Family Happiness, the Tolstoy book mentioned in Into the Wild

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I wanted to read Tolstoy’s Family Happiness after watching Into the Wild a few months ago: an emotional film based on John Krakauer’s biography of Christopher McCandless in which the book is mentioned.

In 1992, McCandless decided to leave his comfortable American home to hike into the Alaskan wilderness and find the solitude and connection with nature he so yearned for. This was all done under the alias Alexander Supertramp. I don’t want to give away the rest of his story, but here’s his Wikipedia entry if you want it revealed. I’d recommend the film, although the ending really did get to me.


Here’s what Into the Wild quotes from Tolstoy’s Family Happiness

“A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one’s neighbour — such is my idea of happiness.”

I love this quote. Taken without the context of the rest of the novel, you get the impression that it’s a story of idealist and tranquil ways of living.

However, the marriage of Masha and Sergei – although beginning in this happy way – deteriorates over the course of the novel. Masha gets bored of quiet life in the country and becomes a little flirty with others. The novel touches on fading love, naivety, and the position of a couple within society.

Here another quote from Family Happiness that was highlighted in Chris McCandless’s copy of the book:

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

I’m sure that a lot of people will relate to this. I could also absolutely understand McCandless’s wish for solitude, as well as the emphasis on peace and time for reflection in Masha and her husband’s early marriage in Family Happiness.

When I first started reading Family Happiness, something immediately struck me as unusual: Tolstoy was writing in conversational first-person, and from the perspective of a woman. I’m fairly certain I hadn’t witnessed that before.

I do wonder what Sofya thought of this novel though. There are clear connections between the literary marriage and Tolstoy’s own, one example being the age difference between husband and wife (Tolstoy married Sofya when he was 34 and she was 18, not far from the ages mentioned in the novel).

This is a lovely short piece by Tolstoy, and I’d certainly recommend it if you wish to ease into the author’s work without yet facing War and Peace or Anna Karenina.

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