Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 510

After the publication of Anna Karenina (1875-1877; English translation, 1886), Tolstoy experienced a brief bout of profound depression, followed, in 1879, by a religious conversion. The conversion caused him to reject the concept of art for aesthetic or entertainment value and to endorse only that art which advanced a high moral purpose and could be understood by the simplest people. Thereafter, he wrote comparatively little fiction, devoting himself more to religious, philosophical, and political essays; his short stories were often parables aimed at a popular audience. In 1898, he published his literary manifesto, “What Is Art?” In it, he maintains that people have no real need for most music, painting, and literature—which are mere idle distractions—and that the true artist should be a prophet, preaching moral values and confronting urgent problems of politics, economics, and human relations.

Yet, in the same year, he began Hadji Murad, which is free from this sort of didacticism and is generally considered one of his supreme artistic works. Written between 1898 and 1904 and published posthumously in 1911, Hadji Murad is Tolstoy’s last major work of fiction. In it, he returns to the manner and subject matter of such youthful stories of Caucasian adventure as “Nabeg: Razskaz volontera” (“The Raid: A Volunteer’s Story”), “Rubka lesa” (“The Wood-Felling”), and Kazaki (1863; The Cossacks, 1872). From 1851 to 1854, Tolstoy served in the Caucasus as an officer in the Russian army and took part in numerous raids against Shamil and the Chechen. The major events and characters in Hadji Murad, including Hadji Murad himself, are historically accurate, drawn from firsthand experience and observation. In addition, Tolstoy did extensive research on the Caucasus and the war between Shamil and the Russians. One of the merits of Hadji Murad is the vividness with which Tolstoy reconstructs the sense of time, place, customs, and conflicting cultures of the mountain people and the Russian soldiers and imperialists. Tolstoy the young officer who fought carelessly in the Caucasus and was repeatedly cited for bravery, however, was quite different from Tolstoy the aged moralist, who is critical of the debauchery and immaturity of such soldiers as Butler and Poltoratsky and who sees war not as a youthful diversion but as the grim reaper.

Usually Tolstoy is thought of as a realist; in Hadji Murad, he combinesa realistic technique with the romantic and exotic subject matter of the Caucasus that earlier appeared in fiction by Alexander Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov. In structure, Hadji Murad is cinematic, cutting abruptly from one quick, vivid scene to another. The novella stresses a visual quality, minimizes dialogue, and avoids authorial editorializing.

The aged Tolstoy, torn between conflicting claims of morality and art, sometimes dismissed Hadji Murad as rubbish. “If that is so,” asked one guest, “why did you write it?” “But it is not finished yet,” replied Tolstoy. “You came into my kitchen and no wonder it stinks with the smell of cooking.” The critical consensus is that Hadji Murad is a small masterpiece; critic Ernest J. Simmons calls it “almost a perfect example of the ‘good universal art’ that Tolstoy had acclaimed.”

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