Tolstoy displayed two distinctive attitudes toward art during his long career as a writer. During his early years, he believed that contemporary events, such as the emancipation of women and political reforms, were not the proper subject for art. In a letter to Peter Boborykin in 1865, Tolstoy claimed that art’s goals are “incommensurate with social goals.” Art, instead, should “force people to love life in all its innumerable, inexhaustible manifestations.” Tolstoy’s descriptions of Natasha at her first grand ball or Nicholas Rostov on the wolf hunt in War and Peace illustrate how magnificently he achieved these artistic goals. His inspiration flowed whenever he was writing about his own past and that of his family. His parents were the models for Nicholas Rostov and Marya Bolkonsky; his wife’s family was the prototype for the Rostovs; his wife’s sister, Tanya, became Natasha Rostov; he put himself into the characters of Pierre Bezuhkov and Prince Andrew; and Yasnaya Polyana transformed itself into Bald Hills. The past provided a buffer zone in which distant memories could be transposed into art.
He lost his detachment when he began writing Anna Karenina, according to Tolstoy’s biographer A. N. Wilson. No longer processing past memories, he had to draw on contemporary themes, especially on his own life experiences as he lived them. This mode of operation was extremely painful; he was writing about the dissolution of a marriage in Anna Karenina, just as he and his wife were engaging in bitter feuds. Tolstoy believed in general that adultery was a repugnant topic with no redeeming value. In a letter to Nicholas Strakhov in 1875, Tolstoy writes, “My God, if only someone would finish Anna Karenina for me! It’s unbearably repulsive.”
After Anna Karenina was completed, Tolstoy turned away from fiction; no great novels would ever again issue from his pen, though he subsequently wrote some good short stories and a novel, Resurrection. As a sign that his creative energy was gone, Tolstoy failed to continue his saga of the Decembrists that he had begun in War and Peace and eventually abandoned it forever.
By the time that Tolstoy published Chto takoye iskusstvo? (1898; What Is Art?, 1898), he had long entered his second period as a writer and abandoned his original conception that art should make people love life. He now believed that the artist should be socially responsible and write works that would inspire the people to live Christian lives. In What Is Art?, Tolstoy cites as an example his experience at a rehearsal for an opera. Observing a harried stagehand, he reflects on the downtrodden masses who must labor behind the scenes for the pleasure of the decadent bourgeoisie. He concludes that high culture and its institutions are elitist, exploit the people, and offer nothing of value to them. In contrast, art “flowing from love of God” would nourish the souls of all people.
There is much to value in Tolstoy’s views, but, unfortunately, his feelings toward art tend to be totalitarian. For example, he condemns artistic works that do not fit his criteria and authors, such as the Greek tragedians, William Shakespeare, John Milton, and Dante, of whom he does not approve. The publication of What Is Art? discomfited Tolstoy’s European and American readers, who felt that he had become “a dragon” standing in the path of modern art.
Attempts to interpret Tolstoy’s views often emphasize a perceived conflict in his nature. Edward Wasiolek in Tolstoy’s Major Fiction (1978) argues that “Tolstoy’s creative and ideational worlds are of one cloth.” That is, Tolstoy in his greatest fictional works attempts to bridge the gap between the world of the flesh and the world of the spirit, not separate the two. He sought for a unifying principle that would incorporate both.
In fact, the search for a unifying principle was a common link among the great nineteenth century Russian novelists such as Dostoevski and Turgenev. Their preoccupation with the spiritual lives of their characters was attributable, in part, to their upbringing in the Orthodox Church. That they were neither Protestant nor Catholic produced in them a different conception of the novel’s function. The Western churches developed under a tradition of the disputatio, based on the practice of medieval scholastics who debated one side of an issue and then the other. The Orthodox Church, on the other hand, urged its followers to practice the kenotic ideal and unquestioningly imitate the life of Christ. As a result, the forum for theological debate in Russia did not take place in its churches, where dissent was not allowed, but in the more intellectually open forum of the novel. Almost all the novels of Dostoevski and Tolstoy, for example, center on spiritual quests. While on these quests, the characters speculate on the existence of God, their place in the universe, and the right way to live. In this context, Tolstoy’s novels are, as he says in his defense, exactly “what the author wished and was able to express in the form in which it is expressed.”
War and Peace
First published: Voyna i mir, 1865-1869 (English translation, 1886)
Type of work: Novel
A young Russian nobleman searches for the meaning of life in the salons of high society and on the battlefield of Borodino during the Napoleonic wars.
