[Reprinted here from Handbook of Russian Literature, Victor Terras, ed. (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 1985):476-80.]
Tolstoi, Lev Nikolaevich (1828-1910),
writer, was born 9 September 1828 at Yasnaya Polyana, his family's estate, 200 km south of
Moscow. He was the fourth of five children born to Count Nikolai Ilyich
Tolstoi (died 1837) and Mariya
Nikolaevna, née Princess Volkonskaya (died 1830).
In 1847 Tolstoi received Yasnaya
Polyana in the distribution of his parents' property. Thereafter, although
occasionally absent (especially in the 1850s)
for extended periods, he maintained the estate as his home. In 1862 he married Sofiya Andreevna Bers (born 1844), the daughter of a Moscow physician. Thirteen children were
born of the marriage, ten of whom survived infancy. Tolstoi left Yasnaya
Polyana for the last time in November 1910.
He contracted pneumonia on his journey and died of heart failure on 20
November, aged 82, in the stationmaster's house at Astapovo (today called "Lev
Educated and cared for by tutors,
Tolstoi's early childhood was typical for his social class. He showed a gift
for languages and a fondness for literature, including fairy tales, the poems
of Pushkin, and the Bible, especially the Old Testament story of Joseph. After
their father's death the children passed through the hands of a number of
female relatives, finally (1841) being
sent to five with an aunt in the provincial city of Kazan. In 1844
Tolstoi enrolled in the local university and began a notably unsuccessful
career as a student. He did, however, develop a keen interest in moral
philosophy. He steeped himself in the writings of Rousseau. He later listed
Dickens, Schiller, Pushkin, Lermontov, D. V. Grigorovich, Turgenev's A
Sportsman's Sketches, and Laurence Sterne, especially A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy, as also having made a "great impression" on him as a
He left the University in 1847 without a degree and settled at Yasnaya Polyana. In 1851 he went to the Caucasus to join his brother Nikolai who was serving there in the army. He became a commissioned officer himself in 1854, serving first on the Danube and later in the Crimea. While in the army he began his literary career. His first published work, Childhood, appeared pseudonymously in The Contemporary (Russ. Sovremennik) in 1852 and was greeted by general acclaim. It was followed by a sequel, Boyhood, and a number of tales of military life. When, in 1856, Tolstoi retired from the army and went
 to live in St. Petersburg,
his reputation as a writer was already very considerable. He took an active
part in literary circles and made the acquaintance of the leading writers and
critics of the day. He was much in demand in the fashionable salons of the
city. Stories of various types flowed from his pen.
He soon discovered, however, that
he got on badly with his fellow writers and disliked his life as a literary
celebrity. In 1857 he made his first trip abroad, and by 1859 he had decided
to abandon literature in favor of more "useful" pursuits. He
returned to Yasnaya Polyana to devote himself to the management of his estate
and to the education of the children of his serfs. Thus began Tolstoi's first
pedagogical interlude. He established a school at Yasnaya Polyana, and, in
1860 and 1861, he traveled extensively in order to acquaint himself with
European, especially German, educational theory and practice. He resumed
teaching on his return, but in 1862 he handed the bulk of the classroom duties
over to others. He took upon himself the writing and publication of a
periodical describing his theory of education and the pedagogical practice of
his school. Twelve issues of Yasnaya Polyana appeared in 1862 and 1863.
Tolstoi formulated his ideas most strikingly in "Who Should Learn to
Write from Whom, the Peasant Children from Us or We from the Peasant
Children?" ("Komu u kogo uchit'sya pisat', krest'yanskim rebyatam u
nas, ill nam u krest'yanskikh rebyat?").
After his marriage Tolstoi became
increasingly preoccupied with estate management, bent on achieving the ideal
of the well-regulated life of a prosperous country squire. He published The
Cossacks, a novel on which he had been working at intervals for ten years, in
order to pay his outstanding gambling debts and enable him to enter into
married life with balanced account books. Shortly thereafter he began his
first long novel, War and Peace, a work of colossal proportions which occupied
him until 1869.
In 1870 Tolstoi once again turned
his back on literature and began a second period of preoccupation with
pedagogical work. Over the next five years he wrote and compiled materials for
a complete course of elementary education. He tested them in his school and
revised them. The final versions were published in 1875 as The New Primer
(Novaya azbuka) and The Russian
(Russkie knigi diya chteniya). Tolstoi's materials eventually met
with fairly general acceptance and were widely used in the nation's schools.
