Leo Tolstoy

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Leo Tolstoy Short Fiction Analysis

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Leo Tolstoy’s ego embraces the world, so that he is always at the center of his fictive creation, filling his books with his struggles, personae, problems, questions, and quests for answers, and above all with his notion of life as an ethical search as strenuous as the pursuit of the Holy Grail. He does not try to puzzle or dazzle; his work is not a clever riddle to be solved or a game to be played but a rich realm to be explored. He disdains the kind of exterior purism practiced by Gustave Flaubert and Henry James among others, which concentrates on the inner lives of individuals—although he is superbly skilled at psychological perception. His aim, rather, is to discover, as far as he can, the essential truth of life’s meaning, the revelation to be gained at the core of the vast mesh of human relations. What energizes his work is his conviction that this truth is good, and that, once discovered, it will resolve the discords and conflicts that plague humanity.

In Tolstoy’s art, the natural, simple, and true is always pitted against the artificial, elaborate, and false, the particular against the general, knowledge gained from observation against assertions of borrowed faiths. His is the gift of direct vision, of fundamental questions and of magical simplicity—perhaps too simple, as a distinguished historian of ideas has indicated. Isaiah Berlin, in a famous essay titled “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” sees Tolstoy as torn between his pluralism (the fox, perceiving reality as varied, complex, and multiple) and monism (the hedgehog, reducing life’s fullness to one single truth, the infinity of sensory data to the finite limits of a single mind). Tolstoy, Berlin concludes, was a pluralist in his practice but a monist in his theory, who found himself unable to reconcile the foxiness of his multifarious awareness with his hedgehoglike need to discover one all-embracing answer to its myriad problems.

“The Raid”

Tolstoy’s first stories are set in the Caucasus, where he spent the years 1851 to 1854, with many of the officers and soldiers whom he met serving as thinly disguised models. In “Nabeg: Razskaz volontera” (“The Raid: A Volunteer’s Story”), he poses several problems: What is the nature of courage? By what tests does one determine bravery or cowardice? What feelings cause a man to kill his fellow? The first-person narrator discusses these questions with a Captain Khlopov (derived from a Captain Khilkovsky in Tolstoy’s diary) and illustrates different types of courage among the military characters. Tolstoy deflates warfare, emphasizing ordinary details and casual, matter-of-fact fortitude rather than dashingly proud heroism. His descriptions of nature are simple, concrete, and expert. The story’s most powerful scene has a dying young ensign pass from carefree bravado to dignified resignation as he encounters his end.

Sebastopol Sketches

The element of eyewitness reportage is carried over from the Caucasian tales to the three Sebastopol sketches, which are fiction passing as war dispatches. Tolstoy took part in the Crimean War (1854-1856) as a sublieutenant, with Russia fighting a complex series of actions against a multiple enemy composed of not only Turkish but also some British, French, and Sardinian troops. While aggressively patriotic, he was appalled by the disorganization of his country’s military forces, with the average Russian peasant soldier poorly armed, trained, and led, while many company commanders nearly starved their men by pocketing much of the money allocated for their food.

“Sevastopol v dekabre” (“Sebastopol in December”) has no characters and no particular topography. The first-person narrator constructs a guidebook homily out of lived experience, familiarly addressing readers, inviting them to listen to...

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his frontline experiences as he wanders from Sebastopol’s bay and dockside to a military hospital filled with shrieking, often multilated soldiers. Says the speaker, you will see war not as a beautiful, orderly, and gleaming formation, with music and beaten drums, streaming banners and generals on prancing horses, but war in its authentic expression—as blood, suffering and death.

Tolstoy concludes this sketch with a stirring salute to the epic heroism of Sebastopol’s residents and Russian defenders. Yet a somber awareness of death’s imminence, as the surgeon’s sharp knife slices into his patients’ flesh, pervades the sketch.

In “Sevastopol v mae” (“Sebastopol in May”), Tolstoy sharply denounces the vainglory of militarism, stressing the futility of the fighting and the madness of celebrating war as a glorious adventure. The passage describing the death by shellfire of an officer is a superb tour de force, with the author using interior monologue to have the lieutenant crowd his many hopes, fears, memories, and fantasies into a few seconds. The speaker comes to consider war as senseless, horrifying, but also—given human nature—inevitable. He concludes that the only hero he can find is the truth. This is perhaps the finest of Tolstoy’s military tales, anticipating the battle and death scenes of War and Peace.

In the third narrative, “Sebastopol in August,” Tolstoy uses well-developed characters to unify an episodic plot. He focuses on two brothers whose personalities contrast but who are both killed in action. He also strikes a note of shame and anger at Russia’s abandonment of the city and the consequent waste of many thousands of lives. He celebrates, however, the quiet heroism of countless common soldiers who risked and often met death with calm nobility.