War and Peace, arguably the greatest novel ever written, chronicles the alternating periods of war and peace in Russia during the first two decades of the nineteenth century. Tolstoy intended to write the story of a man returning home from exile in Siberia in 1856. The man had been a Decembrist, a member of an enlightened revolutionary movement seeking constitutional reform in Russia before czarist forces suppressed the movement in December, 1825. In order to understand his hero, Tolstoy decided that he first had to write about the man’s youth: thus, the story begins in July, 1805.
The reader first meets the unlikely hero, Pierre Bezukhov, at a soirée in St. Petersburg. He has just returned to live in Russia after studying abroad. Awkward, yet brash, his naïve idealism leads him into a political argument, during which he asserts his belief that Napoleon I is the “greatest man in the world.” After the soirée, Pierre retreats to the home of his old friend, Prince Andrew Bolkonsky, and the conversation about Napoleon continues.
Meanwhile, war talk is also in the air nearby in the Rostov household. The young son of Count Rostov, Nicholas, has decided to join the hussars, thus increasing the adoration of his cousin Sonia, who is in love with him. After a spat over Nicholas’s harmless flirtation with another girl, they kiss. Observing the scene is Nicholas’s impish thirteen-year-old sister, Natasha.
These early scenes of social frivolity and domestic happiness led Tolstoy in the early stages of composition to title his book, “All’s Well That Ends Well.” Once he reached the sections of the novel that deal with the ravages of the Napoleonic Wars, however, he became more philosophically introspective. Drawing on his own experiences during the Crimean War, Tolstoy shows how war in its wake sweeps aside individual aspirations, disturbs familial bonds, and changes the destiny of nations forever. No wonder, then, that an important theme of the novel is the search for meaning in lives whose order has been completely overturned because of war.
The novel centers on Pierre’s search. He is a good man who is still basically unformed. The fact that he was illegitimate underscores his uncertain sense of identity. His strength as a character is that he searches for his identity down several varied paths.
At the beginning of the novel, he explores the life of dissipation by allowing himself to fall into debauchery with wild companions. Next, he lives the life of the flesh by marrying the cold, beautiful Helene Kuragin. When she can do nothing to assuage his inner emptiness, a chance encounter with a Freemason attracts Pierre to this movement. Freemasonry, a mystical brotherhood based on the ritual and structure of medieval trade guilds, was popular in Russia at the time and appealed to intelligent men such as Pierre, who were searching for the meaning of life. Pierre eventually becomes disillusioned with his fellow Freemasons’ shallow altruism.
As a last resort, he stumbles onto the battlefield of Borodino to see what war is like. Deeply upset by the carnage that he sees around him, Pierre resolves to assassinate its perpetrator, Napoleon. Believing that their destinies are linked, Pierre, in search of Napoleon, wanders around in Moscow, which is burning after the Russian army has abandoned it. Pierre is captured as an incendiary by the French, who now occupy Moscow. Spared from execution at the last moment, Pierre meditates on his fate in the company of other prisoners of war. He is particularly struck by the peasant Platon Karatáev, who is “the personification of everything Russian.” Karatáev intuitively seems to know the right way to live, and Pierre wants to learn from his example.
When Karatáev dies, Pierre has a vision of a globe whose surface consists of drops of liquid:God is in the midst, and each drop tries to expand so as to reflect Him to the greatest extent. And it grows, merges, disappears from the surface, sinks to the depths, and again emerges. There now, Karatáev has spread out and disappeared.
Pierre’s epiphany teaches him not to fear death: death is merely a reabsorption into the flow of life. Prince Andrew, mortally wounded at the battle of Borodino, discovers this same truth, unfortunately, on his deathbed:Everything is, everything exists, only because I love. Everything is united by it alone. Love is God, and to die means that I, a particle of love, shall return to the general and eternal source.
Besides their common philosophical beliefs, Pierre and Andrew are further linked by their relationship to Natasha, a character who intuitively experiences these notions of love. Both fall in love with her and propose marriage. Andrew and Natasha are ill suited to one another. Natasha, full of exuberant, youthful spontaneity, cannot endure the year’s postponement of their marriage that Prince Andrew requests in deference to his father’s wishes. They do reconcile briefly after Andrew is mortally wounded. Too late, Andrew learns to live by the heart rather than the head. His realization, “Death is an awakening,” can only remain an abstract thought, because he cannot experience it.