In 1873 Tolstoi's thoughts turned
once again to literature, and in the course of the next four years he 'wrote
his second long novel, Anna Karenina. His work on the later parts of the novel
was disturbed by ever more frequent fits of emotional distress. This condition
was brought on by his inability to find an acceptable answer to the question:
"What meaning can a person's life have which would not be annihilated by
the awful inevitability of death?" Tolstoi became more and more convinced
that the bitter truth was that life is meaningless, that there is no escape
from the power of death. By the mid-1870s Tolstoi was occasionally so
depressed that he entertained thoughts of suicide. By 1878, however, his
"crisis" had culminated in what is customarily referred to as a
"conversion" to the ideals of human life and conduct which he found
in the teaching of Jesus.
Tolstoi described the period of
crisis and conversion in his Confession (Ispoved', 1882). The censor forbade
its publication, a fate shared by many of Tolstoi's subsequent writings.
Tolstoi regarded Confession as his first step along a new road in life, one
which he hoped was secure from the lurking menace of the power of death. To
Tolstoi the crisis and conversion meant a break with his past, especially his
literary past. The convention of dividing his career into two parts (using
1878 as the year of demarcation) has a definite basis in the facts of his
life, at least as these were understood by Tolstoi himself. It should not be
forgotten, however, that most of the preoccupations, themes, purposes, and
style of the "old" Tolstoi are present with greater or lesser
clarity already in the work of the "young" Tolstoi.
Confession was, more specifically,
the introduction to a group of three books on religion, written in the years
1880 to 1883 and thereafter considered by Tolstoi to be his most important
work. The first volume, A Study of Dogmatic Theology
(Issledovanie dogmaticheskogo bogosloviya), is a sustained polemic
against the teachings of the established church. The second, A Harmony and
Translation of the Four Gospels (Soedinenie i perevod chetyrekh
evangelii), was Tolstoi's greatest religious labor. This heavily annotated
exegesis demonstrates both his
thorough acquaintance with the French, German, English, and Russian biblical
scholarship of the 19th century and his fluent command of New Testament Greek.
Tie last part of the religious trilogy is What
I Believe (V chem moya vera), a reasoned statement of Tolstoi's
version of the Christian teaching.
Tolstoi devoted the remainder of
his life to the propagation of his religious views in publicistic essays,
works of fiction, and in personal contacts with visitors and through
correspondence. He dealt with a variety of subjects in his essays. On Life (O zhizni, 1886-87) offers the most extended
discussion of that dualism of body (the "animal life of man") and
spirit (the "true life") which is the philosophical heart of his
teaching. What Then Should We Do? (Tak
chto zhe nam delat'?, 1886) begins with a gruesomely realistic portrait of
the poverty of the Moscow slums, which Tolstoi had observed firsthand while
helping conduct the Moscow census of 1882. He advocates the abolition of the
use of money in favor of the direct exchange of services and the
disestablishment of private property rights. He condemns philanthropy as a
symptom of "the willingness of the rich to do everything for the poor
except to get off their backs." The
Kingdom of God Is Within You (Tsarstvo Bozhie vnutri vas, 1893)
takes up two favorite themes: non-resistance to evil and anarchism. This work
was among the several written by Tolstoi which had a profound influence on
Mohandas Gandhi. In What Is Art? (Chto takoe iskusstvo?, 1898) Tolstoi gives a
detailed account of his aesthetic thought. He also wrote many briefer essays
on such subjects as the nature of religion, vegetarianism, famine relief (in
which he took an active part in the early 1890s), and on the evils of alcohol
and tobacco, patriotism, military conscription, war, terrorism (as practiced
both by terrorists and by governments), and capital punishment.
Tolstoi resumed literary activity
in the mid-1880s with a series of stories written for the popular audience
(i.e., for the common people, especially the peasants). To facilitate the
publication and distribution of the "Stories for the People" he and
his friend and disciple V. G. Chertkov founded (1884) a non‑profit
publishing house which they called The Intermediary (Posrednik). Tolstoi also developed an interest in the drama and wrote his
only major play, The Power of Darkness. The
leading examples of Tolstoi's fiction written for the educated audience also
reflect his religious teachings. These include the short novels The Death
of Ivan llyich, The Kreutzer Sonata, and Master
and Man. He also wrote two more novels, Resurrection
and more than a dozen short stories.