“Two Hussars”

Before Tolstoy began War and Peace in 1863, he wrote a number of long stories or novellas, which he called povesti, defined as “A literary narrative of lesser size than a novel.” Their compass is usually too small to accommodate the didacticism that his longer works absorb painlessly. One successful story that avoids moralizing is “Dva gusara” (“Two Hussars”). Its first half is devoted to the officer-father, the second to his son. Twenty years apart, they enact the same sequence of card playing, drinking, and philandering, in the same small town, meeting the same people. Their characters, however, differ drastically. The father is gallant, generous, honorable, charming. The son is mean, cold, calculating, cowardly. The father’s temperament is natural and open. The son’s is contrived and devious, corrupted by decadent society. As always with Tolstoy, he gives his allegiance to the authentic and intuitive, while sardonically scorning the artificial and scheming.

Family Happiness

In Family Happiness, Tolstoy treats a problem to which he was to return throughout his career: the place of women, both at home and in society. He had courted a much younger and very pretty girl, Valerya Arseneva, but had become irritated by her fondness for high society and had broken off the relationship. He transforms the experience into a narrative by the young woman, Masha, in the fashion of Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre (1847), which he had read and admired. Now married and a mother, Masha recalls, in the story’s first half, her courtship by a man who knew her dead father, considered himself her guardian as she grew up, and was thirty-five to her seventeen when they married. Tolstoy magnificently captures the rapturous chemistry of first love as the girl awakens to womanhood. By the story’s second half, however, he undermines her dreams of romantic happiness as she becomes addicted to the whirl of urban high society, driving her husband into rural retreat and seclusion. Toward the end, at home in the country after disillusionments in the city, she and he agree to a different sort of marriage than they envisioned at its start, basing it not on passion but on companionship and parenthood. Tolstoy has here sounded some of his most pervasive notes: Sophistication is evil, simplicity is good; the city is decadent, the country is healthy; and romance is dangerous, often a “charming nonsense,” while marriage, though a necessary institution, should never be sentimentalized.


The story now called “Kholstomer” (“Strider”) was originally translated into English as “Kholstomer: The Story of a Horse,” because Tolstoy modeled his equine, first-person narrator on a horse by that name celebrated for his enormous stride and speed. The author humanizes his outcast animal, which is consistently stigmatized as a piebald and a gelding, in a keenly compassionate manner, with Strider’s sorrowful life made a parable of protest against unjust punishment of those who are somehow different. “He was old, they were young. He was lean, they were sleek; he was miserable, they were gay; and so he was quite alien to them, an outsider, an utterly different creature whom it was impossible for them to pity.” Strider’s victimization by greedy, selfish owners enables Tolstoy to lash the evils of private property, using an equine perspective to expose its immorality.

The second phase of Tolstoy’s production of short fiction follows his two great novels and the tremendous spiritual crisis chronicled in A Confession. It was an extremely profound change for an author. The sublime artist comes to repudiate almost all art; the nobleman now lives like a peasant; the wealthy, titled country gentleman seeks to abandon his property, preaching humility and asceticism; the marvelous novelist and story writer prefers the roles of educational reformer, religious leader, social sage, cultural prophet. Yet Tolstoy’s artistic instincts refuse to atrophy, and he manages to create different yet also masterful works, less happy and conventional, uncompromising, sometimes perverse, always powerful, preoccupied with purity, corruption, sin, sex, and death. His late stories express his Rousseauistic hostility to such institutions as the state, which forces citizens to pay taxes and serve in the military; the church, which coerces its communicants by fear and superstition; private property, whereby one person owns another; and modern art, which is elitist. The creative gold nevertheless continues to flow from Tolstoy’s pen, despite his moralistic resistance to aesthetics, in such novellas as The Death of Ivan Ilyich, The Kreutzer Sonata, and the story “Master and Man.”

The Death of Ivan Ilyich

The Death of Ivan Ilyich, perhaps his finest story, was Tolstoy’s first published work after his conversion. It is more schematic and deliberate than the earlier tales, more selective and condensed in the choice of descriptive and analytic detail. It is a parable of a life badly lived, with Tolstoy here allying his highest art with an exigent passion for establishing the most profound and encompassing truths.

Ivan Ilyich is a cautious, correct, typical representative of his social class. He has achieved success in his profession of judge, in love, in marriage, in his family, and in his friendships, or so appearances indicate. Yet when he reviews his past, confronted with the inescapability of a cancer-ridden death, he slowly arrives at the realization that he has led a life of selfishness, shallowness, smugness, and hypocrisy. Significantly, his surname, Golovin, is derived from the Russian word for “head.” He has excluded any deep feelings, as he has lived according to principles of pleasantness and propriety, conforming to the values of his upper-middle-class social sphere in his striving for status, materialism, bureaucratic impersonality and power, decorous appearance, and pleasure.