Pierre’s compassion saves Natasha from her grief following Prince Andrew’s death. They are the two characters, in particular, who have an inborn generosity and kindness of spirit. They have the capacity to forget themselves when others are in distress. At some risk to himself, Pierre saves the lives of several people during the burning of Moscow. Natasha throws the family’s possessions out of the moving carts in order to transport wounded soldiers to safety. Most important, though, Pierre and Natasha save each other by marrying. Natasha, whose emotional life has been undirected toward any goal, can now focus her energies on Pierre and their children. She devotes “her whole soul, her whole being” to them. Pierre, too, finds in his home a setting in which he can live his vision of the cosmic globe.
Tolstoy ends War and Peace by rising above the Bezukhov’s domestic scene and surveying the big picture. In the second epilogue, he asks such profound questions as the following: What does this all mean? Why did it happen? What force made people act so? He meditates on Napoleon’s power and how easily his soldiers transferred their power to him. Yet, Tolstoy reminds his readers, “A tsar is the slave of history.” What freedom therefore does any person possess in the face of such determinism? Tolstoy answers the question by saying that each person has two faculties: reason, which teaches humans the laws of inevitability, and consciousness, which makes them feel free. He goes on to say, “Only by uniting them do we get a clear conception of man’s life.” Natasha and Pierre both develop their sense of consciousness and, thus, experience freedom. The memorable moments in which they are the most free occur when they are the least aware of themselves. Their example, Tolstoy implies, demonstrates the right way to live.
First published: 1875-1877 (English translation, 1886)
Type of work: Novel
A married woman’s love affair with another man throws her life into such disorder and despair that she kills herself.
The source of Tolstoy’s next great novel, Anna Karenina, lies in an idea that he conveyed to his wife in 1870. He wanted to write a story about a married woman who is disgraced by a sexual scandal. He would depict her “not as culpable, but as uniquely worthy of pity.” This story he knew from his own family: his only sister, Marya, had recently left her husband for an adulterous liaison with a Swedish viscount. Two years later, he saw firsthand the potential disastrous results of such a passion. One of his neighbors cast off his mistress, Anna Stepanovna Pirogova, who then threw herself under a train. Tolstoy viewed her remains afterward. Within the year, he began writing Anna Karenina. He was stimulated further by his reading of Alexander Pushkin’s Povesti Belkina (1831; Russian Romance, 1875), which he admired. He was struck by the phrase, “The guests were arriving at the country house,” and began to write his story around it.
Anna Karenina begins with the oft-quoted line, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In this novel, Tolstoy portrays both a happy and an unhappy family. The happy Constantine Levin and his wife, Kitty, resemble Pierre and Natasha Bezukhov in War and Peace because of their positive attitudes in the face of adversity and their compassion toward other people. Levin and Kitty’s rapport is such that Levin exclaims that he does “not know where she ended and he began.”
The marriage of Alexey and Anna Karenin, on the other hand, is a loveless match held in place by the dictates of society. When Anna meets a dashing officer of the guards, Alexey Vronsky, she readily abandons her husband and son for the sake of illicit passion. Far from being an ennobling force, Anna and Vronsky’s love leads to chaos, ruin, and, eventually, Anna’s death under the wheels of an oncoming train.
Throughout the novel, the characters of Anna and Levin are compared and contrasted. Distantly related through marriage (Anna’s brother is married to Kitty’s sister), they make life choices that are diametrically opposed to each other. Anna is a young, beautiful, intelligent, vital woman who inexplicably and single-mindedly chooses to destroy herself. After discovering that Anna is in love with Vronsky, Anna’s husband suggests a divorce. Yet Anna rejects his offer by saying that she does not want a divorce if it is the result of “his generosity.” Vronsky, too, is willing to accommodate her by taking her away from Moscow and marrying her, yet she once again refuses to finalize the divorce. Instead, she torments him with her possessiveness and fits of jealousy. Her last words before she throws herself under the train reflect her vindictive frame of mind against Vronsky: “I will punish him and escape from everyone and from myself.”