The last ten years of Tolstoi's
life were marred by intermittent ill health. He devoted such strength as
remained to him chiefly to the compilation of vast compendia of morally and
spiritually elevating extracts from the writings of sages of various epochs
and cultures. These miscellanies reflect both Tolstoi's wide reading in the
world's wisdom literature and his lack of temerity in bending or adjusting the
words of others to suit his own purposes. The largest of these compilations
are The Cycle of Reading (Krug
chteniya, 1904-08), For Every Day (Na
kazhdyi den', 1907-10), and The Way
of Life (Put' zhizni, 1910). Although not expressly so described by
Tolstoi, the miscellanies represent his version of the "perennial
philosophy," the concept of which had been central to his view of
religion from the early 1880s and even before.
Tolstoi was the best-known Russian
in the world during the last decade of his life. Tolstoian communities sprang
up throughout Europe and in the United States. He was described in the
newspapers as "the sage of Yasnaya Polyana" and "the conscience
of humanity." His vast correspondence touched hundreds of people at a
distance and many more came to visit him each year. He was a constant irritant
to the authorities. His associates suffered exile and other manifestations of
the government's displeasure, and he was himself excommunicated from the
Orthodox Church in 1901. Most of the works written after 1880 were either
banned outright or mutilated by the censor. His public stature in Russia and
abroad, however, was such that his person, even in times of vigorous
repression, remained inviolable. At home he was the center of a distasteful
competition between his disciples, led by Chertkov, and his family, mainly his
wife. Sofiya Andreevna made frequent and covert nocturnal searches of his
private papers. It was the experience of lying sleepless in his darkened
bedroom listening to his wife rustling through his papers in his study next
door that finally prompted him
 to leave Yasnaya Polyana for
good and embark on the journey which ended in his death.
Tolstoi was a multi-dimensional
man. In his long career he had been a teacher and educational theorist, a
philosopher and social critic, a successful farmer and paterfamilias, a
soldier, and a prophet. Above all, however, he was a great artist, and it is
on his fiction that his fame at present rests. The literary career of this
"great writer of the Russian land" (as his contemporary Turgenev
called him) may be divided into three parts: the early period of literary
apprenticeship (1851-63), the period of the great novels (1863-77), and the
later period of preoccupation with the message of his religious teaching
The works of the early period may
be regarded as the "school" in which Tolstoi taught himself to
write. He isolated the themes and developed the literary techniques which
characterize his more mature writings. The spirit of trial and error is
reflected in the journal which he began in 1847 and continued to keep, with
greater or lesser regularity, throughout the remainder of his life. The
journals, especially those of the 1850s, are one of the richest sources for
the study of the development of Tolstoi's literary style, so much so that
their reliability as sources of biographical detail has always to be assessed
in the light of the fact that they are also (according to some views,
primarily) the record of his literary experiments.
Tolstoi's first substantial
literary endeavor, "The History of Yesterday" ("Istoriya
vcherashnego dnya") reflects the psychological self-analysis
characteristic of the journals. Written in 1851, it was not submitted for
publication, perhaps because its young author feared that its originality
would occasion public rejection. The story is an account of the sequence of
thoughts and feelings which pass through the mind of the protagonist in the
course of a single day. Tolstoi's fascination with the operation of the psyche
found a more conventional outlet in Childhood
(Detstvo, 1852), where it is cloaked in the format, familiar to
contemporary readers, of childhood reminiscences. Childhood
and its sequels, Boyhood (Otrochestvo,
1854) and Youth (Yunost',
1857), were conceived as parts of a tetralogy to be called The Four Ages of Development (the fourth volume was never written).
The spontaneous impressions of the child as child alternate with the analysis
of those impressions by the child grown up. The result is a combination of the
lyrical representation of the memories of childhood (typical of the genre) and
a detached, quasi-scientific investigation of the operations and growth of the
conscious mind at various stages of its development.
