Leo Tolstoy

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Leo Tolstoy is most famous as the author of two superb novels, Voyna i mir (1865-1869; War and Peace, 1886) and Anna Karenina (1875-1878; English translation, 1886). He wrote one other full-length novel, Voskreseniye (1899; Resurrection, 1899), and a number of novellas, such as Destvo (1852; Childhood, 1862), Otrochestvo (1854; Boyhood, 1886), Yunost’ (1857; Youth, 1886), Kazaki (1863; The Cossacks, 1872), and Khadzi-Murat (1911; Hadji Murad, 1911). His fiction tends to overshadow his achievement as a dramatist; his plays include Vlast tmy (1887; The Power of Darkness, 1888) and Plody prosveshcheniya (1889; The Fruits of Enlightenment, 1891).


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Leo Tolstoy is one of the undisputed titans of fiction, recognized by friend and foe alike as a great artist and man. He is Homeric in the epic sweep of War and Peace and Anna Karenina; in his stress on the primacy of human beings’ senses and physical acts; in the clarity, freshness, and gusto with which he presents his world; in his celebration of nature’s processes, from brute matter to the stars; in his union of an omniscient perspective with a detached vision. Unlike Homer, however, he often shows war as wanton carnage resulting from the vainglory and stupidity of a nation’s leaders.

While most critical evaluations of Tolstoy’s writings are highly laudatory, he has been reproached by some interpreters for his disparagement of science, technology, and formal education, his hostility to aesthetics and the life of the mind, and most of all for his insistence, in his later works, on dictating programs of moral and religious belief to his readers. As a writer, his greatest achievement is to convey an insight into the living moment that renders with unequaled verisimilitude the course of human passions and the pattern of ordinary actions, enabling him to present a comprehensive, coherent, and usually convincing sense of life. His influence, while not as pervasive as that of his rival Fyodor Dostoevski, is evident in the works of Maxim Gorky, D. H. Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Ignazio Silone, Isaac Babel, Mikhail Sholokhov, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Boris Pasternak when he composed his novel, Doktor Zhivago (1957; Doctor Zhivago, 1958).

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The works of Leo Tolstoy (TAWL-stoy), like those of many Russian writers, cannot be divided neatly into long fiction and short fiction. Tolstoy wrote only three full-length novels: War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and Resurrection. Family Happiness, The Cossacks, The Kreutzer Sonata, Hadji Murad, and the trilogy comprising Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth could be termed novellas or short novels; the distinction between the two is often not well defined, but most readers would classify The Cossacks—the longest of this group—as a short novel. More problematic are the works that exceed the length of the traditional short story (as defined by English-language criticism) but not by a large margin. One such work is The Death of Ivan Ilyich, which may be regarded either as a novella (although it is about half the length of Hadji Murad, for example) or as a long short story. In turn, such well-known stories as “Khozyain i rabotnik” (“Master and Man”), “Dyavol” (“The Devil”), and “Otets Sergy” (“Father Sergius”) are only slightly shorter than The Death of Ivan Ilyich.

The point of the foregoing is not to split terminological hairs but rather to emphasize the fact that the term “story,” often loosely applied to Tolstoy’s fiction, can be misleading. Tolstoy wrote relatively few “short stories” in the classic sense of the term; among those, some of the best known are “Nabeg” (“The Raid”), “Mnogo li cheloveku zemli nuzhno?” (“How Much Land Does a Man Require?”), and the stories collected in Sevastopolskiye rasskazy (1855-1856; Sebastopol , 1887)....

(This entire section contains 415 words.)

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Finally, Tolstoy published a number of very short, moralistic tales, largely inspired by the religious reorientation that he experienced in the 1870’s.

In addition to his fiction, Leo Tolstoy published a substantial body of nonfiction, particularly after his “conversion” to a new—and, in Orthodox terms, heretical—type of Christianity based on his idiosyncratic interpretation of the Gospels. In Ispoved’ (1884; A Confession, 1885), he undertook a penetrating and negative self-evaluation, continued in V chom moya vera (1884; What I Believe, 1885), while detailing the tenets of this newfound faith. He began to dissect all around him, and specifically the world of art, which led to his two most famous literary essays: Chto takoye iskusstvo? (1898; What Is Art?, 1898) and O Shekspire i o drame (1906; Shakespeare and the Drama, 1906), in which Tolstoy attacked the world of Western art. Tolstoy is also the author of a voluminous correspondence stretching from his early adolescence to his death. His collected works appeared in Russia over a thirty-year period (1928-1958), in ninety volumes.


