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Themes

Misery is real, and the gap between the haves and the have-nots is profound: As Prince Nekhludoff follows Katusha into prison, he looks unflinchingly—and forces the reader to do so—at the evil and injustice the lowest in society suffer. In the prison, women are raped, people cannibalize each other, and a child is forced to sleep in feces because there is nowhere else to lie down. It is easy, Tolstoy says, for the comfortable and well-off to look away from these situations and pretend they don't exist, but they are real—and, in a humane society, would be addressed.

Evil is systemic: Katusha has fifteen years added to her sentence due to a clerical mistake—but it would upset the system to remedy this. The smooth functioning of the bureaucracy is more important than individual needs or the quest for justice. Nekhludoff, watching the cruel way the prisoners are marched to Siberia, with indifference to their individual needs, learns "that there is a kind of business, called government service, which allows men to treat other men as things, without human brotherly relations with them." He says that because the system allows it, people, in their institutional roles as police or prison wardens or in other positions of authority, treat other people in a way they never would in ordinary life. The institutionalized church is also complicit in being hardened to real human need.

Love is the answer: Tolstoy over and over makes the point that unless we feel and show brotherly love towards our fellow human beings, society cannot heal and change. We have to perceive each other as fully human. Only then can we begin to address systemic injustice.