Leo Tolstoy

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Leo Tolstoy Long Fiction Analysis

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Leo Tolstoy’s literary works may be viewed as repeated assaults on Romantic conventions. His view, expressed numerous times throughout his diary, was that such conventions blind both writer and reader to reality. Thus, his goal was to construct a new style, prosaic, matter-of-fact, but sharp and full of contrasts, like life itself. To depict all in motion, the inner world of people and the life surrounding them, is the basic creative method of Tolstoy. He sought to reveal the reality underneath by removing the veneer of custom. Precisely for that reason, Tolstoy was able to write War and Peace, a work depicting the ordinary life of an entire period of history in all of its movements, contradictions, and complexity.

Tolstoy, ever the moralist, sought to attain truth through art. In his conception, art is the great unmasker; as he wrote in his diary on May 17, 1896, “Art is a microscope which the artist aims at the mysteries of his soul and which reveals these mysteries common to all.” The microscope focuses attention on the telling detail, the apparently meaningless gesture, the simplest expression. To Tolstoy, every inner thought, sense, and emotion was reflected in some physical detail; the resulting psychophysical method was to have a profound influence on later writers. Throughout Tolstoy’s fiction, characters are reduced to one or two physical features; the palpable, the perceptible, the visible—this is the universe of Tolstoy.

Tolstoy believed that the literary patterns inherited from the Romantics did not get to the essence of meaning and were thus obsolete. His task: to destroy them. In his diary, he began a series of literary experiments: He made lists, he drew up columns, he numbered propositions in sequence. He was seeking a rational creative method—he wanted to construct narratives that were both factual, that is, true to experience, and aesthetically right.

Tolstoy’s first artistic work, “A History of Yesterday,” is telling in this respect. It is simply an account of uninteresting things that happen in the course of a day. Tolstoy’s problem was to write down an accurate account of a full day: He verges on stream of consciousness as he follows his mental associations and perceives how one thing leads to another. To explain something, one must go back in time to explain its causes; this is Tolstoy the rational analyst. Moreover, there is the problem of what verbal expression does to what it describes. Thus, Tolstoy becomes a dual creator: He is not only the writer writing but also the analyst observing the writer writing. He continually makes remarks, interrupts them, questions himself. Tolstoy the analyst is also a creator, one who is attempting to impose rational order on a series that is nothing more than a random succession of human acts. He pushes analysis to extremes, and because he realizes that there is no limit in time to causation and that he could theoretically go back all the way to the beginning of history, he arbitrarily stops himself and leaves the fragment unfinished.

Thus, even at the beginning of his career, Tolstoy was experimenting with point of view and the literary re-creation of consciousness. This acute self-awareness runs through his oeuvre. As he said in his diary on February 29, 1897, a life that goes by without awareness is a life that has not been lived: “The basis of life is freedom and awareness—the freedom to be aware.” To promote such awareness, Tolstoy sought to present things in a new way. To do so, he was obliged to distort, to make the familiar strange. It is no accident that when the Russian Formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky wanted to illustrate the technique he called ostranenie (“making strange,” or “defamiliarization"), he turned first to the works of Tolstoy, perhaps the supreme practitioner of this device—as in the famous opera scene in War and Peace or the church service in Resurrection . In such passages, the reader sees familiar experiences as if for...

(The entire section is 3,655 words.)