Leo Tolstoy World Literature Analysis
Tolstoy displayed two distinctive attitudes toward art during his long career as a writer. During his early years, he believed that contemporary events, such as the emancipation of women and political reforms, were not the proper subject for art. In a letter to Peter Boborykin in 1865, Tolstoy claimed that art’s goals are “incommensurate with social goals.” Art, instead, should “force people to love life in all its innumerable, inexhaustible manifestations.” Tolstoy’s descriptions of Natasha at her first grand ball or Nicholas Rostov on the wolf hunt in War and Peace illustrate how magnificently he achieved these artistic goals. His inspiration flowed whenever he was writing about his own past and that of his family. His parents were the models for Nicholas Rostov and Marya Bolkonsky; his wife’s family was the prototype for the Rostovs; his wife’s sister, Tanya, became Natasha Rostov; he put himself into the characters of Pierre Bezuhkov and Prince Andrew; and Yasnaya Polyana transformed itself into Bald Hills. The past provided a buffer zone in which distant memories could be transposed into art.
He lost his detachment when he began writing Anna Karenina, according to Tolstoy’s biographer A. N. Wilson. No longer processing past memories, he had to draw on contemporary themes, especially on his own life experiences as he lived them. This mode of operation was extremely painful; he was writing about the dissolution of a marriage in Anna Karenina, just as he and his wife were engaging in bitter feuds. Tolstoy believed in general that adultery was a repugnant topic with no redeeming value. In a letter to Nicholas Strakhov in 1875, Tolstoy writes, “My God, if only someone would finish Anna Karenina for me! It’s unbearably repulsive.”
After Anna Karenina was completed, Tolstoy turned away from fiction; no great novels would ever again issue from his pen, though he subsequently wrote some good short stories and a novel, Resurrection. As a sign that his creative energy was gone, Tolstoy failed to continue his saga of the Decembrists that he had begun in War and Peace and eventually abandoned it forever.
By the time that Tolstoy published Chto takoye iskusstvo? (1898; What Is Art?, 1898), he had long entered his second period as a writer and abandoned his original conception that art should make people love life. He now believed that the artist should be socially responsible and write works that would inspire the people to live Christian lives. In What Is Art?, Tolstoy cites as an example his experience at a rehearsal for an opera. Observing a harried stagehand, he reflects on the downtrodden masses who must labor behind the scenes for the pleasure of the decadent bourgeoisie. He concludes that high culture and its institutions are elitist, exploit the people, and offer nothing of value to them. In contrast, art “flowing from love of God” would nourish the souls of all people.
There is much to value in Tolstoy’s views, but, unfortunately, his feelings toward art tend to be totalitarian. For example, he condemns artistic works that do not fit his criteria and authors, such as the Greek tragedians, William Shakespeare, John Milton, and Dante, of whom he does not approve. The publication of What Is Art? discomfited Tolstoy’s European and American readers, who felt that he had become “a dragon” standing in the path of modern art.
Attempts to interpret Tolstoy’s views often emphasize a perceived conflict in his nature. Edward Wasiolek in Tolstoy’s Major Fiction (1978) argues that “Tolstoy’s creative and ideational worlds are of one cloth.” That is, Tolstoy in his greatest fictional works attempts to bridge the gap between the world of the flesh and the world of the spirit, not separate the two. He sought for a unifying principle that would incorporate both.
In fact, the search for a unifying principle was a common link among the great nineteenth century Russian novelists such as Dostoevski and Turgenev. Their...
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