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Leo Tolstoy’s literary career spanned sixty years of the most productive period in Russian literary history. Tolstoy was a “realist,” in the sense that he focused chiefly on the outward physical aspects of human life. He was a master of the psychophysical—that is, the depiction of the inner selves of his characters through carefully honed descriptions of their physical beings. From the first words of his diary to the very last, he perfected a style extraordinary for its logical precision and prosaic, unpoetic tone. His was a world of gray tones and pale colors rather than the black and white of his equally famous contemporary Fyodor Dostoevski. Tolstoy’s fiction oscillates between the poles of memoir and invention, war and peace, moralism and neutrality. He is never lighthearted. His moralism, moreover, has frequently been misunderstood. He did not—as his great contemporary Ivan Turgenev thought—abandon fiction for moralism and moralistic essays. Rather, after 1880, he simply changed the emphasis in his fiction. He remained throughout his life a great artistic creator.

Tolstoy’s influence has been enormous: By destroying Romanticconventions, he depoeticized the literary universe and gave it a sharpness, even a coarseness, that it theretofore had not known. One sees Tolstoy’s influence in the stories of his contemporaries Nikolai Leskov and the great Anton Chekhov, and even in lesser figures such as Maxim Gorky. Tolstoy’s impact, however, has been worldwide—in theThomas Mann of Buddenbrooks: Verfall einer Familie (1901; English translation, 1924), in Marcel Proust, in James Joyce, in the ugliness of Stephen Crane’s war, in the Saul Bellow of The Adventures of Augie March (1953), in the architectonic fiction of Mario Vargas Llosa. More than 180 years after his birth, Tolstoy remains a vital force in world literature.

Discussion Topics

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Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace reflects one of the author’s views of appropriate subject matter for a novel, Anna Karenina another. Both were successful. Can there be such a thing as “inappropriate” subject matter?

Would Tolstoy’s What Is Art? be taken seriously if it had not been written by a man of his accomplishments?

Do the spiritual dimensions of Tolstoy’s fiction reflect positively or negatively on the practices of the Russian Orthodox Church?

Pierre Bezukhov leads a blundering, haphazard life, but he prevails. What are the secrets of his endurance?

Is the fact that the last section of War and Peace, “Part Two,” is primarily a long essay evidence that Tolstoy concluded that the novel itself did not accomplish what he had intended?

Does Tolstoy succeed in presenting Anna Karenina as pitiful rather than guilty?

Is Levin in Anna Karenina a viewpoint character for Tolstoy?


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Bayley, John. Leo Tolstoy. Plymouth, England: Northcote House, 1997. Criticism and interpretation of Tolstoy’s work.

Bayley, John. Tolstoy and the Novel. London: Chatto and Windus, 1966. Influenced by Henry James’s organic conception of the novel, Bayley concentrates on trenchant analyses of War and Peace and Anna Karenina. He also perceptively examines Family Happiness, The Kreutzer Sonata, and The Devil.

Bayley, John, ed. Introduction to The Portable Tolstoy. New York: Viking, 1978. Bayley has written a discerning introduction as well as compiled a comprehensive chronology and select bibliography. This anthology omits the long novels but does excerpt Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth. The fiction choices are fine. Also included are A Confession and The Power of Darkness.

Benson, Ruth Crego. Women in Tolstoy: The Ideal and the Erotic. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973. Concentrates on Leo Tolstoy’s changing vision of the role and importance of family life. Suggests that Tolstoy struggled most of his life with a dichotomous view of women, regarding them in strictly black-and-white terms, as saints or sinners. Analyzes the female characters in the major and several minor works in terms of such a double view. An interesting and provocative piece of feminist criticism.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Leo Tolstoy. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. A collection of critical essays. The views expressed give a good sampling of the wide range of opinions about Tolstoy prevalent among Western critics. Many of these critics assign a prominent place in literary history to Tolstoy, comparing him to, among others, Homer and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Includes bibliography.

Christian, R. F. Tolstoy: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1969. Christian is a leading Tolstoyan who is knowledgeable about his subject’s sources and influences, writes clearly, and provides particularly helpful interpretations of Family Happiness and The Kreutzer Sonata.

