Leo Tolstoy Tolstoy, Leo - Essay


(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 railway station in Astapovo.

Major Works

In Ispoved (A Confession), Tolstoy outlined the spiritual upheaval that caused him to question the basis of his existence. The piece is considered among the great literary works of personal conversion that include St. Augustine's Confession and Rousseau's Confessions. Tolstoy's attempt at a solution to this crisis took the form of a radical Christianity whose doctrines ultimately included pacifism, vegetarianism, and sexual abstinence. At this point in his career, Tolstoy was concerned with producing two types of fiction: simple tales written in a folk tradition for uneducated readers and more literary works focusing on his moral preoccupations of this period. The folktales, such as "Brazhe iepko, a bozhe krepko" ("Evil Allures but Good Endures"), were designed as examples of "universal art" and have often been praised for delivering their didactic point in an artful manner. Much the same estimation has been accorded Tolstoy's literary fiction of this time, including Smert Ivana Ilyicha (The Death of Ivan Ilitch) and Kreitserova sonata (The Kreutzer Sonata). If the moral stance of these fictional tracts on death and sex has been criticized as simplistic or severe, the two works have also been considered among the best examples of Tolstoy's art of storytelling. However, Tolstoy's longest work of his post-conversion period and his last major novel, Voskresenie (Resurrection), is considered far less successful than his early masterpieces. Although Tolstoy's genius for description and characterization are still evident in this work, the intrusion of social and moral issues is regarded as detrimental to the novel's artistic value. Among the later novels, Khadzhi Murat (Hadji Murad) is more often viewed as the work that shows the extent and endurance of Tolstoy's narrative power. During his later period Tolstoy also produced a number of dramatic works in an attempt to express his post-conversion ideas in a genre outside fiction. Like many of his other works, these dramas are often highly regarded for their vivid and compelling sense of realism, and for the sincere and sometimes overwhelming urgency of the author's concerns. The chief work among these plays is Vlast tmy (The Power of Darkness). The somber action of the drama-including adultery, murder, and religious torment-culminates in the redeeming vision of Christian faith that was a spiritual focus of the older Tolstoy. In the social comedy Plody prosvesh cheniya (The Fruits of Enlightenment), the object of Tolstoy's criticism is aristocratic society, and in the unfinished drama I svet vo tme svetit (The Light That Shines in Darkness), it is the author's own life. The latter play is of particular interest for Tolstoy's view of his sprirtual conversion and its effect on the people around him. The artistic repercussions of his conversion are spelled out in Chto takoe iskusstvo (What Is Art?). The major concern of this essay is to distinguish bogus art, which he called an elitist celebration of aesthetics, from universal art, which successfully "infects" its recipient with the highest sentiment an artist can transmit-that of religious feeling. This conception of art led Tolstoy to dismiss most of history's greatest artists, including William Shakespeare and Richard Wagner, and to repudiate all of his own previous work save for two short stories. During this period Tolstoy also wrote his many moral and theological tracts, for which he was eventually excommunicated. His pamphleteering on social, political, and economic subjects also resulted in the censorship of his work by the government.

Critical Reception

As a religious and ethical thinker Tolstoy has been criticized for the extremism, and sometimes the absurdity, of his ideas. Many critics have also found it difficult to reconcile Tolstoy's lifestyle with his profession of such an extreme ethical code. Tolstoy himself was acutely aware of the contradiction between his aristocratic upbringing and his later renunciation of elitism, and some critics have speculated that this is the reason for his doctrine of often excessive asceticism. However, he has also been admired for the gigantism of his ambition to discover absolute laws governing humanity's ethical and spiritual obligations amid the psychological and social complexities of the world. Whatever form Tolstoy's doctrines took, they were always founded on his expansive humanitarianism and based on one of the most intensive quests for wisdom in human history. Although Tolstoy ultimately believed that art should serve a religious and ethical code, he himself serves primarily as a model of the consummate artist, and his greatest works are exemplary of the nature and traditions of modern literature.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Detstvo [Childhood] (novel) 1852