The Trilogy (as the three novels
are collectively called) abounds with autobiographical material, a feature
characteristic also of Tolstoi's later works. Another noteworthy element is
the unconcealed presence of the author's voice (the author as narrator), i
strategy which Tolstoi seems to have adopted on the basis of his fascination
with the work of Sterne. Boyhood and
Youth continue the account of the
child-hero's development through his late teens. In the former he discovers
philosophy, and considerable attention is given to the phenomenon of the
paralysis of the will when it seeks to be guided by reason alone. The
distinction drawn here between the enervation arising from abstract mentation
and the more practical philosophy in which the head and the heart cooperate
remained thereafter a prominent motif in many of Tolstoi's works, e.g., the
tension between "reason" and "consciousness" in War and Peace. Youth concerns the hero's education in manners and
concentrates on the theme of social comme il faut, a favorite target also in War
and Peace (the characters of Berg and Vera) and The Death
of Ivan Ilyich.
Tolstoi's tales of military fife
reflect his experiences in the Caucasus and the Crimea. "The Raid" (Nabeg,
1853) and "The Woodfelling" (Rubka lesa, 1855) belong
superficially to the familiar Russian genre of the Caucasian military tale.
They contain an indirect polemic with the romantic clichés of fearless
heroism, the glory of battle, and exaggerated patriotism characteristic of
such earlier practitioners of the genre as Aleksandr Bestuzhev
(Marlinsky). Tolstoi reduced the
conventional exciting plots of such stories to the level of mere incidents
which he used as a framework to display his true interest, a neatly
categorized series of psychological portraits of the Russian soldiers and
officers and their opponents, the mountain tribesmen. The stories blend the
traditional Caucasian military tale of the 1820s with the strategies and
devices characteristic of the Natural School of the 1840s. Tolstoi's interest
in the latter, be-
 spoken by his high opinion of
Grigorovich (a leading practitioner of the "Physiological sketch").
is also reflected in "Notes of a Billiard Marker" (Zapiski
markera, 1855) with its use of skaz (i.e., the interposition of a
narrative persona, usually one with a "local color" value and
characterized by dialectal or sub-literary speech, between author and reader),
and "The Snowstorm" (Metel', 1856), a physiological sketch of
the Russian coachman.
The three Sevastopol Stories
("Sevastopol' v dekabre mesyatse," 1855; "Sevastopol' v mae,"
1855; "Sevastopol' v avguste 1855 goda," 1856) are difficult to
classify. They represent a blend of fiction and reportage with a startling
admixture (in "Sevastopol in December") of the stylistic conventions
of a tourist guidebook. They also (especially "Sevastopol in May")
make extended use of the narrative device of stream of consciousness
("the dialectic of the soul" as it was called by the critic N. G.
Chernyshevsky) with which Tolstoi had first experimented in "The History
of Yesterday." The stories, especially the first of them, display the
characteristically Tolstoian device of estrangement whereby familiar sights
and events are made to seem new and striking by distorting or ignoring the
conventions which usually govern our perception of them. This descriptive
technique was to become a hallmark of Tolstoi's style. The loci classici
are the account of Natasha at the opera in War and Peace, the description of
the service in the prison church in Resurrection, and the ridiculing of the
rehearsal of a Wagnerian opera in What Is Art? Finally, it was in
"Sevastopol in May" that Tolstoi proclaimed that the
"hero" of his fiction was not any of the characters who appeared in
it but rather that which "I love with all the power of my soul" and
which "has been, is, and will be beautiful," namely, The Truth.
The stories of the later 1851)3
illustrate several more of the themes and devices which became characteristic
of Tolstoi's work. He had already touched upon death and various attitudes
toward it in the Trilogy and the military tales. He devoted "Three
Deaths" (Tri smerti, 1859) exclusively to this subject. The story
describes the pain and anxiety attendant on the death of a wealthy noblewoman,
the patient and uncomplaining acceptance of his death by a poor coachman, and
the death of a tree. Despite his physical suffering, the coachman dies with
less anguish than the noblewoman. The death of the tree is the least painful,
because the tree is unaware that it is dying.
"Three Deaths" makes its
point through comparison and contrast of the experiences of its three
protagonists. This device, ubiquitous in Tolstoi's work, also forms the
structural basis of "Two Hussars" (Dva gusara, 1856). He
describes incidents from the lives of two Hussar officers, father and son. The
comparison is distinctly unflattering to the younger generation, as the
"progressive" critics of the time were quick to note and regret.
They saw the story as proof of Tolstoi's disaffection from the liberal cause
and of his recalcitrance in the face of their demand for literary works which
would reflect modern ideas and ideals. Tolstoi added offense to innuendo with
two stories based upon the experiences of his first trip to Europe.
