Leo Tolstoy’s literary works may be viewed as repeated assaults on Romantic conventions. His view, expressed numerous times throughout his diary, was that such conventions blind both writer and reader to reality. Thus, his goal was to construct a new style, prosaic, matter-of-fact, but sharp and full of contrasts, like life itself. To depict all in motion, the inner world of people and the life surrounding them, is the basic creative method of Tolstoy. He sought to reveal the reality underneath by removing the veneer of custom. Precisely for that reason, Tolstoy was able to write War and Peace, a work depicting the ordinary life of an entire period of history in all of its movements, contradictions, and complexity.
Tolstoy, ever the moralist, sought to attain truth through art. In his conception, art is the great unmasker; as he wrote in his diary on May 17, 1896, “Art is a microscope which the artist aims at the mysteries of his soul and which reveals these mysteries common to all.” The microscope focuses attention on the telling detail, the apparently meaningless gesture, the simplest expression. To Tolstoy, every inner thought, sense, and emotion was reflected in some physical detail; the resulting psychophysical method was to have a profound influence on later writers. Throughout Tolstoy’s fiction, characters are reduced to one or two physical features; the palpable, the perceptible, the visible—this is the universe of Tolstoy.
Tolstoy believed that the literary patterns inherited from the Romantics did not get to the essence of meaning and were thus obsolete. His task: to destroy them. In his diary, he began a series of literary experiments: He made lists, he drew up columns, he numbered propositions in sequence. He was seeking a rational creative method—he wanted to construct narratives that were both factual, that is, true to experience, and aesthetically right.
Tolstoy’s first artistic work, “A History of Yesterday,” is telling in this respect. It is simply an account of uninteresting things that happen in the course of a day. Tolstoy’s problem was to write down an accurate account of a full day: He verges on stream of consciousness as he follows his mental associations and perceives how one thing leads to another. To explain something, one must go back in time to explain its causes; this is Tolstoy the rational analyst. Moreover, there is the problem of what verbal expression does to what it describes. Thus, Tolstoy becomes a dual creator: He is not only the writer writing but also the analyst observing the writer writing. He continually makes remarks, interrupts them, questions himself. Tolstoy the analyst is also a creator, one who is attempting to impose rational order on a series that is nothing more than a random succession of human acts. He pushes analysis to extremes, and because he realizes that there is no limit in time to causation and that he could theoretically go back all the way to the beginning of history, he arbitrarily stops himself and leaves the fragment unfinished.
Thus, even at the beginning of his career, Tolstoy was experimenting with point of view and the literary re-creation of consciousness. This acute self-awareness runs through his oeuvre. As he said in his diary on February 29, 1897, a life that goes by without awareness is a life that has not been lived: “The basis of life is freedom and awareness—the freedom to be aware.” To promote such awareness, Tolstoy sought to present things in a new way. To do so, he was obliged to distort, to make the familiar strange. It is no accident that when the Russian Formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky wanted to illustrate the technique he called ostranenie (“making strange,” or “defamiliarization"), he turned first to the works of Tolstoy, perhaps the supreme practitioner of this device—as in the famous opera scene in War and Peace or the church service in Resurrection. In such passages, the reader sees familiar experiences as if for the first time. Art has become a path to truth: Tolstoy dissects reality and reconstructs it verbally in a new, more palpable form.
Tolstoy never abandoned this way of looking at reality: He portrayed cause and effect, in sequence. First he selected the facts to be described; then he arranged them. Before him, and even in a novelist such as Dostoevski, the artist’s method was to show the result and then explain how it came to be—that is, to go back into the past after depicting the present. Tolstoy’s method was the reverse: to show the cause and then the result. Show the wickedness of Napoleon and the strength of Mikhail Kutuzov, for example, and the reader can understand why Russia triumphed against the French.
Of Tolstoy’s three full-length novels, only the last, Resurrection, is not representative of his distinctive method. This novel, which tells the tale of a repentant noble who seeks to resurrect the life of a young girl whom he once seduced, is full of moral strictures. Precisely because Tolstoy frequently forgot his psychophysical method, the novel fails as a work of art, in contrast to his two earlier and greater novels, which are examples of his method at its best.
