Leo Tolstoy

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What is the main idea of Childhood and The Cossacks by Leo Tolstoy and their similarities?

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On first sight, one wouldn't think of these two works, within Tolstoy's oeuvre as a whole, as necessarily having much in common or having many points of comparison we can discuss. Childhood is told from a six-year-old's point of view and is about the primal memories that establish the foundation of one's life. When the boy's mother dies, as he tells us, his childhood is over. The Cossacks is chiefly a story of culture clash between not only the Great Russians and Cossacks but among both groups and the indigenous Muslim people of the North Caucasus whom they are fighting. The tone, setting and themes are quite different from those of Childhood. But there is a similarity of a kind between the boy Nicolinka's perception of the people surrounding him and Olenin's view of others in The Cossacks.

In both cases, the central figure is an outsider trying to make sense of his surroundings—of people who seem to embody a totally separate world from him. In Childhood, Nicolinka is awed and even mystified by the adult world. Among the adult characters, we see not only his parents but the tutor Karl Ivanich, the old servant Nicola (whom the children call Uncle), the severe teacher Mimi, the servant girl Natalia (who at one point dares to address the boy with the familiar second-person pronoun, causing an outburst of anger from him), and perhaps most important of all, the old holy man Grisha who is first described as the "Idiot"—a recurring character type in Russian literature. Even the family's dogs seem part of this awesome outer world to the young boy.

The adults represent both the authority and the unapproachable nature of the grown-up realm, of the whole system that a small boy is trying to comprehend. He wants to be a part of that world, but as yet (unsurprisingly for a six-year-old) he isn't ready. With his mother's death comes a turning point and an entry—if not into the world of adulthood—into a middle state beyond the first phase of life.

In The Cossacks, Olenin is an outsider too, trying to understand the Cossack culture and wishing in his way to become a part of it. His love for the girl Maryanka is what spurs this, though Olenin is apparently a typical upper-class Russian, jaded by his previous affairs with women (like Tolstoy himself in his youth). To say that the Cossack culture here is analogous to the adult world in Childhood is partly true, but it's simultaneously an opposite to that world. In Tolstoy's depiction the Cossacks have both a maturity and a childlike quality lacking in a man of sophistication such as Olenin. The turning-point occurs when Maryanka decisively tells him there can be nothing between them; all that matters to her is her own culture and the fact that in battle "Cossacks have been killed."

The ultimate message here, and elsewhere in Tolstoy's writings, is that one culture has no right to impose its values on another. The Cossacks are independent and will always be so. In Childhood, Nicolinka's position is that of an outsider to the adult culture, but with the grief experienced in this story's turning-point, his mother's death, he begins to be a participant in that world.

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