Gustafson, Richard F. Leo Tolstoy, Resident and Stranger: A Study in Fiction and Theology. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1986. Gustafson seeks to rescue Tolstoy from those who would classify him solely as a realist. By focusing on what he sees as the inherently and uniquely Russian attributes of Tolstoy’s writing, Gustafson reunites the preconversion artist and the postconversion religious thinker and prophet. The study’s bibliography is divided between books devoted to Tolstoy and those focusing on Eastern Christian thought.

Jahn, Gary R. The Death of Ivan Ilich: An Interpretation. New York: Twayne, 1993. After providing a summary and critique of previous criticism on Tolstoy’s most famous story, Jahn examines the context of the story within other works by Tolstoy to argue that the story is an affirmation of life rather than a document of despair.

Orwin, Donna Tussig. Tolstoy’s Art and Thought, 1847-1880. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993. Divided into three parts, which coincide with the first three decades of Tolstoy’s literary career, Orwin’s study attempts to trace the origins and growth of the Russian master’s ideas. After focusing on Tolstoy’s initial creative vision, Orwin goes on to analyze, in depth, his principal works.

Rowe, William W. Leo Tolstoy. Boston: Twayne, 1986. Concise introduction to Tolstoy’s life and work, with special emphasis on the major novels and later didactic writings. Discusses, briefly, most of Tolstoy’s major concerns. Excellent treatment of individual characters in the major novels. Includes bibliography.

Seifrid, Thomas. “Gazing on Life’s Page: Perspectival Vision in Tolstoy.” PMLA 113 (May, 1998): 436-448. Suggests that the typical visual situation in Tolstoy’s fiction is perspectival; argues that Tolstoy’s impulse can be linked with the material nature of books and that this linkage has implications for Russian culture as well as for the relation between the verbal and the visual in general.

Simmons, Ernest T. Introduction to Tolstoy’s Writings. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968. Simmons is the dean of Russian literature studies in the United States and has also written a two-volume biography of Tolstoy. This book is compact, well organized, comprehensive, and reliable. Its style, unfortunately, is pedestrian.

Smoluchowski, Louise. Lev and Sonya: The Story of the Tolstoy Marriage. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1987. With the publication of Sonya Tolstoy’s diaries it became apparent that in order to understand Tolstoy, it is necessary to understand his marriage to the extraordinary Sonya. Smoluchowski does a good job of retelling the story, relying mainly on the words of the principals themselves.

Steiner, George. Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: An Essay in the Old Criticism. 2d ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996. This welcome reappearance of a classic study of the epic versus the dramatic, first published in 1959, carries only a new preface. In it, however, Steiner makes a compelling case for the reprinting, in the age of deconstructionism, of this wide-ranging study not just of individual texts, but of contrasting worldviews.

Tolstaia, Sophia Andreevna. The Diaries of Sophia Tolstoy. Translated by Cathy Porter, edited by O. A. Golinenko et al. New York: Random House, 1985. This massive personal record of Tolstoy’s wife, detailing their life together, spans the years 1862-1910. Sophia Tolstoy kept an almost daily account of her husband’s opinions, doubts, and plans concerning his literary activity and social ventures as well as of his relationship with other writers and thinkers. Her notes give a fascinating and intimate view of the Tolstoy family and of the extent to which it served as background for many of the literary episodes. Illustrated.

Tolstoy, Alexandra. Tolstoy: A Life of My Father. 1953. Reprint. New York: Octagon Books, 1973. Many of Tolstoy’s offspring, relations, and peers wrote about him. This is a good place to begin for those who wish to understand why Tolstoy inspired such reverence in those around him.

Wasiolek, Edward. Tolstoy’s Major Fiction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978. Having written a superb study of Fyodor Dostoevski’s fiction, Wasiolek has composed an equally first-rate critique of Tolstoy’s. He concentrates on thorough analyses of ten Tolstoyan works, including Family Happiness, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, and “Master and Man.” His is a close and acute reading, influenced by Russian Formalists and by Roland Barthes. A twenty-page chronicle of Tolstoy’s life and work is illuminating.

Wilson, A. N. Tolstoy. New York: W. W. Norton, 1988. A long but immensely readable biography, breezy, insightful, and opinionated, by a highly regarded British novelist. Illustrated; includes a useful chronology of Tolstoy’s life and times as well as notes, bibliography, and index.


Critical Essays