Hadji Murad Themes

The main themes in Hadji Murad are worldliness and corruption, personal and family relationships, and the destructiveness of war.

  • Worldliness and corruption: Tolstoy contrasts the corruption of worldly characters like the Tsar with the religious faith of characters like Imam Shamil and Hadji Murad.
  • Personal and family relationships: Hadji Murad chooses his family over the cause of Chechen independence, demonstrating the central importance of personal relationships.
  • The destructiveness of war: The novella vividly illustrates the needless death and  destruction caused by war and the futility of the Russian occupation of the Caucasus.

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Worldliness and Corruption

Although evil things are frequently done, recalled, and threatened in Hadji Murad, there are no spectacularly evil characters. Perhaps the most unappealing personality in the story is that of Tsar Nicholas I, who is such an empty vessel that he can barely be said to have a personality at all. The Tsar stands as a terrible warning of the way in which worldliness and its attendant vices can corrupt a person completely, so that he becomes incapable of sincerity or sympathy and has no authentic self left.

Tolstoy’s principal remedy for the corruption of worldliness is religion. Imam Shamil, who can be ruthless and cruel, is a more conscientious leader than the Tsar at least partly because he is a holy man who takes his religious duties seriously, conscientiously performing them against his own inclination. The people who call him a saint may be mistaken, but they are not flatterers: they believe what they are saying and say it in Shamil’s absence. Hadji Murad is also a flawed character but is saved from corruption by his religious faith.

None of the Russians appears to be a devout Christian, but there are other mental habits and ideals which militate against mere worldliness and save them from corruption. The elder Prince Vorontsov is a worldly man, but he remains admirable because he is true to his ideals of military service and chivalrous conduct. The same is true of his son and of other Russian officers such as Loris-Melikov. In the ranks, the simple camaraderie and friendliness of Peter Avdeev and his comrades keeps them honest and relatively free from cynicism.

Personal and Family Relationships

At its most essential, Hadji Murad is a story about the conflict between public and private duty. The protagonist must choose between his family and the cause of Chechen independence. This is a conflict, but it is not a struggle, since Murad never wavers in his certainty that his family comes first. The corruption and uncertainty of the public sphere ensure that the only solid values are to be found in personal and family relationships.

The most intimate glimpse the reader is given into Murad’s interior life is when a song reminds him of his mother, then his boyhood, which leads him to remember his son. Like family members, Hadji Murad’s murids are loyal to him personally rather than to the Chechen cause, and remain with him even when he surrenders, despite their hatred of the Russians. They do not question their duty to risk the probability of death in helping him to free his family.

When he has decided to surrender, Hadji Murad cannot give himself up to any random Russian officer. He chooses Prince Vorontsov, a man whom he personally respects and who has the personal and family connections to ensure that his surrender is treated as a matter of importance. Vorontsov is a member of the old Russian aristocracy, and his personal prestige and power are greater than his military rank would suggest. He is a colonel, but Hadji Murad immediately recognizes that his family and connections make him a person of more consequence than the general to whom he reports. Similarly, Vorontsov’s father, the Commander-in-Chief, is envied by his nominal superior, the Minister of War, who has neither his family influence nor his personal connections.

The Destructiveness of War

The major characters in Hadji Murad all have an idea of war that is primarily glamorous and heroic, even though they are seasoned campaigners. Younger men, epitomized by Captain Butler, have an even more idealistic view of the glory of battle....

(This entire section contains 888 words.)

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When Butler has ruined himself with gambling debts, he finds solace in “the poetry of warfare,” and he treats the destruction of a Chechen village and the defiling of a mosque as an amusing game.

When Tolstoy was Butler’s age, he seems to have had a similar attitude, but long before he came to write Hadji Murad, he had revised his view of war to focus on the wanton destruction it entails. Near the beginning of the book, the simple, good-natured peasant Peter Avdeev has his life senselessly ended by a skirmish too trivial to merit the name of a battle. Butler’s expedition into enemy territory is similarly small in scale, but the destruction of the village brings unspeakable misery to the peasants who live there and lead them to see the Russians as lower than vermin.

The Russian occupation of the Caucasus is continually depicted as an exercise in futility, ultimately dependent on the whim of a corrupt and tyrannical Tsar. However, this is only the most prominent example in a litany of slaughter which the characters inflict on each other at the pettiest level, perpetuating blood feuds and continually creating new ones. When Arslan Khan sees Hadji Murad at Major Petrov’s house, he immediately tries to kill him, although his original intention was to pay a peaceful visit to the major. This warlike disposition, shared by Chechens and Russians alike, is the cause of endless misery to the innocent and, for that matter, the guilty. The perspective in the story which is closest to the author’s is that of Maria Dmitrievna, who, sickened by the sight of Hadji Murad’s severed head, condemns all the warriors as cutthroats.


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