"Lucerne" (Iz zapisok knyazya D. Nekhlyudova. Lyutsern, 1857)
contains a diatribe against the moral shortcomings of the values of
"civilized" Europeans (especially the English) as compared with
their rural brethren, and reminds us of Tolstoi's continuing interest in the
ideas of Rousseau. "Albert" (1858) expresses the idea that art is
valuable in itself and not merely as a medium for the communication of
ideological or social concerns.
Tolstoi worked on The Cossacks
(Kazaki, 1863) throughout the entire period of his literary
apprenticeship, and it reflects the whole range of themes and stylistic
techniques which then preoccupied him. The novel breaks new ground as well.
More comprehensively and directly than in any other of his early works,
Tolstoi here delves into the theme of the relationship between the individual
and the group. The hero's (Olenin) inability to find a satisfying place for
himself, the unattached individual, either in the Moscow society which he
leaves at the beginning of the novel or the Cossack village which he leaves at
the end is a foretaste of the investigation of the role of the individual in
the context of the historical and social collective which Tolstoi will conduct
in War and Peace and Anna Karenina.
The foundation of Tolstoi's
reputation is the work of his middle period (1863-77). It was then that he
wrote War and Peace and Anna
Karenina, both of which are, by common consent, well up on
the list of the greatest novels
ever written. War and Peace defies
facile categorization. It is a sui generic combination of the psychological
novel, the Bildungsroman, the family
novel, and the historical novel, with a liberal admixture of the scope and
tone of the epic. Set amidst the historical conflict between the France of
Napoleon and the Russia of Alexander I, it deals primarily with the events of
the years 1805 to 1812 and ends with an epilogue set in about 1820. Against a
backdrop of alternating periods of peace and war Tolstoi unfolds the stories
of the Bolkonsky and Rostov families, and of Pierre Bezukhov.
The novel's epic qualities are most
prominent in the account of Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812. All the
classes of Russian society (with the exception of some portions of the St.
Petersburg elite) unite in the defense of the homeland and in a spirit of
national solidarity. On the family level it is the Rostovs who are the primary
bearers of the epic spirit: the naturalness and spontaneity of Natasha; the
courage and devotion of Nikolai; the scenes, most of which are associated with
the Rostovs, of feasting and hunting, singing and dancing.
The novel as Bildungsroman is preoccupied with the moral and psychological growth
of Andrei Bolkonsky and Pierre Bezukhov. Andrei passes from dreams of military
glory to disillusionment, from dreams of honor in the career of statesman to
disillusionment, from dreams of love to a final disillusionment which ends in
a death which is, at least in part, a voluntary withdrawal from "vital
life." Pierre's road is similarly bumpy. He passes, with intermediate
periods of despair, from sensuality to Freemasonry and philanthropy to
mysticism. At last he seems to find the truth which he has sought in the
example of the peasant soldier Platon Karataev. In the "First
Epilogue," however, it is suggested that Pierre has begun to slip away
from that truth, too, as from its predecessors. Unlike Andrei, but like the
novel itself, he continues along the undulating curve of life, from
indeterminate beginnings to an indefinite and unspecifiable end.
The various aspects of War
and Peace are united in a variety of ways. Tolstoi interweaves the fates
of the fictional characters and connects them to those of the historical
personages. The novel as a whole is marked by the vividness, fullness, and
plasticity of description which is recognized as the hallmark of the Tolstoian
manner. Life itself is, in a way, the unifying hero of this multi-dimensional
book and Tolstoi is everywhere fascinated with its various aspects (youth and
age, peace and war, mind and spirit, reason and intuition, the individual and
the swarm) and its key moments: birth, love, and death. He raises many
questions and explores many answers.
In one of its dimensions War
and Peace is a historical novel. As a whole, however, it would be better
described as a novel about history. Especially in the later parts of the novel
proper and in the "Second Epilogue" Tolstoi is preoccupied with the
investigation of the forces that move history. His primary target is the
"great-man" theory of historical causation, both in direct argument
and in his portrayal of Napoleon (the epitome of the great man) as limited
ineffectual, and essentially powerless to control the movement of history. The
Russian commander Kutuzov, the salutary contrast to the pretentious Napoleon,
succeeds precisely because he seeks to accommodate himself to the flow and
flux of history rather than trying to manipulate it.
