Not only does Alice Munro write short stories as complicated as novels (see blog post May 18, 2012), she wrote a “short story” based on the actual biography of Sophia Kovalevsky, the first woman in Europe to receive a Ph.D. (in mathematics), the first woman to be “appointed to a full professorship in Northern Europe” and “one of the first females to work for a scientific journal as an editor” (Wikipedia). It would take considerable research to decide to what extent “Too Much Happiness” is really fiction and to what extent it might be classified as “creative non-fiction.”
Regardless, Sophia Kovalevsky makes a fascinating study. Not only was she a brilliant mathematician, she was also a novelist, and she co-wrote a play called The Struggle for Happiness, a title which better fits her life than does the title of Alice Munro’s story. However, “Too much happiness” is said to have been the actual last words of Sophia Kovalevsky.
The phrase is cryptic. Can there be too much happiness? Is the tone sincere? Ironic? Is it part of her drug-induced, deathbed delirium? The story (and the biography) seems to be more about a woman whose pursuit of happiness is repeatedly being derailed. Denied a university education as a woman in her home country of Russia, she engaged in a marriage of convenience in order to get the required husband’s (or father’s) signature to study abroad. Though she achieves academic success, as a woman, she is denied employment as a professor until later in life, when she receives a visiting professorship at Stockholm University in Sweden.
After she falls in love with her husband and bears their child, he later commits suicide. After caring for their daughter for a year, she puts the child in the care of her sister in order to pursue her career in mathematics.
In middle age she falls in love again, but the relationship is rocky, and though they vow to marry “in the spring” (of 1891), she contracts pneumonia on her train trip back to Stockholm and dies shortly thereafter.
Her life represents the classic woman’s conflict between professional career and personal relationships. From a Freudian perspective it is the conflict of ego and power vs. love and pleasure. Only society seems to be set up so that men can reasonably expect to achieve both, whereas women are expected to choose. Sophia tries to achieve both, only to be thwarted by social convention, circumstance, and time.
Based on the biographical accounts, it is fair to say that “Too Much Happiness” is factually accurate. However, Munro gives the story her own shape. Sophia’s last words have been documented, but the prediction of her own death, however playful, that occurs at the beginning of the story may be fictional. Strolling through a Paris cemetery with her mid-life lover, Sophia recalls the superstition that visiting a cemetery on New Year’s Day presages one’s death before the end of that year. “One of us will die this year,"Sophia pronounces, and the story ends with her death on February 10, 1891.
During her train trip back to Stockholm, she visits her late sister’s husband and son and her academic mentor and his two sisters, all the while flashing back to her first discovery of trigonometry, her efforts to educate herself in mathematics, her marriage, her professional achievements, her family relationships, motherhood, the loss of her husband and sister, and her mid-life affair with Maksim. Thus her life is presented as a retrospective as she travels from her long-distance lover back to her home and place of work.
The word “happiness” appears four times in the story, once at the end in her deathbed last words and three times on one page when she writes her friend and former classmate of her impending marriage to Maksim: “…it is to be happiness after all. Happiness after all. Happiness.”
The word “happy” appears four times: On an occasion when Maksim rejects her saying she “should make her way back to Sweden…she should be happy where her friends were waiting for her,” ending with a “jab” that her “little daughter” would have need of her. On another when her teenage nephew expresses no more ambition in life than to “be an omnibus boy and call out the stations,” and Sophia replies, “Perhaps you would not always be happy calling out the stations.” Again, when telling her former mentor of her upcoming marriage, she says, “Meine Liebe, I order you, order you to be happy for me.” And finally, in a flashback to her first discovery of trigonometry when she recalls, “She was not surprised then, though intensely happy.”
Two of the four uses of “happy” refer to her personal life and two to the happiness found in work, as if true happiness is found in balancing both. The repetition of “happiness” when writing to her friend about marrying Maksim seems to tip the scale in favor of the personal. Had she found “too much happiness” in her work to the detriment of her personal life? Was the hope of finding happiness in both “too much” to wish for? We can speculate on the meaning of her last words, but the title of Munro’s story seems ironic, for, more often than not, Sophia seems to fall far short of “too much happiness.”
And there is always the possibility that the drug a doctor gives her on the train, a drug which “brought solace…when necessary, to him,” might have elevated her mood to a state of euphoria, such that, indeed, just before her death, it felt like “too much happiness.”
Her final delirium also included references to her “husband,” confused with Bothwell, who had been accused but acquitted of murdering the consort of Mary Queen of Scots before marrying her himself, possibly by force and subterfuge. Is this an association of marriage with the deception, violence, and distrust that had accompanied her own actual and hoped for marriages?
She also talked about her novel and a “new story,” in which she hoped to “discover what went on” under the “pulse in life,” something “Invented, but not.” She found herself “overflowing with ideas…of a whole new breadth and importance and yet so natural and self-evident that she couldn’t help laughing.” The language suggests, not only the euphoria of literary creation, but also, perhaps, that “intense” happiness she associated with mathematical discovery.
Kovalevsky had made the connection between art and science in a quote which Alice Munro uses as a headnote to her story: “Many persons who have not studied mathematics confuse it with arithmetic and consider it a dry and arid science. Actually, however, this science requires great fantasy.”
Is there any wonder that the literary Alice Munro would find fodder for fiction in the actual biography of a mathematician who, not only linked fantasy and science, but was also a novelist and playwright? Thus does the real become unreal and the unreal become real, the truth become fiction and fiction become truth.