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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 378

Tolstoy divides Childhood, Boyhood, Youth into three parts: childhood, boyhood, and youth. Each part is narrated by the main character, Nikolai, and tells the story of his early years from his upbringing on his family estate to his university education in Moscow.

Nikolai portrays himself as a shy, sensitive child...

(The entire section contains 1653 words.)

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Tolstoy divides Childhood, Boyhood, Youth into three parts: childhood, boyhood, and youth. Each part is narrated by the main character, Nikolai, and tells the story of his early years from his upbringing on his family estate to his university education in Moscow.

Nikolai portrays himself as a shy, sensitive child who is constantly trying to improve himself. The first chapter of this book is set on the family estate where Nikolai lives with his parents, his brother and sister, family servants (including a tutor(, and serfs. This section doesn't have much of a story. It mostly describes scenes in Nikolai's childhood and the relationships he has with people such as his father, whom he describes as

A man of the past age, and had the indefinable character common among those who were young then: a compound of chivalry, enterprise, self-confidence, amiability, and licentiousness.

At the end of the first chapter, Nikolai experiences the first major and tragic event of his life when his mother dies in "great agony."

Nikolai moves into boyhood with "painful memories" but a better understanding of the world. This is characterized by the opening chapter, where he leaves his estate for Moscow and on the way sees the poverty of villagers and beggars and begins to comprehend the difference between the wealth of his family and the poverty of friends such as Katya. At the end of the section, he has developed a close friendship with Dmitri Nekhyudov, which seems to largely involve putting right the world's wrongs.

We discussed future life, art, government service, marriage and the education of children, and it never entered our heads that all we said was most awful nonsense. This did not occur to us because the nonsense we talked was clever and pleasing nonsense and in youth we still value intellect and believe in it.

In the "Youth" section, Nikolai starts to develop his own set of morals and ideas on how to live life, which he expresses in his "Rules of Life" book. Despite the increasing presence of religion in his life, he starts to find it difficult to maintain his ideals when his father remarries and Nikolai begins to fail at university. The book finishes with Nikolai resolving to rewrite his "Rules of Life" book.


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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1275

First published: Detstvo, 1852; Otrochestvo, 1854; Yunost, 1857 (English translation, 1886)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Autobiographical chronicle

Time of work: Early nineteenth century

Locale: A country estate in Russia; Moscow

Principal Characters:

Vladimir Petrovich Irtenyev, the narrator

Piotr Alexandrych Irtenyev, his father and a landowner

Natalya Nikolayevna Irtenyev, his mother

Volodya Irtenyev, his older brother

Lyuba Irtenyev, his younger sister

Avdotya Vassilyevna Epifanov, his stepmother

Prince Dmitri Neklyudov, his friend in youth

Sophia Ivanovna, Dmitri’s aunt

Manya (Mimi) Ivanovna, the governess to the Irtenyevs

Sonya Katya, Mimi’s daughter

Karl Valakhina, the thrice beloved of the narrator

St. Ivanych, the narrator’s German tutor

Natalya Jerome, his French tutor

Savishna, the housekeeper at Petrovskoe


Childhood, Boyhood, Youth make up the three completed parts of a projected four-part sequence that was Leo Tolstoy’s first writing. One would suppose that with a novelist who generally used a certain amount of autobiography, these first works, which appear in the form of an autobiography (using a first-person narrator), would be the bases for studying his other work; but they have been neglected, and if anyone is to blame, it is Tolstoy himself, who later in life rejected them for their false sentimentality. This is a pity, for, though the young man of the third volume is undoubtedly sentimental, the first two volumes show such a natural development of the character that his feelings seem natural, not only to himself but also to all youth. This description of a particular childhood, boyhood, and youth has sufficient universal relevance to make it worth reading as a tender and real portrait of growing up anywhere and at any time.

