Resurrection is characteristic of Leo Tolstoy, one of Russia’s foremost novelists, because of its rich visual record of people and settings and its deftness in presenting the vices of petty officialdom, the humor of small people who want to seem great, and the hollowness of ritualistic orthodoxy. Tolstoy was convinced that evil begins when people cease to listen to their conscience and become self-centered. The public theme of the novel revolves around the shortcomings of social organizations. The personal theme, which involves the need for forgiveness, takes a form characteristic of Tolstoy: human failure revealed by a sin committed in semi-ignorance, followed by a long and soul-strengthening atonement.
The greatest strength of Resurrection is in its penetrating exposure of an unjust social order. A secondary focus is on the personal level in the effect of Nekhludoff’s philosophical and political conversion, specifically in his relationship with Katusha, without whom Nekhludoff’s reawakening and self-sacrifice could not have occurred.
In his student days, Nekhludoff’s social convictions were idealistic. He believed in perfectibility and rejected the principle of ownership of land by the elite. His idealism dimmed, however, after he entered military life, and he quickly abandoned all thoughts of perfection. He sacrificed both his relationship with Katusha and his own values to establish a public image that mirrored the standards of the aristocracy. It was not until his conscience was aroused at Katusha’s trial ten years later that he questioned his life and, upon Katusha’s conviction, dedicated himself to her rescue and to his spiritual atonement.
Nekhludoff thus came to view human nature as dualistic—animal and spiritual—and he struggled to negate the animal instincts that had led him to sin. He realized that he could deceive others, but not himself. Guided by an inner sense of righteousness, he set about to correct the wrong he had caused.
When Nekhludoff entered the world of prisoners and peasants, he began to realize the extent of the injustice of society. Among those who flocked to Nekhludoff for help were innocent people who had been incarcerated by error, political prisoners whose only crime was in holding differing opinions, and a crew of stonemasons imprisoned because of outdated visas.
Nekhludoff soon realized that social circumstance created criminals rather than the obverse: He rejected the concept of natural depravity based on individual or class characteristics. He further understood that the conditions that created powerlessness, poverty, hunger, sickness, and crime among the peasant classes were supported by the powerful to maintain the wealth of the privileged. Both government and science professed a desire to ameliorate these conditions but actually refused to consider the root of the problem. The only means of righting the situation, he found, was by returning the land to the people who worked it. Yet when Nekhludoff gave his land to the peasants, his wealthy friends and family grew concerned about his mental health, and the peasants eyed his offer with hostile suspicion.
Nekhludoff’s exploration of the causes of injustice led him to ask the haunting question of whether truth is at work in the process of law. It was obvious to him that the law did not contain truth by decree or by the process of the courts, although such a notion was popularly accepted. The fact was, Nekhludoff concluded, that the purpose of the law was to uphold class interests and that those who carried out the law and those to whom the law catered were equally criminal with those upon whom the judgment of the law fell. The basic fallacy of the legal system was the belief that people have the power to judge...
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one another. Evildoers cannot judge evildoers, Nekhludoff contended. The processes of judgment and punishment were not only harmful, cruel, and immoral but also ineffective. Justice, he decided, was not served by social systems. That society and order exist at all, despite the acts of both lawful and lawless criminals, is simply because people still pity and love one another.
In the course of the novel, Nekhludoff’s resurrection is paralleled by Katusha’s spiritual reawakening. At her first reunion with Nekhludoff after her conviction, she repressed her memories of youth and the pain of Nekhludoff’s betrayal to the point of oblivion, for she had hardened herself to the necessities of survival as a prostitute. Nekhludoff realized that his sin against her was even greater than he had known, that Katusha had died and that another person called Maslova had taken her place. Although Nekhludoff assumed responsibility not only for Katusha’s freedom but also for her spiritual renewal, his influence was only one of the factors that went into the emergence of the new Katusha. Katusha realized that Nekhludoff was again using her, but as he persisted in following her, old feelings for him reawakened. Ultimately, she sacrificed her love to save him from degradation, thus shouldering Nekhludoff’s burden for the third time. First she had suffered from his betrayal and from having his illegitimate child, then in allowing him to sacrifice himself for her, and finally in denying her love for him, by which means she released him from his pledge to marry her. Clearly, the novel’s primary concern is Nekhludoff’s resurrection.
The process of Nekhludoff’s social reversal and spiritual regeneration is least convincing in his personal relationships. He shifts from victimizing Katusha to rescuing her, first taking advantage of her for his physical gratification and then using her to achieve his spiritual atonement. He remains the overlord whose decision precludes dialogue. He professes to see himself, like Jesus, not as the master but as the servant, but he is indeed a masterful servant. He imposes on Katusha the heavy burden of his self-sacrifice—his offer to marry her—without speaking a word of care or love. Nekhludoff’s primary concern, it seems, is for the gratification resulting from humbling himself. Nekhludoff proclaims that he is dedicated to following God’s will in his own conscience as far as he is able to do so and that in fulfilling such a commitment he will find peace and security.
The final, or perhaps first, genuine step in Nekhludoff’s resurrection is the revelation of the truth in the gospel of Christianity. Accordingly, Nekhludoff recognizes that human beings’ only duty is to fulfill these laws, but that they must do so without the guidance of the state church, which Nekhludoff judges to be as corrupt as the other institutions in society. Priests, for example, swear in witnesses at court proceedings with an air of self-importance but do not question whether justice is done. Ironically, prisoners corralled into prison chapels chant prayers for the powers that oppress them. Cynical, heretical priests lead their people farther into the darkness of superstition by telling them that “it is good for them.” Nekhludoff’s disgust for such hypocritical religion is as great as his disdain for his former life and all it represented, but it is his personal religious stance that propels him into a deep and revolutionary understanding of society and justice—an understanding that reflected Tolstoy’s beliefs.