Otrochestvo [Boyhood] (novel) 1854

Sevastopolskiye rasskazy [Sevastopol Sketches]. 2 vols. (sketches) 1855-56

Yunost [Youth] (novel) 1857

Semeinoe schaste [Family Happiness] (novel) 1859

Kazaki [The Cossacks] (novel) 1863

Polikushka (novel) 1863

Voina i mir [War and Peace] (novel) 1869

Anna Karenina (novel) 1877

Ispoved [A Confession] (essay) 1882

V chiom moya vera [What I Believe] (essay) 1884

Smert Ivana Ilyicha [The Death of Ivan Ilitch] (novella) 1886

Vlast tmy [The Power of Darkness] (drama) 1888

Plody prosvesh cheniya [The Fruits of Enlightment] (drama) 1889

Kreitserova sonata [The Kreutzer Sonata] (novella) 1890

Khozyain i rabotnik [Master and Man] (novella) 1895

Chto takoe iskusstvo [What Is Art?] (essay) 1898

Otetz sergii [Father Sergius] (novella) 1898

The Novels and Other Works of Lyof N. Tolstoi. 22 vols. (novels, novellas, short stories, dramas, essays, and sketches) 1899-1902

Voskresenie [Resurrection] (novel) 1899

I svet vo tme svetit [The Light That Shines in Darkness] (unfinished drama) 1911

Khadzhi Murat (novel) 1911

Zhivoy trup [The Living Corpse] (drama) 1911

L. N. Tolstoi: polnoe sobrante proizvedenie. 90 vols. (novels, novellas, short stories, dramas, essays, and sketches) 1928-58

Tolstoy's Letters. 2 vols. (letters) 1978

Sara A. Hubbard (essay date 1887)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Confession of Count Tolstoi," in The Dial, Vol. 8, No. 90, October, 1887, pp. 125-27.

[In the following review of Confession, Hubbard praises Tolstoy's genuine religious faith and honesty, but laments that his religious epiphany may have cut short his career as a fiction writer.]

The inner history of any strong personal experience is instructive; more deeply so when it is that of a man of ardent feeling, of earnest aspiration, and fine intellect. The life of Count Tolstoi, as it has been revealed in his writings, has excited universal interest. His genius was first made known through his earlier works of fiction; and immediately upon the...

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F. W. Farrar (essay date 1888)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Count Leo Tolstoi," in The Forum, Vol. VI, No. 2, October, 1888, pp. 109-24.

[In the following essay, Farrar assesses Tolstoy's religious convictions as sincere and worthy of consideration, but believes Tolstoy exaggerated the degree to which the Christian world has misinterpreted its own fundamental tenets.]

There are men who make a deeper impression upon their contemporaries by the force or charm of their personality than by their genius or other gifts; and such a man is Count Leo Tolstoi, though his genius and his gifts are undeniable. He has written much and well; yet his extraordinary popularity, not only in Russia but in France, England, and other...

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F. W. Farrar (essay date 1891)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Count Leo Tolstoi," in Social and Present Day Questions, Bradley & Woodruff, 1891, pp. 343-54.

[In the following essay, Farrar examines the events leading up to Tolstoy's religious conversion.]

But few men have ventured to publish to the world the full confession of their inmost lives, to lay bare to the gaze of millions the naked heart as it lies open before the eyes of God. It is right that there should have been this reluctance. Reserve and the dignity of reticence are bulwarks which God Himself has reared in our being, and no one with impunity can break them down. The sacredness of our individuality is the awful solitude into which no human foot should...

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William Dean Howells (essay date 1895)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Tolstoy," in My Literary Passions, Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1895, pp. 250-58.

[Howells was an American novelist and essayist. In the following essay, he discusses the influence of Tolstoy's religious and philosophical writings on his own works and thought.]

I come now, though not quite in the order of time, to the noblest of all these enthusiasms, namely, my devotion for the writings of Lyof Tolstoy. I should wish to speak of him with his own incomparable truth, yet I do not know how to give a notion of his influence without the effect of exaggeration. As much as one merely human being can help another I believe that he has helped me; he has not...