In part 1, which begins with the announcement of Ivan Ilyich’s death, Tolstoy’s tone is caustically satiric. Ivan’s wife/widow, Praskovya Fedorovna, defines the nature of his loveless home life, grieving formally for her loss and accepting colleagues’ condolences while really concerned with the cost of the grave site and the possibility of increasing her widow’s pension. Ivan Ilyich, however, deserves no better. He is shown as a prisoner of his cherished possessions who wanted Praskovya primarily for her property, secondarily for her correct social position and good looks. The density of things dominates Ivan Ilyich’s feelings and conduct, pain and pleasure, happiness and misery. His highest moment comes with the furnishing of a new house; and his fall comes from reaching to hang a drape when he is on a ladder. Symbolically, his fall is one from pride and vanity.

The physicians enter to examine Ivan Ilyich’s bruised side. They pursue their profession much as he does, from behind well-mannered, ritualistic masks. Ivan Ilyich soon discovers that not only his doctors but also his wife, daughter, colleagues, and friends all refuse him the empathy and compassion that he increasingly needs; they act on the same principle of self-interested pleasure that he has followed. As his physical suffering grows, he experiences the emotional stages that modern psychology accepts as characteristic of responses to lingering terminal illness: denial, loneliness, anger, despondency, and, finally, acceptance. He begins to drop his protective disguises and to realize that his existence has consisted of evasions of self-knowledge, of love, of awareness of the deepest needs of others. His fall into the abyss of death thus brings him to spiritual birth.

At the nadir of Ivan Ilyich’s suffering, partial grace comes to him through the care of his servant, Gerasim. He is, like Platon Karataev in War and Peace, one of those simple, spontaneous, kindly souls whom Tolstoy venerates. In contrast to the sterile pretensions of Ivan Ilyich’s social circle, Gerasim, modest and strong, personifies the Tolstoyan principle of living for others. He is in every sense a “breath of fresh air,” showing his master unstinting compassion as he exemplifies the health of youth and naturally loving behavior.

Inspired by Gerasim’s devotion, Ivan Ilyich becomes capable of extending compassion to his wife and son. When his condition takes a final, fatal turn, as he feels himself slowly sucked into the bottom of death’s sack, he comes to the realization that his life has been trivial, empty, worthless. Two hours before his death, he stops trying to justify it and instead takes pity on his wife, son, and himself. He dies loving rather than hating, forgiving rather than whining, at last surrendering his egoism. Both the story and Ivan Ilyich’s life thus end on a note of serenity and joyous illumination. Tolstoy shows that profound consciousness of death can bring one to the communion of true brotherhood. Through his relentless pain, Ivan Ilyich discovers the truth about himself, akin to Prince Andrey in War and Peace.

The Kreutzer Sonata

The Kreutzer Sonata, like The Death of Ivan Ilyich, is a condensed masterpiece of harrowing intensity, a poem of the poignant pains of the flesh. Tolstoy presents the nature of marriage more directly and comprehensively than any other writer. In Family Happiness, he tries to define its benefits and banes; in War and Peace, he celebrates it; in Anna Karenina, he upholds yet also questions it; in The Kreutzer Sonata, he denounces it vehemently. Though he previously advocated marriage as the morally and socially legitimate release for sexual needs, by the late 1880’s, his new views on morality, as well as his own increasingly burdensome marriage, caused him to equate sexuality with hostility and sinfulness and to regard sexual passion as degrading, undermining human beings’ spiritual self.

The novella’s protagonist, Pozdnyshev, confesses on a train journey that he murdered his wife on suspicion—groundless, as circumstances indicate—of her adultery with an amateur violinist with whom she, a pianist, enjoyed playing duets—such as Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Kreutzer Sonata.” In the spring of 1888, a performance of this work did take place in Tolstoy’s Moscow residence. He proposed to the great realistic painter also present, Ilya Repin, that the artist should paint a canvas, while he would write a story, on the theme of marital jealousy. While Tolstoy fulfilled the bargain, Repin did not. The tale was submitted to the state censor in 1888; Czar Alexander III, who read a copy, issued an imperial banning order. Sophia Tolstoya thereupon removed some of the story’s sexual explicitness, and the czar permitted its publication, in bowdlerized form, in 1891. Not until the 1933 Jubilee Edition of Tolstoy’s works was the text issued in its original form. Yet even in its toned-down version, it aroused a storm of controversy among readers.

