Childhood, Boyhood, Youth

by Leo Tolstoy

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Childhood, Boyhood, Youth is a semi-autobiographical novel divided into the three parts of the title. It features Nikolai Petrovich Irtenev as the main character and narrator. In the story, Nikolai goes from a ten-year-old living on the family estate to a fifteen-year-old starting university in Moscow. As such, many quotes from this book deal with the complexities of growing up, particularly the difficulties of leaving behind a happy childhood.

At one point, Nikolai states,

How strange it is that when I was a child I tried to be like a grownup, yet as soon as I ceased to be a child I often longed to be like one.

Nikolai portrays himself as a highly sensitive, shy individual from the beginning of the book. In the first chapter, he cries because he has thought badly about a friend he very much likes.

"Ach, lassen Sie, Karl Ivanych!" I shouted with tears in my eyes . . . I was ashamed, and could not understand how, but a moment before, I had been able to dislike him, and consider his dressing-gown, cap and tassel, disgusting. Now, on the contrary, all these things appeared extremely pleasing, and even the tassel seemed clear evidence of his goodness.

He expresses his shyness as follows.

My shyness reached its utmost limits. I felt the blood continually rushing from my heart to my head, one blush following another on my face, and large drops of perspiration appearing on my forehead and nose. My ears where burning. I felt my whole body shiver and grow damp with perspiration.

He lives a sheltered childhood. At one point, he is shocked that the beautiful Katya is from a poor family and may not always stay at the estate with him.

"You are rich, we are poor" . . . These words and the conception connected with them, seemed to me very strange. In my perception at that time only beggars and peasants could be poor, and my imagination could not at all associate the idea of poverty with the graceful, pretty Katya. It seemed to me that if Mimi and Katya had always lived with us, they would always go on living so, and sharing everything equally. It could not be otherwise. But now thousands of new indistinct thoughts concerning the equality of their position and ours swarmed in my head, and I felt so ashamed that we were rich and they were poor, that I blushed and had not the courage to look at Katya.

As the novel develops, so does Nikolai, and as he enters youth (around fifteen years of age), he states

At the end of boyhood and the beginning of youth my dreams were based on four feeling: lover of her, the imaginary woman of whom I always dreamt in one and the same way . . . The second feeling was the love of being loved. I wanted everyone to know me and love me . . . The third feeling was hope of some unusual, vain glorious good fortune and so strong and firm that it verged on insanity . . . The fourth and chief feeling was self disgust and repentance, but repentance so mingled with hope of happiness that it had nothing sad about it.

These exuberant thoughts are often mixed with despair.

"Oh God, my brother deserts me!" I thought. Still for some reason I had not the strength to go away. I stayed to the end standing morosely in one place, and only when everybody was leaving and crowding into the anteroom, and the footman in helping me on with my overcoat caught the side of my hate so that it tilted up, did I laugh in a sickly way through tears, and without addressing anyone in particular, remarked: "Comme c'est graciex!"

The book ends with the narrator reevaluating his life.

I suddenly sprang, ran upstairs, took out the notebook on which was written:" Rules of Life", opened it—and a moment of repentance and moral expansion came over me. I wept, but no longer tears of despair. On recovering, I resolved to write down rules of life again, and was firmly convinced that I should never do anything bad again, never spend a moment idly, and never go back on my rules.

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