(Essentials of European Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 1160 words.)