Friday, July 11, 2008

Tolstoy Short Stories

I recently completed three short stories/novellas, "Family Happiness" "Kreutzer Sonata" and "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" by Leo Tolstoy. Each of these stories absorbed my attention so completely that I was able to do little else until I had completed reading it. I recalled having the same feeling when I read these stories in high school, at the beginning of summer to what I believe ended my junior year. That year sucked, as did much of my high school experience. (Didn't all of ours? Except for that jock who everybody really liked and who always had a girlfriend, and everyone wanted to sit next to at lunch...oh, wait. That person doesn't really exist. OK. Fine then. College, er, I mean, high school sucked for all of us.)
In any event, yes, I did complete these short stories, and each consumed me and provided interesting insight into the motivations of ordinarly lives.
In Family Happiness, Masha, a young lady of approximately 17 years, tells the story of her engagement and marriage to Sergy Mikhailovich, a family friend who is in his late 30s. The novella consists of the changes in their relationship to each other. At first, the couple finds themselves in blissful ecstasy. As the story progresses, however, and Masha finds herself more and more enrapt with social engagements that her husband disdains, their relationship becomes distant. The end of the book finds the couple reconciling, and accepting that their marriage has evolved to more friend-like than romantic union. In the final scene, Masha is clutching her baby boy and celebrating this joyful aspect of married life.
This book is a relief in that it depicts marriage in the realistic light that it so often is; not constant bliss, but two people trying to establish a life together and changing as the individuals in the marriage also grow and change. Additionally, it gives us a glimpse into the Russian upper-middle class. Which is interesting.
Kreutzer Sonata also focuses on married life. This seems to be a theme that had a grip on Tolstoy for a period of time. An anonymous passenger on a train tells his experience of meeting Pozdnyshev, who is struggling in the aftermath of an unhappy marriage. Pozdynshev, thinking that his wife was having an affair with a musician, fell into a jealous rage and killed her. An unhappy and tragic ending. Pozdnyshev reflects on sexual mores in Russian culture, and deplores young men's practice of losing their innocence to whore in brothels, as he believes that this jeopardizes his man's ability to function happily within a marriage. Perhaps we see glimpses into Tolstoy's philosophy of Christian fundamentalism in this book?
The Death of Ivan Ilyich tracks the life and death of an upper-middle class Russian Judge. Narrated in third person, we discover Ivan's somewhat superficial motivations to marry ("why not?"), and his pursuit of a life of public recognition and pleasure. As he struggles in pain on his death bed, Ilyich examines his life and decides that perhaps everything in his life; his wife, his profession, guised under a masquerade of 'proper' and 'right' was in fact a lie since none of it brought him happiness. The only joy that he can find in these last days is from his servant Gerassim, who he asks to remain with him throughout his painful death.
In this story, Tolstoy brilliantly explains how the circumstances of a persons life may have little to do with life at all.

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