Pozdnyshev relates his conduct to a lightly sketched narrator. His dramatic monologue is powerful and polemical, although his arguments are often exaggerated and inconsistent. The point of his narrative is that sex is sinful, that those who submit to its drives often become vicious and, in Pozdnyshev’s case, murderous. Even in marriage, the protagonist insists, sex is ugly, repulsive, and destructive. Despite the deranged character of Pozdnyshev and the manifest injustice of many of his views, the story is disturbing, forceful, and gripping, as he shows how his sexual lust degraded his character and ruined his marriage. Some critics have interpreted the structure of the tale as equivalent to the sonata form, falling into three movements with a slow introduction and the final chapter as a coda. Tolstoy was himself an accomplished pianist.

In a long, uncompromising afterword to the story, Tolstoy addresses the controversy it caused and clearly links Pozdnyshev’s views—but not his pathological personality—to his. He argues that carnal love lowers human beings to animalistic conduct, advocates chastity within as well as outside marriage, denounces society for featuring erotic allure, and dismisses marriage itself as a trap for humanity’s finest energies. Men and women should replace conjugal relations “with the pure relations that exist between a brother and a sister.” Only thus would they behave as true Christians. Tolstoy thus dismisses sex as relevant—let alone fundamental—to human behavior. Rather, he regards it as a diabolic temptation sent to divert human beings’ purpose from seeking the kingdom of God on earth.

“Master and Man”

In his moralistic monograph, What Is Art?, Tolstoy asks for writing that is easily understandable, whose subject matter is religious, situations universal, style simple, and technique accessible. None of his successful works embodies these criteria more faithfully than “Master and Man,” which is essentially a morality play based on the New Testament. The master is Vasíli Andréevich Brekhunov: selfish, overbearing, coarse, rich, rapacious, the biblical gatherer of wealth who neglects his soul. The servant is Nikíta, a reformed drunkard, who is humane, sensitive, skilled in his work, strong, meek, kindly, rich in spirit though poor in pocket. The contrast between them is stark, with Tolstoy stressing the unambiguous and heavily symbolic nature of the novella: two opposed sorts of men, two opposed sets of moral values, and the conversion of the master to the ethics of his man. The man of flesh and the man of spirit join in the journey of life and the confrontation with death.

Brekhunov, a merchant proud of his ability to drive a hard bargain, sets off with Nikíta on a business trip to make a down payment on a grove. He can consider nothing but his possessions and how to increase them; his relationships to others are governed by materialistic calculations. On their trip, the pair find themselves immersed in a raging snowstorm, which obliterates all landmarks and turns the landscape into a perilous Wood of Error, a moral Wasteland, through which they must make life’s passage. Tolstoy masterfully uses the storm for its emblematic qualities. It “buries” the travelers in snowdrifts, is cold like death, turns the substantial into the spectral and vice versa. They lose their way as Brekhunov insists on movements to the left, since men find their reward only on the right hand of God. As Brekhunov urges his horse away from the sled, after having (temporarily) deserted Nikíta, he can only come around in a circle to the same spot, marked by wormwood stalks—wormwood being identified with sin and punishment in Revelation. He is ritualistically confronted with himself in the person of a horsethief, for Brekhunov has been cheating Nikíta of his wages and has stolen a large sum of money from his church to buy the grove.

Nikíta accepts his master’s wrong turns without anger or reproof, resigns himself to the snowstorm, and patiently prepares to wait it out when they are forced to settle down for the night in their sled. Around midnight, ill-clad and half-frozen, meekly awaiting likely death before morning, Nikíta asks his master to give the wages owed him to his family and to “Forgive me for Christ’s sake!” Finally, moved to pity by Nikíta’s words, Brekhunov opens his heavy fur coat and lies down on top of his servant, covering Nikíta with both his coat and body as he sobs.

Just before dawn Brekhunov has a visionary dream, in which “it seemed to him that he was Nikíta and Nikíta was he, and that his life was not in himself but in Nikíta.” He wonders why he used to trouble himself so greatly to accumulate money and possessions. At noon the next day, peasants drag both men out of the snow. Brekhunov is frozen to death; Nikíta, though chilled, is alive.

Some critics have faulted the story’s ending because Tolstoy has inadequately prepared the reader for Brekhunov’s sudden adoption of Christian humility, brotherhood, and self-sacrifice, since he has previously shown not the slightest inclination toward moral regeneration. Be that as it may, most of the tale is enormously impressive in the power of its sensuous description as the snowstorm isolates the couple from ordinary existence, strips them of external comforts, exposes them to the presence of death, forces them to encounter their inmost selves.

Tolstoy’s celebration of Brekhunov’s redemption through fellowship is his answer to a universe that he has feared all of his life as he confronts the horror of nonexistence conveyed by death. Master and man—or man and man, or man and woman—should cling to each other, love each other, forgive each other. Will such conduct vault their souls into immortality? Tolstoy desperately hopes so.


Leo Tolstoy Long Fiction Analysis