The origins of Anna’s self-destructive nature are not clear—though, in truth, Anna has what is now called an addictive personality. She demands more and more of Vronsky’s love because she can never believe that he truly cares for her. Even when he abandons his career to spend more time with her, she still cries out for more attention. Anna accurately describes the state of their interaction by saying, “My love keeps growing more passionate and egoistic, while his is waning and waning.” Their relationship cannot grow in this type of environment, nor does it nourish them at all as individuals. Some critics point out that it is Anna’s unbridled sexuality that corrupts her. Edward Wasiolek in Tolstoy’s Major Fiction claims that, in Tolstoy’s view, sex is “a massive intrusion on a person’s being and a ruthless obliteration of the sanctity of personhood.” In other words, Anna and Vronsky’s sexuality interferes with their spirituality.
Though Kitty and Levin deeply love one another—Levin, in fact, believes that marriage is “the chief affair of life”—the compulsive element that characterizes Anna’s sexual passion is missing in their relationship. Their love is grounded in the rural community in which they live; they work, play, love, and have babies in the midst of the active life that is occurring around them.
Levin, like Anna, experiences moments when he would like to escape from the conditions of his life. The period following the death of his brother is a particularly dark time for him. He must consciously avoid ropes and guns so that he will not be tempted to commit suicide. Tolstoy has written some of his own spiritual crisis into this description of Levin’s situation. Levin achieves a measure of comfort and spiritual solace by simply experiencing life in the moment in which he is living it. The mowing scene shows him unconsciously living life to its fullest extent.
Later, he gains further insight from the peasant Fyodor, who advises him that a man must live “for his soul” and “not forget God” These wise words penetrate to the heart of Levin’s spiritual crisis, and he resolves to transform himself. As Wasiolek points out, Tolstoy’s characters, such as Pierre in War and Peace, come into touch with reality when they cease their efforts to “possess” it. In Tolstoy’s world, the ego must be subdued in order for people to love correctly and take their place in the flow of existence. Anna fails to adjust her personality to this truth; thus, she is left wondering, “Why not put out the light?”
The Death of Ivan Ilyich
First published: Smert’ Ivana Il’icha, 1886 (English translation, 1887; collected in Leo Tolstoy: The Death of Ivan Ilych, and Other Stories, 2003)
Type of work: Novella
In nineteenth century Russia, a judge accidentally falls and develops a fatal illness, which forces him to contemplate death and regret the life that he has lived.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich, one of the greatest stories dealing with the subject of death, marked Tolstoy’s return to fiction writing after his religious conversion. In 1881, his imagination was sparked when he heard the story of the death of Ivan Ilich Mechnikov, a judge of the Tula court, who expressed on his deathbed profound regret for the life that he had lived.
As in the real-life story, Tolstoy makes his Ivan Ilyich wake up to the hidden possibilities of life on his deathbed. Before then, Ilyich has lived his life thinking only of himself and his next round of pleasure. In the past, when unpleasant events occurred, such as the death of a few of his children and his wife’s growing irritability, he turned away from these domestic concerns and spent time working at the office. His life continues for seventeen years in this manner, until the fateful day when he falls off a ladder while hanging drapes. He develops symptoms, a queer taste in the mouth and stomach discomfort, and, before he knows it, he is on his deathbed.
From a life built around the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of unpleasant reality, Ivan is suddenly catapulted into the world of sickness and death. He recalls, with irony, an old syllogism that he had learned: “Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal.” Never before had he seriously contemplated his own mortality. He tortures himself with the thought, “What if in reality, all my life, my conscious life, has not been the right thing?”
The horrible truth that he indeed has failed to do the right thing transforms the remaining two hours of Ivan’s life. The key to his transformation lies in his relationship to the peasant Gerasim, who does not shun the unpleasant aspects of his illness as does the rest of Ilyich’s family and who treats his fatal condition matter-of-factly. Gerasim can “understand and pity him” in a compassionate and loving manner. In his final, agonizing moments, Ivan learns that he, too, can be compassionate and loving. He pities his son, who weepingly kisses his hand, and feels sorry for his despairing wife. He can die in peace, because “In the place of death there was light.”
Though Ilyich takes the last rites of the church in his final dying moments, the novella is not overtly a religious parable. The novella instead celebrates the virtues of pity and compassion that the simple Russian peasant knows and practices. Ilyich’s fault was that, during his life, he had lived too much by his head (his surname, Golovin, suggests golova, the Russian word meaning “head”). The suffering that he feels in his dying moments awakens him to the suffering of the other people around him and, thus, to the brotherhood of all people. The awareness of death is what holds people together, in Tolstoy’s view. Though Ilyich’s new life lasts only a couple of hours, Tolstoy suggests that he is a lucky man.