebrated, I actually was more moved and touched by the story FAMILY HAPPINESS than by the title story, THE DEATH OF IVAN ILYCH, but I found both stories convincing and very human. However, I am not as touched by The Kreutzer Sonata.

Two men meet on a train (oh my, I’ve had it happen to me dozens of times on European trains!!) and a conversation ensues. The main story teller is a very quiet man who says almost nothing in the times when several people are around. However, he senses the interest of the one other man there, and when it turns out only the two of them are left within easy eat-shot he tells this man his tale.

The narrator murdered his wife. However, he is free, having been adjudged to have been justified since it appeared his wife was having an affair and he killed her upon “catching” her with her lover.

As we learn in the story, there is little merit to this judgment, but the murderer himself is convinced that he is justified and the story is mainly his account and justification of the murder.

The story is long and detailed. The murderer/narrator has a view that basically says: Human nature shouldn’t be what it is and human law and customs shouldn’t be what they are. I’m not sure I would argue with the “should” of it all, but the reality is that we humans are exactly what we are and nothing else, and this man’s disagreement with what human society has done and valued may be true or false, but the fact is that within human society as we know it and understand it (and as he understood it), he was simply not justified in the murder he committed.

In the first two stories I have been amazed at the careful detail which Tolstoy provides, and it is no different in this story. The difference is that in the first two stories I was very sympathetic to the narrator’s tale, while in this one I found that first of all, I just couldn’t be very sympathetic to the world view of the murderer, and I just didn’t have the patience needed for the slow and very long narration of the defense of his murder.

I just wasn’t as satisfied that this was a “marvelous” story and I was with the first two.

MASTER AND MAN Pp. 241 – 293

Vasili Andreevich Brekhunov is a greedy, selfish, wealthy man who is planning to become even more wealthy by his seedy business practices. He has a man, Nekita, a peasant with a strong tendency to drink too much, but who has currently sworn off the booze to try to straighten out his life.

The two of them set out one cold snowy day to travel to a near-by village where Vasili will try to close a deal, greatly to his economic advantage. However, they get caught and lost in a snow storm, driven by Vasili’s greed to get this deal done. After being lost a couple of times Vasili stubbornly refuses to seek shelter for the night and in a driving icy snow storm they set out for the village they’ve missed twice. Again they get caught, but this time it is night and they are hopeless lost. They try to find a way to survive in the storm, but it is hopeless, and Vasili even abandon’s his servant to set out on his own, only to have the horse circle back to the abandoned sleigh.

Here he finds the peasant near death, and does the first self-less thing he’s ever done, lays on top of the man to keep him warm enough to live, costing him his own life.

Tolstoy isn’t fully clear as to what motivated this selfless death. Certainly Vasili himself had already come close to death that night, and had come to realize that his incessant and rather unjust practices of seeking to always to better others in deals, was not a noble way to be. Nonetheless, his heroism in the end was a bit suspect to me; the change in behavior just came on too quickly.

However, the writing was excellent. I read it on a warm summer day and was feeling chilled to the bone while reading!

Tolstoy is a fine writer. He tells gripping tales, mainly with a moral purpose at root, but makes the characters live and the detailed stories seem quite real and alive for the reader.

Bob Corbett


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