Monday, February 7, 2011

Vapid Summaries of Two Tolstoy Novellas; A Note on Russian Names

Family Happiness (1859)

“We were in morning for my mother, who died in the autumn, and I spent all that winter alone in the country with Kátya and Sónya.” So Tolstoy begins his novella—with the desolation of a family death. The narrator is 17-year-old Máshechka Alexandróvna (Márya) reflecting on her past. She begins by informing us that her mother has died, and that she has temporarily returned to her old house, Pokróvkoe, with her younger sister Sónya and her old governess Kátya, until her guardian Sergéy Mikháylych can decide what course she and her sister should take. “The feeling of death clung to the house; the air was filled with grief and horror of death.” Márya falls in love with Sergéy. They marry, though she is considerably younger than him. At first the marriage runs smoothly, then ruptures, and finally cools.

The title "Family Happiness" refers to the only kind of long-lasting, substantial happiness that one should expect from a marriage. It is subdued and quiet. Passion always fades in a marriage, since passion is built upon mystery.

-Their relationship is brilliantly developed in that none of the developments seem artificial--everything happens naturally--there is little invention.

The Devil (1889)

I found the The Devil rather unimpressive—even upon a second reading. It is said that Tolstoy cached the draft of this story somewhere in the cushioned depths of his study chair, so that Sophia wouldn’t find it, and discover that he had been unfaithful to her. For this story, like all of Tolstoy’s stories, is largely autobiographical. It is the story of an “honest,” “kindly,” “agreeable,” “candid” man (Eugène Irténev) who is driven to madness by his lust for a peasant woman (Stepanída Péchnikov). We open to chapter one and read that “a brilliant career lay before Eugène Irténev.” Money is inherited, debts are paid off, services are begun in the ministry, and Eugène’s life seems very promising. However, being a bachelor, he is plagued by what he calls a “necessary” obligation to his health (i.e. copulation). To him, there is something emancipating about stifling his urges—it allows him to operate his father’s estate and farm with a clear mind. So, whenever he his urges arise, off he goes to the forest to ‘meet’ with Stepanída. Time passes, he marries a smart, bourgeois girl named Liza, and forgets about Stepanída. Later, however, he encounters her everywhere she goes. He is driven mad by his guilt and commits suicide—or, in an alternate ending, BAM!, kills Stepanída.

This story is unimpressive because it has no subtlety in its theme, construction, or symbolism… In both endings, someone dies—in the one where he shoots Stepanída, he is sentenced to 7 months in prison, and emerges a drunkard. Clearly, it is ‘wrong to give into lustful temptation.’ And we recall the gospel of Matthew:

[28] But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.
[29] And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.
[30] And if thy right hand offend thee, cut if off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.

Religious imagery pervades: Stepanída red kerchief represents sin, passion, and temptation; the Forest in which he meets her, the garden of Eden.

The story is marked (Insipidly) by the changing seasons and (interestingly) by liturgical celebrations. Lent, marking the death of Eugène's indebted father and the ressurection of his farm under Eugène's control.

This is a parable, clearly, and that's why it's not to my taste.

A Note on Russian Names:
Russians have three names: their first name, their patronymic, and their surname. Tolstoy’s full name, for instance is

Lev (first name) Nikolaevich (patronymic) Tolstoy (surname).

The patronymic is based on the first name of a person's father, adding either a masculine (-vich or -ich) or feminine (-na) ending. Thus siblings (with the same father) will have the same patronymic.

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