Leo Tolstoy on Listlessness, Matrimony & the Need for Novelty

“Nothing,” Chris McCandless once wrote, “is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future.”  An examination of mankind will reveal security as a fundamental human yearning.  And yet no matter how universal and intense a longing it may be, its attainment often occasions malaise, dissatisfaction and regret.  For Richard Yates, security was represented as the stifling conformity of 1950s suburbia; for scores of women writers, as the restrictive demands of marriage and domesticity.  But nowhere have I encountered a more tragic account of the trade offs of security than in Leo Tolstoy’s masterwork, the 1859 novella Family Happiness — the story of Masha, a beautiful, clever girl who feels constrained by the predictability of her highly regimented existence as wife.  

Since marrying Sergey, Masha finds her world dictated by the seemingly endless humdrum routines of matrimony: breakfast in the mornings, reading in the afternoons, a formal dinner in the evenings with Sergey, his severe, often rigid mother, and their servants, piano practice at sunrise, and maybe a late snack at midnight.  Her life becomes a ceaseless, unvarying stream of schedules and rituals.  No excitement.  No surprise.  No spontaneity.  Eventually Masha begins to yearn for something new, something novel to distinguish each unexceptional day from the next.  She hungers for the thrilling pulse of the city, for each day to unfold before her like the unwrapping of a present, inconceivable and unexpected:

“I wanted movement and not a calm course of existence.  I wanted excitement and the chance to sacrifice myself for my love.  I felt it in myself a superabundance of energy which found no outlet in our quiet life.”

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In what I think is one of the saddest endings in all of literature, Masha ultimately resigns to the boredom of domestic life and accepts that her and Sergey’s love has mutated into a more platonic, less fiery understanding of each other.  Rather than view her husband with any ardor, she begins to see him merely as her children’s father: 

“That day ended the romance of our marriage; the old feeling became a precious irrecoverable remembrance; but a new feeling of love for my children and the father of my children laid the foundation of a new life and a quite different happiness.”

Are we supposed to understand Masha’s resignation to her uninspiring life and loveless marriage as “happiness”?  I think not.  Like Masha, our lives cease when our day to day becomes predictable.  We may need security to feel safe, but-Tolstoy contends-we need novelty if we’re ever going to be transported by rapture.

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