War and Peace
If a conventional novel is a novel with a linear plot focused on one or two central characters, then War and Peace is a very unconventional novel. It has no single plot, and it includes more than 550 characters, some fifty of whom play important roles. War and Peace is like a gigantic epic, and while it may be called a historical novel, it is not a historical novel in the vein of Sir Walter Scott: There is no great historical distance between the time of composition of the book and the period depicted. It is a book of enormous contrasts, as suggested by the title: war and peace, hate and love, death and life, hero and ordinary person, city and country. For Tolstoy, the world of peace, love, life, and country was the ideal world, but the world of war is the world of War and Peace.
The novel began as a story of the ill-fated Decembrist revolt, which took place after the death of Czar Alexander I, in 1825, and before the accession to power of his successor, Czar Nicholas I. Tolstoy seeks to explain the events of 1825. Ever the rationalist, he realizes that to explain 1825, one must examine 1824; to explain 1824, one must examine 1823; and so on. This reasoning (as in “A History of Yesterday”) would have carried Tolstoy back to the beginning of time. Arbitrarily, he stopped in 1805 and began his novel there. He never reached 1825: The book covers the period from 1805 to 1812, followed by a twelve-year hiatus, after which the epilogue continues through 1824 to the eve of the 1825 Decembrist revolt. Tolstoy’s original plan was to write a family novel rather than a historical novel, with history the scenic decor in which families lived. He completed five versions of the novel: The first, titled “1805,” does not resemble the fifth at all.
The book, rather than focusing on individual characters, concentrates on family blocks: Tolstoy used the same contrast technique in portraying the families that he used in treating ideas and events. The main backdrop of the action is the Napoleonic invasion of Russia. From the opening pages in the Moscow salon where Tolstoy first gives a glimpse of his major noble figures, the echoes of the coming Napoleonic invasion can be heard. The reader will watch it develop throughout the novel and will see it ultimately crumble as the great French army is conquered by the Russian climate and expanse.
The book poses two major questions, to both of which it gives answers. First, under what circumstances do people kill one another and expose themselves to death? Tolstoy answers that they do so out of self-preservation and duty. Second, in the battle between life and death, who wins? Life wins, Tolstoy answers, despite the ravages of time. Underlying the whole narrative is a gigantic theory of history based on the idea that the world spins not on the movements of single individuals (heroes) but rather on the movements of masses of people. Thus, the Russian mass will overwhelm the French army and its “hero,” Napoleon. It will do this because its commanding officer, Kutuzov, understands that it is the movement of the people that determines the course of history; he is wisely passive. Tolstoy is uncompromisingly a fatalist: Events occur as they do because they are fated to do so; nothing that any single individual does can alter the course of fate. Thus, it is the fate of Russia to undergo the great trials and tribulations of the Napoleonic horror, as it is the fate of Napoleon to lose the crucial battle on Russian soil. Indeed, to underline the importance of this theory, Tolstoy includes, at the end of his novel, a famous epilogue in which he discusses the movements of masses. (Much has been made of this epilogue, but it should be borne in mind that Tolstoy himself omitted it from the 1873 edition of the novel and that the evidence for it is in any case given in the book itself.) War and Peace is thus a book with a thesis.
The novel, completely static, in which scenes replace one another but do not flow in a continuous stream, unfolds on two planes: the historical and the familial. Tolstoy writes as if he were composing a massive history of the period. There is an omniscient narrator with a severe national bent. Instead of descriptions of personalities, the reader is given, as in Homer’s Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611), the everyday facts of human life: birth, marriage, family life, death, and so on. There are no heroes; there is, rather, a sweeping vision of human life, moving one critic to call the book an “encyclopedia of human existence.” The novel is characterized by sheer bulk: It presents so much material in such large blocks that the material itself seems to go on after the story has ended. Because of the nontemporal scheme, the reader secures less a feel of artistic framework imposed on all material than a sense of the vivid disconnectedness of real life. Memorable and important as some of the characters may be, no single character dominates the book. Only one is involved from beginning to end: Pierre Bezukhov, the fat, awkward, and bespectacled illegitimate son of a very rich nobleman. His personal quest, to find the meaning of his life, unfolds with the book’s events, but in no sense is the novel his story.