The three completed parts of the “Four Epochs of Growth,” the tentative title for the projected four, are of different lengths, with the first two amounting to slightly more than the third part, Youth, the longest of the three. Each section is structured around a chapter bearing the title of that part. Chapter 15 (of twenty-eight chapters) of Childhood is entitled “Childhood,” chapter 19 of the second part is “Boyhood,” and chapter 32 (of forty-five chapters in the third part) is titled “Youth.” These central chapters indicate not only the careful organization of each part but also the steady development of the central character in the flow of interconnected events which make up the narrative. The interconnections (for example, in the reappearance of characters like Sonya or visits to the country) are highlighted by the appearance of certain individual and freakish characters like the godly monk in the first part and the student who joins the army in the last; yet no character makes only one appearance. All are part of a web of incidents which shows a novelist’s ability to live in the midst of a whole raft of living characters and which anticipates what will be a feature of Tolstoy’s mature work.

Childhood begins with scenes on the family estate at Petrovskoe, the setting of the first fourteen chapters before the family moves to Moscow. At the end of this section, the family returns to the estate for the death of the narrator’s mother, followed by the death of her faithful servant, Natalya Savishna. The two sections, each composed of fourteen chapters, show the family as a closely related group of parents, children, servants (including tutors such as Karl Ivanych and Mimi, and serfs), and dependents. Although the characteristics of the family members are to some extent developed, as in the chapter titled “What Kind of Man Was My Father?” the less important characters make the deepest mark on the narrator as a child. These fall into two groups: adults like his tutor and grandmother, from whom he learns to see his father with a stranger’s eyes, and playmates of his own age, from whom he learns about himself at the age of ten and knows that he is a dreamer and will suffer for his sensibilities.

Vladimir Petrovich’s suffering begins when he notices, as a child, the contrast between rich and poor in his playmates, especially Katya. There is more to come in the second part, Boyhood, which begins with a journey to Moscow and ends with the death of his grandmother there, when he is nearly fifteen years old.

Volodya, his brother, and Lyuba, his sister, grow up with him but do not affect him as much as chance or unequal acquaintances. He begins to appreciate Katya’s position now that her mother’s protectress, his own mother, is dead. He sees that his family is not the center of the world. The consolation that man must endure what he cannot cure comes hard to him, especially when he begins to see what he amounts to in the eyes of the world. Then he begins to dream of solving the problems of the whole world as they continue to crowd in on his adolescent mind.

Thus, Vladimir Petrovich concludes the second part, Boyhood, knowing both that he has a bad habit of dreaming himself into and out of situations and that he does so to escape conflicting feelings of pity and hate; he knows that these feelings must be genuine, because they are inconsistent. The narrator has become a sentimental boor, and everything he touches turns to disaster. It is all very humorless and very Russian.

The second part ends with his discovery of his first real friend, Prince Dmitri. During the third and longest part, Youth, Vladimir Petrovich reaches the age of fifteen and is enrolled at the university in Moscow. He reacts to a much wider range of acquaintances by increasing heights of joy and depths of despair. From the outside he looks like a ridiculous and loutish poseur, obsessed with notions of what is comme il faut; inside, he suffers religious and romantic torments, as when he falls in love with Sonya for the third time. Although, as in other parts, the chapter entitled “Youth” analyzes his case, an earlier chapter entitled “Love” shows the essence of his problem. He distinguishes three kinds of love: of nature, of the beloved, and of humanity. The first has been shown in the descriptive passages throughout the book; the second is revealed in his feelings for the young and the old around him; the third kind, he learns from Sophia Ivanovna, and it is shown in his relations with his inferiors. In this excess and confusion of feeling, readers have an early sketch of Pierre in War and Peace and an indication of how true both Pierre and Vladimir are to Tolstoy himself.

The last fifteen chapters of the third part extend Youth beyond the length of the other two sections and are mainly concerned with the disruption of the family following his father’s second marriage to Avdotya Vassilyevna and the growing up of the children. Vladimir progressively fails at the university. Gradually, he has grown convinced that the differences he feels between himself and his world are real and not the illusions of a young dreamer. He settles for the unhappy inner reality. Readers can only guess at what Tolstoy would have done with Vladimir in the projected fourth part, probably to be entitled “Manhood.” The best hypothesis is that Tolstoy broke off “Four Epochs of Growth” because it had served as his apprenticeship, and he was now ready to begin writing in earnest. Page after page shows his gift for analyzing and using a multitude of minor characters in building the internal analysis and life of his principals. The three parts of this work show not only the gradual creation of a protagonist but also the formative work of a great novelist.

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