From the Archive: “All Happy Families,” by Ursula K. Le Guin

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All Happy Families,” by Ursula K. Le Guin, appeared in MQR’s Winter 1997 issue.

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I used to be too respectful to disagree with Tolstoy, but since I got into my sixties my faculty of respect has atrophied. Besides, at some point in the last forty years I began to question Tolstoy’s respect for his wife. Anybody can make a mistake in marriage, of course. But I have an impression that no matter who he married  Tolstoy would have respected her only in certain respects, though he expected her to respect him in all respects. In this respect, I disapprove of Tolstoy; which makes it easier to disagree with him in the first place, and in the second place, to say so.

There has been a long gap between the first and second places — years. But there was a period of as many years even before the first place, before I achieved the point of disagreement, the ability to disapprove. During all those years, from when I was fourteen or so and first read him, till I was in my forties, I was, as it were, married to Tolstoy, his loyal wife. Though fortunately not expected to copy his manuscripts six times by hand, I read and reread his books with joy and zeal. I respected him without ever asking if or wondering whether he, as it were, respected me. When E. M. Forster, in an essay on Tolstoy, told me that he didn’t, I replied, He has that right!

And if E. M. Forster had asked, What gives him that right? I would have simply answered, Genius.

But E. M. Forster didn’t ask, which is just as well, since he probably would have asked what I meant by Genius.

I think what I meant by Genius was that I thought Tolstoy actually knew what he was talking about — unlike the rest of us.

However, at some point, around forty or so, I began to wonder if he really knew what he was talking about any better than anybody else, or if what he knew better than anybody else was how to talk about it. The two things are easily confused.

So then, quietly, in my private mind, surrounded by the soft, supportive mutterings of feminists, I began to ask rude questions of Tolstoy. In public I remained a loyal and loving wife, entirely respectful of his opinions as well as his art. But the unspoken questions were there, the silent disagreement. And the unspoken, as we know, tends to strengthen, to mature and grow richer over the years, like an undrunk wine. Of course it may just go to Freudian vinegar. Some thoughts and feelings go to vinegar very quickly, and must be poured out at once. Some go on fermenting in the bottle, and burst out in an explosion of murderous glass shards. But a good, robust, well-corked feeling only gets deeper and more complicated, down in the cellar. The thing is knowing when to uncork it.

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Image courtesy of the Los Angeles Times.

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