The reader looking for great “heroic” characters had best look elsewhere. Heroic characters are a dishonest Romantic convention. The novel contains no great sympathetic or unpleasant figures, none who is extraordinarily beautiful and extraordinarily appealing at the same time. Indeed, the two main contrasting families are combinations of good and bad. The Bolkonskys are a tense mixture of sensibility, intelligence, and narrow-mindedness. Andrey is a hero without a battle who claims to seek peace even though he is at home only at war. Maria—unattractive, mystical, totally devoted—exemplifies almost unjustifiable self-sacrifice. Both characters are dominated by an outwardly detestable father whose peace comes only through his own inner rage. The Rostovs, considerably steadier of mind and background, are a mixture of openness, altruism, and ignorant fear. Natasha is not beautiful, exceptionally intelligent, or extraordinarily adept, but she has unending charm and great possibilities of love. Her parents are wonderful, warm, loving, and foolish. Her brother Nicholas is handsome, intelligent, and dangerously narrow-minded. That Andrey and Natasha eventually come together and almost marry makes no sense, but then history does not have to make sense. That Pierre and Natasha do come together at the end of the novel does, however, make sense, for they share an openness common to virtually no one else in the book. Even the Kuragin family, so attractive and so given to extremes of behavior, is unheroic: The handsome Anatole, who almost marries Natasha, is last seen dying, his leg amputated; his sister Helen, the most beautiful woman in Russia, who marries Pierre and who seems so self-centeredly evil, is redeemed by her apparent willingness to realize that she is restless and can cause only misery to others.
Tolstoy does not write in black and white: All of his characters come in shades of gray, and all wind up fighting Tolstoy’s own inner duel, the duel between reason and emotion. Tolstoy was convinced that a natural existence is the best; thus, Pierre and Natasha survive because they are natural, while Andrey perishes because he is not. Kutuzov triumphs over Napoleon because he is more natural.
Tolstoy exploits to the utmost his famous psychophysical technique of showing people through various gestures and traits. Numerous characters come equipped with single predominant features that forever identify them: the upper lip of Lise, the beautiful wife of Andrey, who dies in childbirth; the beautiful white shoulders of Helen; Pierre’s habit of looking out over his glasses; the thick, little white hands of Napoleon; the dimpled chin of the French prisoner; the pimple on the nose of the man who leads the merchant delegation that meets Napoleon as he invades Moscow; the round face and composure of Platon Karatayev, the peasant whom Pierre meets in prison, whose roundness is a symbol of his moral completeness and of his ability to accept the world as it is.
Tolstoy rips away conventions: He redraws the world by changing the point of view of the observer. Just as he identifies characters by physical traits and cuts them down to size by knocking the hero out of them, so he destroys conventional perceptions of other elements of life. The battle of Austerlitz, in Tolstoy’s description, consists only of a strange little sun, smoke, two soldiers in flight, one wounded officer, and finally Napoleon’s little white hand. To Tolstoy, this was the real battle as seen by the soldier. In Tolstoy’s view, battle as depicted by the likes of Scott had nothing to do with the real world: It was a result of conventions, and so Tolstoy deconventionalized it, as he did with opera. In placing Natasha, who has never before seen an opera, in an opera house, Tolstoy destroys the essence of opera by refusing to accept its conventions: Thus, a piece of cardboard on which a tree is painted is exactly that.
Tolstoy has rewritten the novel. It is not the form that existed before him; rather, it is a brand-new one that combines philosophy, ordinary people, and large masses and blocks of time. Curiously, War and Peace is frequently read to be an affirmation of life, but in fact it is all about death. It is death at the end, leaving the reader on the eve of the brutish Decembrist revolt, where death awaits those, like Pierre, who will be involved. Moreover, the life that will be led as married couples by Pierre and Natasha, and Maria and Nicholas, is not a happy life: It is a life of conventions in which the wives will bear children, the husbands will supply the finances, and so on.
As Tolstoy was completing War and Peace, he began to read more and more philosophy and more and more of the Bible. The cycle of pessimism that began in War and Peace and turned darker as the book wound toward its end culminated in the gloomy and tragic Anna Karenina.
Written between 1873 and 1877, Anna Karenina at first appears to be a completely different novel. The title immediately suggests that the book is centered on one dominant personality around which the book spins its plot. Anna’s is the story of the fallen woman. Her fall is intertwined with moral and social questions of behavior, and like an expanding pool, the novel becomes all-encompassing of the Russian society of its day. What the book achieves is no less original than what War and Peace achieved: It is the classic story of the fallen woman, but it is combined as never before with the burning moral and social questions of the author’s day.
