Leo Tolstoy

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Introduction

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Tolstoy, Leo

Religious and Philosophical Writings

(Full name Count Leo [Lev Nikolaevich] Tolstoy. Also transliterated as Lyof; also Nikolayevich; also Tolstoi, Tolstoj, Tolstoï). Russian novelist, short story and novella writer, essayist, dramatist, and critic. See also Smert Ivana Ilyicha Criticism, The Kreutzer Sonata Criticism, and Khozyain I rabotnik Criticism.

Tolstoy is regarded as one of the greatest novelists in the history of world literature. His Voina i mir (War and Peace) and Anna Karenina are almost universally acknowledged as all-encompassing documents of human existence and supreme examples of the realistic novel. Tolstoy is also considered a major religious and philosophic thinker, germs of which can be seen in his earlier fiction, but which ultimately came to fruition after the spiritual crisis he underwent beginning with deep depression in 1875. Characterized chiefly by his devotion to a close and literal reading of the Gospels of Christ, Tolstoy's religious convictions led him to a life of personal asceticism and social action that influenced Christian thinking around the world, and had a major impact on the thought and works of such social activists as Mohandas K. Gandhi in India and Jane Addams in the United States.

Biographical Information

Tolstoy was born in 1828 to a wealthy family who resided just outside of Moscow. After his mother died in 1830 and his father in 1837, Tolstoy's upbringing and education fell into the hands of relatives, who hired private tutors for him. In 1844 he entered Kazan University, but failed to earn a degree. He returned to the family estate, Yasnaya Polyana, in 1847 to manage the affairs there. Dissatisfied, Tolstoy joined the army in 1851, seeing active service in the Caucasus and in the siege of Sevastopol during the Crimean War, which he later wrote about in his Sevastopolskiye rasskazy (Sevastopol Sketches). While in the army, Tolstoy began to write and publish fiction, which met with much success. He left the army in 1856 and traveled through Europe before returning to Yasnaya Polyana, where he lived for the rest of his life. At this point, he became interested in social reform, focusing his efforts on educational and philanthropic work with the peasants around his estate. In 1862 he married Sonya Andreyevna Behrs, and began working on his two greatest works, War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Beginning around 1875, Tolstoy was plagued by depression and an obsession with death that lasted until his final spiritual crisis-a "conversion" to the orthodoxy of his youth-in 1878. Concentrating for the next several years on intensive study of theology and the Christian scriptures, Tolstoy developed his own interpretation of Christianity based on an ethical foundation of universal love and brotherhood, which eventually led to his renunciation of the aristocratic lifestyle. Rather than enter the secluded monastic life he admired, Tolstoy chose to remain at his estate and devote himself to public service, wearing peasants' clothing, doing manual labor, and practicing a strict regimen of pacifism, vegetarianism, and sexual abstinence. He turned away from writing the kind of novels that had won him worldwide fame and concentrated instead on writing philosophical and religious works, many designed to educate the masses. While several of Tolstoy's thirteen children sympathized with him, his spiritual rigor created tension in the family, especially with his wife. Government harassment and excommunication from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1901 increased tensions in the family, and Tolstoy found that by 1905 his stance of pacifism and nonresistance were running counter to the realities of poverty and government-sanctioned slaughter of early Russian revolutionaries, many of them strongly influenced by Tolstoy's own banned writings. Beset by family problems, and overwhelmed by the responsibility of upholding his teachings in the face of massive social upheaval, Tolstoy fled from his home in 1910, dying in a...

(The entire section is 150,210 words.)