The "Second Epilogue" of War
and Peace extends the discussion of historical causation into the realm of
the more general philosophic question of freedom and necessity, a topic which
was to retain a vital interest for Tolstoi throughout the remainder of his
career. In reading Tolstoi, "freedom" and "necessity" can
be understood as rubrics which summarize nearly all of his central thematic
concerns. Under "freedom" come consciousness, life, the individual;
under "necessity" fall reason (i.e., logic without intuition),
death, the group. War and Peace explores
the role of the individual within the group conceived of as the historical
mass. Here is another unifying factor in the novel, for Tolstoi presents not
only the involvement of the historical characters in the great events of
history but that of the fictional characters as well. They all face situations
which exemplify the tension between the immediacy of the individual's sense of
freedom as individual and the feelings of powerlessness and constraint within
the group. The intuitive freedom perceived by consciousness does battle with
the indubitable ne-
 cessity proven by reason, and
from this war not one of the leading characters is allowed, in fife, an
unbroken peace. The same questions, cloaked in a different setting and
explored in the context of another dimension of the "group," emerge
again in Tolstoi's second great novel.
Anna Karenina is an account of two marriages. The story of the ruin of
Anna's in her adulterous affair with Count Aleksei Vronsky alternates with the
story of the courtship and family life of Konstantin Levin and Kitty
Shcherbatskaya. The two main characters, Anna and Levin, are brought together
on only one occasion, however, so that while it is easy to see the contrast
between these two characters and their respective fates, it is more difficult
to understand the sense in which they are also comparable to one another.
At the beginning of the novel Anna
is a highly respected member of society. She enters into a love affair and
finds herself unable to conduct it discreetly. She abhors hypocrisy and
deceit. She cannot be content with the stolen moments of passion in which so
many of the women and men of her acquaintance indulge. Anna is caught between
the power of the passionate "aliveness" within her and the equally
pressing demands of the society to which she belongs. She finds herself in the
position of serving two masters: her individuality, with its striving for
freedom and self‑expression through love, and her social self, with its
need to belong to an authentic group context. As she herself says, she is, in
her affair, "guilty, and yet not to blame." Anna commits suicide
when she becomes convinced that Vronsky, the only remnant of social context
remaining to her, wishes to leave her.
Levin's course is the reverse of
Anna's. He begins as an acknowledged "outsider," an independent
individualist, and gradually becomes ever more enmeshed in the web of social
and familial constraints. Like Anna, he senses the tension between the force
of his individual ideals and the obstructions of recalcitrant social reality.
Unlike her, he finds a middle course which allows him to function with the
social group while yet retaining a part of himself, what he calls on the last
page of the novel his soul's "holy of holies," under his absolute
control. In this hidden part of himself he is neither constrained nor
obstructed by his continuing attachment to the group. His life, in this
respect at least, is "full of the meaning with which I have the power to
In this respect the stories of Anna
and Levin are truly comparable. Both experience the frustration of having
their expression of themselves as individuals thwarted by an unmanageable
social reality. As in War and Peace
Tolstoi had shown the powerlessness of individuals to force historical reality
to conform to their own ambitions and plans, so here he explores their
inability to realize the ideals of the free imagination in the context of
society and the family. Although the group is of a different order of
magnitude, the question is the same: wherein is a person free, wherein subject
to the constraints of necessity. The hopeful implication of War
and Peace that people are at least relatively free in the context of their
personal and familial affairs is replaced in Anna
Karenina by the suggestion that they are really free only within
themselves, in that "holy of holies" which they alone may enter.
Tolstoi devoted rest of the first
seven years of his later period (1878-1910) to non-fictional writing. When, in
1885, he returned once again to literature, he was determined to forswear the
"nonsense" of his former style and to make all his fictional works
conveyances for the message of the Christian teaching as he understood it. He
distinguished between the educated and the popular audiences, and his first
literary efforts were intended for the latter.