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Aylmer Maude (essay date 1902)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Tolstoy's Teaching," in Tolstoy and His Problems, Grant Richards, 1902, pp. 25-36.

[In the following essay, Maude provides an overview of Tolstoy's religious and philosophical works.]

From his boyhood upwards, both when he listened to the still, small voice within, and when he observed things outside himself, Tolstoy felt, though not always with equal clearness, that life has a meaning and that man has power to progress towards what is good. The intervals of doubt and hesitation through which he passed, served to clarify and shape his certainty that morality is in the nature of things. Beginning with his earliest stories, and through all his writings, the...

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William James (essay date 1902)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Sick Soul," in The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, Longmans, Green and Co., 1902, pp. 149-57.

[James was an American philosopher best known for his philosophy of pragmatism. In the following essay, he examines the emotional crisis that led to Tolstoy's revelations as recounted in his Confession.]

Tolstoy has left us, in his book called My Confession, a wonderful account of the attack of melancholy which led him to his own religious conclusions. The latter in some respects are peculiar; but the melancholy presents two characters which make it a typical document for our present purpose. First it is a well-marked case of...

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Vernon Lee (essay date 1908)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Tolstoi as Prophet," in Gospels of Anarchy and Other Contemporary Studies, T. Fisher Unwin, 1908, pp. 105-31.

[In the following essay, Lee examines the major tenets of Tolstoy's philosophy and the ways in which it exemplifies his asceticism.]

In his religious and philosophical writings, Count Tolstoi would seem to represent the prophetic temperament in such incarnation as is likely to become the commonest, indeed perhaps the only possible, one in the near future. For, in the gradual disruption of dogmatic creeds, the man born to the prophetic quality and function tends more and more to be a heretic and an anarchist; to practise an exegesis backed by no...

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Gaius Glenn Atkins (essay date 1913)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Tolstoy's Confessions," in Pilgrims of the Lonely Road, Books for Libraries Press, Inc., 1913, pp. 281-334.

[In the following essay, Atkins provides a biographical and critical analysis of Tolstoy's Confession.]

The choice of some one representative figure in whom these studies may terminate is a wholly debatable matter. We are far, far past the time when any one man is great enough to speak for his entire age. We are in the midst of a smothering spiritual confusion and may indeed doubt whether any one will ever be able to speak for long periods and vast movements as Dante spoke for the mediaeval mind, Bunyan for the Puritan, or the Imitation of Christ...

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Aylmer Maude (essay date 1927)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Root of Religion," in The Sackbut, Vol. VII, No. II, June, 1927, pp. 314-16.

[In the following essay, Maude briefly discusses the impact of Tolstoy's Confession immediately following the book's publication.]

Few books have created so much surprise when they were produced, or influenced so wide a circle the world over, as Tolstoy's Confession. The reason of this was threefold.

First, the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina frankly exposed to every one the workings of his reason and conscience and the motives actuating his life in the past and in the present. This autobiographical interest by itself...

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Thomas Mann (essay date 1928)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Tolstoy," in The Dial, Vol. 85, December, 1928, pp. 453-57.

[Mann was a German novelist and short story writer. In the following essay, he records his impressions of Tolstoy's philosophy.]

He had the stature of the nineteenth century, this giant, who bore epic burdens, under which our quick-breathing and more fragile generation would sink. How great was this period, in all its sombreness, its materialism, its scientific inflexibility and asceticism; how great was that race of writers to which Tolstoy belonged, whose creations dominate the five decades before 1900. Does any cosmic insight that we may have, or are beginning to have, does our yet timid dream of a...

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Hugh I'Anson Fausset (essay date 1947)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Testimony of Tolstoy," in Poets and Pundits: Essays and Addresses, Jonathan Cape, 1947, pp. 13-30.

[In the following essay, Fausset examines evidence of Tolstoy's philosophical convictions in his fiction.]

