Last Updated on September 13, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 770
Hadji Murad is a late work by Tolstoy and was not published until 1912, two years after the author’s death. In terms of both theme and content, however, it seems to belong among his first works, Sevastopol Sketches and The Cossacks, which used his own experiences as an officer in the Russian army as a fertile source of material. The book has long presented a puzzle for scholars, as well as for readers who see a trajectory in Tolstoy’s literary and spiritual development. Tolstoy, both as a writer and as a man, seems to have started as a fairly typical, if unusually thoughtful and intelligent, young Russian aristocrat: high-handed, violent, worldly, and pleasure-seeking. As he developed into the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, his views changed in every way: politically, socially, and religiously. He could still write with deep understanding about worldly people and pleasures, but he himself was concerned with the soul, with suffering, with the plight of the working man, and ultimately with man’s relation to God.
Hadji Murad reads like a work by a writer who followed quite a different trajectory since writing The Cossacks. It is as though War and Peace never existed, and Tolstoy became cynical about his youthful values without discovering any alternatives. Only the tone has changed. Hadji Murad is described as deeply religious, but his religion is not Tolstoy’s, nor is it a religion in which Tolstoy shows much interest as a source of redemption. On the rare occasions when he examines the interior life of his protagonist, Tolstoy concentrates on his feelings for his family, and his conception of personal honor. He never shows Murad wrestling with his conscience in the way that Levin and Bezukhov do in Anna Karenina and War and Peace, respectively.
By the standards of Tolstoy’s late work, therefore, Hadji Murad is exceptionally cynical and devoid of hope. Its characters can be divided into those who have the wrong values, and those who have no values at all. Tolstoy makes it clear that the former position is preferable. Butler, the young officer who appears toward the end of the book and who is intoxicated by “the poetry of warfare” is certainly portrayed not only as a fool, but as a man who does great harm in the world without realizing it. However, Butler and his type are redeemable. Those who are captivated by the poetry of warfare may come to see the poetry in other things: the natural world or the spiritual life. The world has not yet corrupted them.
The characters who are devoid of values, however, are purely negative. Most conspicuous among them is Tsar Nicholas I. The Tsar only appears in one chapter, but it is an unusually long chapter, close to the middle of the book, and his large figure casts a long shadow. He is not a villainous figure, but he is entirely without virtues or admirable qualities—a vain, empty man who has been flattered until he thinks himself great, without ever reflecting on where this supposed greatness lies. Most of the aristocrats who are compelled to obey the Tsar are better men than he is, but they are all corrupted by flattering a tyrant and by the worldly values to which they adhere through force of habit.
The story of Hadji Murad begins and ends with the image of the thistle which reminds the narrator of the Chechen warrior and his fate. The analogy this suggests is of a good man, or at any rate a remarkable one, in an unpromising environment, surrounded by...
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barren soil. Hadji Murad is better than the men who surround him, but he cannot supply a moral center for the narrative for a number of reasons. First, he is arrogant and dismissive of his fellow men. Second, the reader has little insight into his soul. Third, he is affected by the same corrupt values as the other characters, particularly in his glorification of violence.
The true moral message of Hadji Murad is supplied by Marya Dmitrievna in her disgust and anger at seeing Murad’s head. Two matters appear to concern her: the first is that a man she liked and admired has been senselessly slaughtered. The second is that he has not been given a decent burial. Like Antigone, she cares about the respectful treatment of the dead. Marya Dmitrievna is not heroic like Antigone, or like Hadji Murad, nor is she a religious mystic, like Tolstoy himself. She is the voice of simple good sense and decency in a world which lacks and needs these values.
Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 307
Tolstoy's complex story is a depiction of and criticism of Russian imperialism in the Caucasus during the mid-nineteenth century. It was part of the plan of Russian expansionism to secure control of both "Ciscaucasia," the region directly north of the main range of the Caucasus mountains, and "Transcaucasia," the area on the southern side of the range. The Avars, a Muslim people including those living in present-day Chechnya and Daghestan, resisted the Russian advance. We can see that this conflict is still going on with the continuing Chechen separatist movement. Tolstoy uses the plight of the Caucasus people as an example of the injustice of Russian imperialism and, by extension, European imperialism in general. He frames the story with a description of nature in which a wild thistle is shown as crushed into the earth. The thistle is, arguably, emblematic of foreign peoples exploited and victimized by a corrupt and cynical ruling class in Russia.
Tolstoy's main character, Hadji Murad ("Hadji" is an honorific title for a leader or warrior) is caught between his own people's corrupt leader, Imam Shamil, who has kidnapped Hadji Murad's family, and the Russians with whom he attempts to negotiate. Both sides are ruthless and carry out atrocities. Tolstoy seems to show the impossibility of an incorruptible and genuinely good man such as Hadji Murad surviving in this situation. The Russians do not trust him either and end up killing him. Arguably, the chief villain of the story is Tsar Nicholas I, who is shown as corrupt, lazy, and amoral. Tolstoy tends in his fiction always to depict the Russian upper class negatively. His basic message in this novella seems to be that if the Russians had simply left the Caucasus people alone, a people whose lives the Russians had no business interfering with, all of this tragedy could have been avoided.