Tolstoi's primary problem in
writing "for the people" was to devise a style that was both
accessible to them and commensurate with his artistic standards. He employed
narrative models and subjects familiar from fairy tales, religious legends,
and proverbs. He trimmed his customarily complex literary style to the bare
bones, much as be had in the stories, especially "God Sees the Truth, But
Waits" (Bog pravdu vidit, da ne skoro skazhet, 1872), written for
The Russian Readers. To this
simplified base he added, through appropriate lexical and syntactic selection,
either a folkish or Biblical flavor. He consulted a well-known teller of
folktales and was in the habit of eavesdropping on the conversations of simple
folk in search of choice words and phrases. The stylistic innovation produced
by these efforts is the chief glory of the collection of moral exempla
which Tolstoi called his Stories for
the People. They represent a,
genre unto themselves within
Tolstoi's work and include such gems as "What Men Live By" (Chem
lyudi zhivy, 1882), "Where Love Is, God Is" (Gde lyubov', tam
i Bog, 1885), "Two Old Men" (Dva starika, 1885),
"How Much Land Does a Man Need?" (Mnogo li cheloveku zemli nuzhno?,
1885), and "The Three Hermits" (Tri startsa, 1886).
Tolstoi's concern to bring the
message of his teaching to the popular audience also led him into dramatic
work. There were efforts afoot in the mid‑1880s to develop a repertory
of plays suitable for production in "popular" theaters. Tolstoi, who
had experimented briefly with and then abandoned the drama in the 1860s, was
invited to contribute. In response he wrote The
Power of Darkness (Vlast' t'my, 1886). This peasant tragedy, its
five acts neatly apportioned to rising action, climax, and denouement, is
constructed very much in the classical manner. As it happened, it was not
produced for the popular audience, but it had a notable theatrical success in
the 1890s under the direction of K. S. Stanislavsky. It has since remained a
fixture of the Russian repertory. Tolstoi's several later plays do not reach
the level of The Power of Darkness. The
best known is The Fruits of
Enlightenment (Plody prosveshcheniya, 1889-90), a comedy in which
Tolstoi ridicules the spiritualism which was fashionable in the 1880s.
The major literary achievements of
Tolstoi's later period are to be found among the works which he wrote for the
educated audience. Like the Stories for
the People, these works are nearly all invested with the teaching; unlike
them, they are written in a style which is much more typically Tolstoian.
Tolstoi seems to have felt that his peers were in need of instruction mainly
with respect to the themes of death and sex, subjects which appear rarely and
never, respectively, in the Stories for
the People. The theme of death evoked the short novels The Death of Ivan Ilyich (Smert' Ivana II'icha, 1886) and Master
and Man (Khozyain i rabotnik, 1895). Both portray the encounter
between a solid, respectable citizen and his death, an encounter which reveals
that the very solidity and respectability of the lives of the protagonists was
what was most wrong with them. Both works are painstakingly structured,
densely allusive, and profoundly symbolic. It is here that Tolstoi best
succeeded in converting the raw material of his religious teaching into
genuine works of art. The stories on the theme of sex are less well realized
from the artistic point of view. The Kreutzer Sonata (Kreitserova sonata, 1889) aroused a
storm of controversy. Tolstoi was accused of advocating a celibacy so complete
that it would, if practiced, result in the extinction of the human race. The
pernicious results of sexual attraction are also the focus of The Devil (D'yavol, 1890 unfinished) and Father Sergius (Otets Sergii, 1898).
Tolstoi's last long novel, Resurrection
(Voskresenie, 1899) occupied him intermittently for eleven years.
He published it to raise money for the transportation of the Dukhobors, a
Christian sect with whose style of life he sympathized, to Canada. It is
generally conceded that Resurrection does
not compare well with its predecessors, and Tolstoi himself felt that the
novel was published before it had reached a fully satisfactory state of
readiness. In Resurrection Tolstoi attempts to provide a comprehensive account of
the ills of contemporary society as seen from the vantage point of his
religious teaching. The church, the government, the institution of private
property, the judicial and penal system, the conventions of upper-class social
life: all are mercilessly attacked and ridiculed. Tolstoi uses his
considerable gifts as a satirist with telling effect. Resurrection
is also Tolstoi's final
fictional word on the perplexing question of freedom and necessity. He had
left Levin (in Anna Karenina) in a state marked by the coexistence of an external,
physiological obeisance to the laws of determinism and a spiritual, but wholly
internalized, sense of freedom and individual worth. The hero of Resurrection,
Prince Dmitry Nekhlyudov, strives to resolve this contradiction by
externalizing the dictates of his spiritual consciousness. He abandons his
position in society, turns his property over to his peasants, and follows the
heroine (for whose ruin he feels responsible) into her Siberian exile. For the
later Tolstoi the mere recognition of the spiritual essence of man is no
longer enough, even when (as in The
Death of Ivan Ilyich)
the recognition is total and entails the complete rejection of a life
lived with the spirit submerged. Levin's compromise is replaced by
Nekhlyudov's decision to act so as to remove from his life every vestige of
dissonance with the commands of the spirit. Freedom seems at last to win its
long struggle with
necessity in the work of Tolstoi. The freedom exemplified in Resurrection is the freedom to act in accord with the requirements
of the spirit, to control the fears and desires which were, for the later
Tolstoi, the necessary adjuncts of the "animal life" of man, and to
reject as irrelevant the physical death which was its determined end.
