Luis - Risorgimento nelle Langhe, aristocrazia e comunismo

Leone Tolstoi e Valeria Arseneva

Tolstoy and Valerya Arseneva (by Ernest J. Simmons)

'Family Happiness' (1859) is a most interesting example of the manner in which Tolstoy transposes the facts of real life into the substance of art. It will be remembered that in his plan for a novel about a Russian landowner, of which 'A Landlord's Morning' is all he completed, the hero, after his disillusionment in reforming his peasants, seeks a new ideal in family life. Tolstoy himself long pursued this ideal of family happiness, and during 1856-57 he actively sought the realization of it in courting pretty Valerya Arseneva, much younger than himself, who lived on an estate not far from Yasnaya Polyana. Somewhat like Sergei Mihkailych in 'Family Happiness', Tolstoy had easy access to the young lady's house as the guardian of her brother. And again like the hero of the short novel, he employed an imaginary second-self to explain his feelings to Valerya, urged her to practice his favourite piano pieces, and grew wrathy over her fondness for high society.

Although Tolstoy allowed himself to become deeply committed to Valerya, in the end, unlike Sergei Mikhailych in the story, he shrank from marriage with her because he lost faith in it as an ideal of happiness. "I never loved her with real love," he wrote a family friend. "I was carried away by the reprehensible desire to inspire love. This gave me a delight I had never before experienced.... I have behaved very badly."

No doubt a felt need to justify his shabby conduct and purge his mind of the whole episode drove Tolstoy to write 'Family Happiness', in which he tries to indicate that if he and Valerya had married, their different views of what made for happiness in such a relationship would have led to unhappiness for both. But he transforms the experience of real life, in the first part of the tale, into a charming, poetic narrative of the dawning love of a sensitive seventeen-year-old girl for a man twice her age, a contemporary of her father, and also her guardian. All we know of Tolstoy's relationship with Valerya comes from his letters and diary entries. In his short novel the challenge of art compels Tolstoy to tell the story of the love of Masha and her guardian as it is seen through the eyes of this young girl. It is a delicate psychological study in depth, a worthy forerunner of the moving love stories of his great novels. We observe how the mysterious chemistry of love gradually and insensibly alters the nature of the youthful, inexperienced Masha and reveals to her "a whole new world of joys in the present, without changing anything in my life, without adding anything except himself to each impression of my mind. All that had surrounded me from childhood without saying anything to me suddenly came to life. The mere sight of him made everything begin to speak and press for admittance to my heart, filling it with happiness."

Yet it is interesting to see how Tolstoy, as always, qualifies the idealizing poetry of his heroine by the sober truth of fact. A few days before her marriage Masha takes the sacrament, and her thoughts are suffused by the elation of lofty religious feelings. She ecstatically wonders how much more they will be elated by actual marriage with the man she loves. However, after the ceremony is performed she is described as "only frightened and disappointed: all was over but nothing extraordinary, nothing worthy of the sacrament I had received had taken place in myself."

The radiant poetic atmosphere of the first part of the story is dissipated in the second part by the familiar stresses and strains of married life. Masha eventually grows impatient with the uneventfulness of country existence with her husband and craves the movement and excitement of high society in the city. Although he has lived this kind of social life himself and is aware of its shallowness, he bows to the wishes of his young wife. Her social success and eager willingness to sacrifice to it the values he prized most in her soon bring about an estrangement in their relations. At this point Tolstoy may be accused of introducing into his story a didactic puritanical element. Quite clearly he wished to suggest that the disparity in years, experience, and tastes inevitably erode the family happiness of Masha and her husband, just as they would have done if he had married Valerya. The conclusion of the story, however, saves the situation by a solution that does not appear to be false either to the reality of things or to the demands of art. Tormented by the conviction that she has lost his love, Masha at last confronts her husband with an anguished plea for an explanation. They sit on the veranda of her old house, and here the reluctant husband, prompted by tender memories of their first ecstasies and the antiphonal responses of nature as gentle summer rain clouds shadow the setting sun, offers a clarification. She accuses him of not continuing to love her as at the beginning of their marriage and of failing to exercise his authority and greater experience to save her from the mistakes she made in pursuing the illusion of social success. She had to learn this by her own experience, he tells her, and if their early passionate love has vanished, this was inevitable anyway. It can now be replaced, he adds, by another kind of love, a peaceful love. "Don't let us try to repeat life," he declares. "Don't let us make pretences to ourselves. Let us be thankful that there is an end of the old emotions and excitements. The excitement of searching is over for us; our quest is done, and happiness enough has fallen to our lot. Now we must stand aside and make room for him," he concludes, pointing to their infant son whom the nurse was carrying out to the veranda for their nightly blessing.

About the author Ernest J. Simmons (1968):