Leo Tolstoy Short Fiction Analysis
Leo Tolstoy’s ego embraces the world, so that he is always at the center of his fictive creation, filling his books with his struggles, personae, problems, questions, and quests for answers, and above all with his notion of life as an ethical search as strenuous as the pursuit of the Holy Grail. He does not try to puzzle or dazzle; his work is not a clever riddle to be solved or a game to be played but a rich realm to be explored. He disdains the kind of exterior purism practiced by Gustave Flaubert and Henry James among others, which concentrates on the inner lives of individuals—although he is superbly skilled at psychological perception. His aim, rather, is to discover, as far as he can, the essential truth of life’s meaning, the revelation to be gained at the core of the vast mesh of human relations. What energizes his work is his conviction that this truth is good, and that, once discovered, it will resolve the discords and conflicts that plague humanity.
In Tolstoy’s art, the natural, simple, and true is always pitted against the artificial, elaborate, and false, the particular against the general, knowledge gained from observation against assertions of borrowed faiths. His is the gift of direct vision, of fundamental questions and of magical simplicity—perhaps too simple, as a distinguished historian of ideas has indicated. Isaiah Berlin, in a famous essay titled “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” sees Tolstoy as torn between his pluralism (the fox, perceiving reality as varied, complex, and multiple) and monism (the hedgehog, reducing life’s fullness to one single truth, the infinity of sensory data to the finite limits of a single mind). Tolstoy, Berlin concludes, was a pluralist in his practice but a monist in his theory, who found himself unable to reconcile the foxiness of his multifarious awareness with his hedgehoglike need to discover one all-embracing answer to its myriad problems.
Tolstoy’s first stories are set in the Caucasus, where he spent the years 1851 to 1854, with many of the officers and soldiers whom he met serving as thinly disguised models. In “Nabeg: Razskaz volontera” (“The Raid: A Volunteer’s Story”), he poses several problems: What is the nature of courage? By what tests does one determine bravery or cowardice? What feelings cause a man to kill his fellow? The first-person narrator discusses these questions with a Captain Khlopov (derived from a Captain Khilkovsky in Tolstoy’s diary) and illustrates different types of courage among the military characters. Tolstoy deflates warfare, emphasizing ordinary details and casual, matter-of-fact fortitude rather than dashingly proud heroism. His descriptions of nature are simple, concrete, and expert. The story’s most powerful scene has a dying young ensign pass from carefree bravado to dignified resignation as he encounters his end.
The element of eyewitness reportage is carried over from the Caucasian tales to the three Sebastopol sketches, which are fiction passing as war dispatches. Tolstoy took part in the Crimean War (1854-1856) as a sublieutenant, with Russia fighting a complex series of actions against a multiple enemy composed of not only Turkish but also some British, French, and Sardinian troops. While aggressively patriotic, he was appalled by the disorganization of his country’s military forces, with the average Russian peasant soldier poorly armed, trained, and led, while many company commanders nearly starved their men by pocketing much of the money allocated for their food.
“Sevastopol v dekabre” (“Sebastopol in December”) has no characters and no particular topography. The first-person narrator constructs a guidebook homily out of lived experience, familiarly addressing readers, inviting them to listen to his frontline experiences as he wanders from Sebastopol’s bay and dockside to a military hospital filled with shrieking, often multilated soldiers. Says the speaker, you will see war not as a beautiful, orderly, and gleaming formation, with music and beaten drums, streaming banners and generals on prancing horses, but war in its authentic expression—as blood, suffering and death.
Tolstoy concludes this sketch with a stirring salute to the epic heroism of Sebastopol’s residents and Russian defenders. Yet a somber awareness of death’s imminence, as the surgeon’s sharp knife slices into his patients’ flesh, pervades the sketch.
In “Sevastopol v mae” (“Sebastopol in May”), Tolstoy sharply denounces the vainglory of militarism, stressing the futility of the fighting and the madness of celebrating war as a glorious adventure. The passage describing the death by shellfire of an officer is a superb tour de force, with the author using interior monologue to have the lieutenant crowd his many hopes, fears, memories, and fantasies into a few seconds. The speaker comes to consider war as senseless, horrifying, but also—given human nature—inevitable. He concludes that the only hero he can find is the truth. This is perhaps the finest of Tolstoy’s military tales, anticipating the battle and death scenes of War and Peace.
In the third narrative, “Sebastopol in August,” Tolstoy uses well-developed characters to unify an episodic plot. He focuses on two brothers whose personalities contrast but who are both killed in action. He also strikes a note of shame and anger at Russia’s abandonment of the city and the consequent waste of many thousands of lives. He celebrates, however, the quiet heroism of countless common soldiers who risked and often met death with calm nobility.
Before Tolstoy began War and Peace in 1863, he wrote a number of long stories or novellas, which he called povesti, defined as “A literary narrative of lesser size than a novel.” Their compass is usually too small to accommodate the didacticism that his longer works absorb painlessly. One successful story that avoids moralizing is “Dva gusara” (“Two Hussars”). Its first half is devoted to the officer-father, the second to his son. Twenty years apart, they enact the same sequence of card playing, drinking, and philandering, in the same small town, meeting the same people. Their characters, however, differ drastically. The father is gallant, generous, honorable, charming. The son is mean, cold, calculating, cowardly. The father’s temperament is natural and open. The son’s is contrived and devious, corrupted by decadent society. As always with Tolstoy, he gives his allegiance to the authentic and intuitive, while sardonically scorning the artificial and scheming.
In Family Happiness, Tolstoy treats a problem to which he was to return throughout his career: the place of women, both at home and in society. He had courted a much younger and very pretty girl, Valerya Arseneva, but had become irritated by her fondness for high society and had broken off the relationship. He transforms the experience into a narrative by the young woman, Masha, in the fashion of Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre (1847), which he had read and admired. Now married and a mother, Masha recalls, in the story’s first half, her courtship by a man who knew her dead father, considered himself her guardian as she grew up, and was thirty-five to her seventeen when they married. Tolstoy magnificently captures the rapturous chemistry of first love as the girl awakens to womanhood. By the story’s second half, however, he undermines her dreams of romantic happiness as she becomes addicted to the whirl of urban high society, driving her husband into rural retreat and seclusion. Toward the end, at home in the country after disillusionments in the city, she and he agree to a different sort of marriage than they envisioned at its start, basing it not on passion but on companionship and parenthood. Tolstoy has here sounded some of his most pervasive notes: Sophistication is evil, simplicity is good; the city is decadent, the country is healthy; and romance is dangerous, often a “charming nonsense,” while marriage, though a necessary institution, should never be sentimentalized.
The story now called “Kholstomer” (“Strider”) was originally translated into English as “Kholstomer: The Story of a Horse,” because Tolstoy modeled his equine, first-person narrator on a horse by that name celebrated for his enormous stride and speed. The author humanizes his outcast animal, which is consistently stigmatized as a piebald and a gelding, in a keenly compassionate manner, with Strider’s sorrowful life made a parable of protest against unjust punishment of those who are somehow different. “He was old, they were young. He was lean, they were...
(The entire section is 3623 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of Leo Tolstoy Critical Essays. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!