The book begins with the pessimistic note with which War and Peace ended. It is a book about disorder. There are no happy couples and there are no happy events. Everything is discordant, as if fate had intended the world not to harmonize. Thus, Anna, who is married to a man whom she does not love, falls in love with a man, Vronsky, who cannot satisfy her. Because the story is contemporaneous with Tolstoy’s time, he is able to introduce character types of his day that would not have appeared in War and Peace. Chief among them is Stiva Oblonsky, Anna’s brother, a shameless opportunist and careerist; he exemplifies much of the evil in the Russian bureaucracy. It is he and his suffering family whom the reader sees first: The Oblonsky family introduces the themes of adultery (Stiva is a philanderer) and contemporary society.
From its opening lines, Anna Karenina is a serious and critical book. It develops many of the same contrasts that animate War and Peace—city and country, good and evil—but it also adds new conflicts: between sex and love, between guilt and truth. Sex, Tolstoy explains, as did Gustave Flaubert in Madame Bovary (1857; English translation, 1886), is a path to trouble. Anna follows her sexual instincts, and as those instincts are produced by modern society, they lead her to her doom. In War and Peace, everything seemed logical and sequential, as Tolstoy the rationalist led us from one event to another; in Anna Karenina, everything is irrational.
The world has become a system of irrational correspondences. Consider the scene in which Anna first meets Vronsky: Fate operates through signs. Vronsky and Anna look at each other and sense a curious bond. The reader is never told why, as would have been the case in War and Peace. The stationman is accidentally crushed to death: This is an omen that will culminate many pages later in the famous and gruesome suicide of Anna, when she throws herself beneath a train. Almost unconscious on her way to the station, she reviews her life and her affair with Vronsky in a long passage of stream of consciousness in which readers sense doom, in the form of the dead stationman, pulling her on. Tolstoy, always given over to interior monologues, now goes one step further and gives the free associations of a character bent on self-destruction. Unlike War and Peace, this book is unconscious mystery.
Anna Karenina is a long series of emotional collisions. Various pairs of people line up and contrast with one another: Anna-Vronsky, Stiva-Dolly (Stiva’s suffering wife), Kitty-Levin. The latter pair is curious. Kitty, Dolly’s younger sister, who is originally engaged to Vronsky, is a superficial version of Natasha, with all the playfulness and none of the true openness. Levin, long considered a mouthpiece for the author, is a continuation of a long line of such Tolstoyan moral spokesmen. At the end of the novel, however, one is left with a Levin who senses but a yawning gap in his existence. Nothing is resolved. Everything will go on as before—but in the absence of Anna, now dead.
Every one of the characters is seriously blemished. Anna has a capacity for genuine love, but she also uses people and ultimately cannot bear what fate has in store for her. Vronsky is honest and honorable but lacks real spirit and is not truly perceptive. Stiva is a foolish, fat bureaucrat, content to live in a class structure he does not understand. Anna’s husband, Aleksei (note that both he and Vronsky have the same first name, another mysterious correspondence), is shallow and cold but at the death of Anna shows a magnanimity of spirit foreign to Vronsky. Kitty is romantic and playful but in the end conventional; she accepts what fate has done to her. Levin is well meaning and open, but he is a dead generalization, put in the book to make the case for living close to nature (which, in any case, bores him).
The book’s tension is extreme. By contrasting the Anna-Vronsky story with that of Kitty-Levin, Tolstoy plays with the reader’s perception, as he does in the opera scene in War and Peace. In the famous scene in which Anna’s husband discusses divorce with a lawyer who keeps trying (unsuccessfully) to catch a moth, the tension becomes almost unbearable. Humans are alive in a world that simply does not care. Thus, the details that in War and Peace make up the tapestry of history appear here to form a set of incomprehensible correspondences. Since Anna Karenina is focused so clearly on one intrigue, however, it is considerably more conventional in form than War and Peace: Its aura of moral gloom is thus directly communicated. The world, Tolstoy is saying, is not worth preserving.
It is no wonder, then, that Tolstoy’s next burst of creative energy was given over to nonfiction. In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy had blasted not only the Russian bureaucracy but also the school system, the Orthodox Church, and even the peasantry; in his later work, he fully assumed the role of a social critic. Immediately following the completion of Anna Karenina, he burst forth in a fit of moral fervor with A Confession. As one critic put it, Tolstoy came under the power of his own method, and art retreated before the pressure of self-observation and analysis; his own soul became material forexposition and clarification. Tolstoy changed the proportions in his creative work and became more the moralist than ever before, but he never ceased being an artist, as any reader of The Death of Ivan Ilyich or even Resurrection well knows.