During the War a writer in a Sunday paper declared that 'we're all Tolstoyans now'. He was referring, of course, to the carefully expurgated Tolstoy whose novel War and Peace had been broadcast, and not to the Tolstoy who denounced the barbarity of war and preached the way of peace. But the real Tolstoy can no more be contained in the pocket of the doctrinaire pacifist than in the clever hands of the propagandist exploiting the historical...

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Philip Rahv (essay date 1949)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Tolstoy: The Green Twig and the Black Trunk," in Image and Idea: Fourteen Essays on Literary Themes, New Directions, 1949, pp. 71-85.

[In the following essay, Rahv assesses existentialism in Tolstoy's works, noting that Tolstoy was "the last of the unalienated artists. "]

The art of Tolstoy is of such irresistible simplicity and truth, is at once so intense and so transparent in all of its effects, that the need is seldom felt to analyze the means by which it becomes what it is, that is to say, its method or sum of techniques. In the bracing Tolstoyan air, the critic, however addicted to analysis, cannot help doubting his own task, sensing that there is...

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Renato Poggioli (essay date 1957)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Portrait of Tolstoy as Alceste," in The Phoenix and The Spider: A Book of Essays about Some Russian Writers and Their View of the Self, Harvard University Press, 1957, pp. 49-108.

[In the following essay, Poggioli compares Tolstoy's character and philosophical views with those of the character Alceste in Molière's play The Misanthrope.]


It is well known that George Orwell drew a parallel between Tolstoy in his old age and King Lear. He did so in a brilliant essay, where he tried to explain the motives that led the Russian writer to single out King Lear in his indiscriminate indictment of the Bard.1 According to...

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Fedor Stepun (essay date 1960)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Religious Tragedy of Tolstoy," in The Russian Review, Vol. 19, No. 2, April, 1960, pp. 157-70.

[In the following essay, Stepun discusses the effects of religious conversion on Tolstoy's personal life.]

Anyone undertaking a discussion of Tolstoy should bear in mind the words of his wife, who eight years after his death, said to one of his biographers: "For forty-eight years I lived by the side of Lev Nikolaevich and to this day do not know what sort of person he was." The enigmatic character of the great novelist, religious thinker, and social reformer may principally be explained through the bewildering number of contradictions in his nature and by his...

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G. W. Spence (essay date 1963)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Suicide and Sacrifice in Tolstoy's Ethics," in The Russian Review, Vol. 22, No. 2, April, 1963, pp. 157-67.

[In the following essay, Spence argues that at the time of his conversion, Tolstoy was caughtbetween the extremes of suicide and asceticism to resolve his existential dilemmas.]

Tolstoy's ideals of non-resistance and of complete celibacy are both derived from the same two beliefs, one of which is positive—that God exists; and the other negative—that we need to renounce the welfare of the personality.1 He himself had already renounced the welfare of his personality before he came to believe in God (he was going to kill himself), and this...

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Radoslav A. Tsanoff (essay date 1968)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Count Leo Tolstoy," in Autobiographies of Ten Religious Leaders: Alternatives in Christian Experience, Trinity University Press, 1968, pp. 201-29.

[In the following essay, Tsanoff considers Tolstoy as a significant Christian leader in twentieth-century thought.]

The conventional, the ordinary, produces slight impression on us, nor do we feel drawn towards the entirely respectable; but the unusual personality is likely to engage our attention, especially if it is in some ways negative. Men have repeatedly been stirred by those who have defied "the establishment." The sophisticated days of Athenian culture and Corinthian luxury were just right for Diogenes of...

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Ernest J. Simmons (essay date 1968)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Religious, Moral, and Didactic Writings," in Introduction to Tolstoy's Writings, The University of Chicago Press, 1968, pp. 94-117.

[In the following essay, Simmons presents an overview of Tolstoy's philosophical writings.]


When Leo Tolstoy and his three brothers were children they used to play a game which had been started by the oldest, the eleven-year-old Nicholas. He possessed a wonderful secret that would make all men happy, he told them, and he had written it on a little green stick which he had buried at a certain spot by the edge of the road in the Zakaz Forest near their house at Yasnaya Polyana. By performing special tasks,...