his last remarkable work of fiction, Hadji-Murad
1904), Tolstoi's literary career seems to come full circle. This novel's
Caucasian setting and descriptions of armed conflict and the warrior's life
mark a recurrence of themes which had engaged Tolstoi's interest at the
beginning of his career. He himself referred to Hadji-Murad
as a return to his former manner of writing. Indeed, its stylistic
artifice and the relative absence of the later Tolstoi's customary moral
certitude are hardly in full accord with the principles expressed in What Is
Art?. It was perhaps for this reason that HadjiMurad
was held back by Tolstoi and published only after his death.
The definitive edition in Russian: Polnoe sobranie sochinenii. 90
vols. Ed. V. Chertkov et al. 1928-58.
Most of Tolstoi's published works have been translated into English, many of
them more than once. A good collection is:
Oxford Centenary Edition of Tolstoy.
21 vols. Ed. and trans. L. and A. Maude. 1929-37. (The Maudes were friends
of Tolstoi and had the benefit of frequent consultation with him. As a general
rule, their translations are the most satisfactory of those available.)
F. Christian, ed. and trans., Tolstoy's Letters. 2 vols. 1978.
N. N. Gusev, Letopis' zhizni
i tvorchestva L'va Nikolaevicha
Tolstogo. 2 vols. 1958, 1960. [A chronology of the documented facts. For
more extensive details see the same author's series:] Lev Nikolaevich
Tolstoi: Materialy k biografii. 5 vols. to date [the latest by L.
D. Opul'skaya]. 1954, 1957, 1963, 1970, 1979. The standard biographies in
English are: A. Maude, The Life of Tolstoy.
2 vols. 1930. E. J. Simmons, Leo Tolstoy. 1946. Also of interest: A.
Tolstoy, Tolstoy: A Life of My
Bibliography of critical studies:
Russian sources (Soviet period only):
N. G. Shelyapina et al., Bibliografiya literatury o L. N. Tolstom. 3 vols. (Coverage through 1967.] 1960, 1965, 1972.
For criticism in English:
D. R. and M. A. Egan, An Annotated
Bibliography of English-language
Sources to 1978. 1979.
Bayley, Tolstoy and the Novel.
The Hedgehog and the Fox [concerns War
and Peace]. 1953.
S. P. Bychkov, ed., L. N. Tolstoi v russkoi kritike. 1960.
F. Christian, Tolstoy: A Critical
Introduction. 1969. , Tolstoy's
War and Peace: A Study. 1962.
B. M. Eikhenbaum, Molodoi Tolstoi. 1922. [English translation: The Young Tolstoi (Ann Arbor, 1972)]; Lev Tolstoi. 3 vols. 1928, 1931, 1960 [English translation of the second and third volumes: Tolstoi in the Sixties and Tolstoi in the Seventies (Ann Arbor, 1982)].
G. Gibian, Tolstoj and Shakespeare. 1957.
H. Gifford, ed., Leo Tolstoy [anthology of criticism]. 1971.
N. K. Gudzii, Lev Tolstoi. 1960.
E. N. Kupreyanova, Estetika L. N. Tolstogo. 1966.
K. Leont'ev, Analiz, stil' i veyanie: O romanakh gr. L. N. Tolstogo. 1911.
N. Lomunov, Dramaturgiya
R. Matlaw, ed., Tolstoy: A Collection of Critical Essays. 1967.
D. Matual, Tolstoy's Translation of the Gospels: A Study. 1985.
L. M. Myshkovskaya, Masterstvo L. N. Tolstogo. 1958.
Shklovskii, Material i stil' v romane L. N.
Tolstogo Voina i
G. W. Spence, Tolstoy the Ascetic. 1967.
E. StenbockFermor, The Architecture of Anna Karenina. 1975.
E. Wasiolek, Tolstoy's Major Fiction. 1978.