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David Matual (essay date 1975)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "On the Poetics of Tolstoj's Confession," in Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 19, No. 3, Fall, 1975, pp. 276-87.

[In the following essay, Matual discusses the structure and form of the Confession in terms of classical poetics.]

In its final form the Confession was intended as an introduction to Tolstoj's polemical treatise on Orthodox dogmatic theology (Issledovanie dogmati eskogo bogoslovija (1879-80). These two works together with his translation of the gospels (Soedinenie i perevod etyrex evangelij) and the systematic exposition of his new faith (V em moja vera?) represented his major statements on the...

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Walter Kaufmann (essay date 1976)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Tolstoy Versus Dostoevsky," in Existentialism, Religion, and Death: Thirteen Essays, New American Library, 1976, pp. 15-27.

[In the following essay, Kaufmann contrasts the political and philosophical views of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.]


It is customary to think of Tolstoy as a very great novelist who wrote War and Peace and Anna Karenina, but who then became immersed in religion and wrote tracts. His later concerns are generally deplored, and many readers and writers wish that instead he might have written another novel of the caliber of his masterpieces. A very few of his later works are excepted: chief among these is...

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T. G. S. Cain (essay date 1977)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Religious Crisis: A Confession," in Tolstoy, Paul Elek Ltd., 1977, pp. 124-36.

[In the following essay, Cain contends that a biographical reading of Tolstoy's Confession is key to understanding him as a historical figure.]

During the years in which he was working on the later books of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy entered on what was to prove the most profound, the most sustained and the most agonising spiritual crisis of his life. The questions which tormented him were not new: they were the problems of how and why he should live which had troubled him throughout his adult life, and which directly or indirectly had entered into everything he...

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Maurice Larkin (essay date 1977)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Experience versus the Intellect: Tolstoy," in Man and Society in Nineteenth-Century Realism: Determinism and Literature, Rowman and Littlefield, 1977, pp. 111-20.

[In the following essay, Larkin examines how Tolstoy's beliefs influenced his use of literary realism.]


Tolstoy sits uneasily in any assemblage of Realists. He despised much of the mainstream of western intellectual thought, and his recipe for living was directly at odds with it. But for all that, he lived in a milieu that was influenced by western determinism; and the problems it raised are a recurring feature of his books.


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David Patterson (essay date 1978)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Movement of Faith as Revealed in Tolstoi's Confession," in Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 74, Nos. 3-4, July-October, 1978, pp. 227-43.

[In the following essay, Patterson presents an analysis of the steps through which Tolstoy moved in his religious conversion, as outlined in his Confession.]

Tolstoi's Confession is the story of the spiritual crisis which its author experienced during the late 1870s, when the man who had written War and Peace and Anna Karenina came to believe that he had accomplished nothing in life, that his life was meaningless. Although there are parallels between the torments of Levin in Anna...

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David Matual (essay date 1981)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Confession as Subtext in The Death of Ivan Wich," in The International Fiction Review, Vol. 8, No. 2, Summer, 1981, pp. 124-28.

[In the following essay, Matual argues that the experiences of Ivan Ilitch in The Death of Ivan Ilitch are a fictional parallel to Tolstoy's spiritual crisis in his Confession.]

In the late 1870's, Leo Tolstoy experienced a dramatic spiritual transformation as a result of which he devoted himself almost exclusively to the writing of such religious treatises as The Confession, An Investigation of Dogmatic Theology, and A Union and Translation of the Four Gospels. Although his faith and the works that...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Egan, David R., and Melinda A. Egan. Leo Tolstoy: An Annotated Bibliography of English-Language Sources to 1978. Metuchen, N.J. and London: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1979, 267 p.

Contains a section devoted to secondary sources on Tolstoy's religious and philosophical writings.


Christian, R. F. "'Confession' and 'Resurrection'," in Tolstoy: A Critical Introduction, pp. 212-29. Cambridge: Cambridge at the University Press, 1969.

Contends that Tolstoy's religious conversion occurred gradually over many years and is evident in works as early as his Childhood.


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