Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy
1. Born 1828. Dies 1910. Lives and dies between two revolutions:
Decembrist (1825, nobility) and Communist (1917, proletariat). We have spoken of the 19th
century purely in terms of the artistic movements that were common in the age. Beginning
with Romanticism and moving to realism. But we should at least briefly mention some of the
political realities of the age. After all, We have been talking the last couple of days
about how critical realism developed because artists saw that there was something wrong in
Russia. The fact that something was wrong is reflected in the two revolutions that
sandwich Tolstoy's birth. 1825 was the year of the Decembrist rebellion. Army officers,
members of the nobility, attempted to overthrow the government in order to install a
govt.more like those of western Europe, i.e. one that was more democratic and less
autocratic. The uprising only lasted one day. The other revolution is the revolution of
1917,i.e. the communist revolution that created the now departed Soviet Union. Tolstoy was
born and died between these two events. He also saw something wrong in Russia and much of
his work seeks to address the problems within the culture and country as he understood
2. Tolstoy's parents died when he was quite young. He was brought up by an Aunt who was extremely religious. We've talked about the Orthodox church. If you remember our lecture on Peter the Great, he turned the church into an official organ of the state, i.e. the church stopped being an independent institution. Instead it became an institution of the govt. By the nineteenth century there were those who viewed the Russian church as a corrupt institution. There is a Nineteenth Century painting entitled "Monastery repast". It depicted monks, supposedly dedicated to a life of prayer and poverty, enjoying a huge and sumptuous feast. Tolstoy was very religious, but he too viewed the official church as having become a corrupt institution.
3. Perhaps the single greatest influence on Tolstoy's intellectual and moral development was the thought and writings of the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau taught:
a. all men are equal
b. true religion is the contemplation of one's own inner soul and conscience. The dogma of old religion was false but it did contain a kernel of truth that can be made new. The kernel of truth in Russian Orthodoxy was the example set by saints Boris and Gleb: nonresistance to evil.
c. Love of simplicity, of rural life. Tolstoy was to spend most of his life on the family estate, Yasnaya Polyana, which he inherited from his parents. If you remember the portraits we saw of Tolstoy. One pictured him in a peasant shirt beneath a tree in the country. Virtue could only really be practiced, according to Tolstoy, in the country, i.e. away from the city, away from society, which in his opinion were utterly corrupt.
d. sexual passions are nearly ungovernable. This Tolstoy knew from personal experience. He was introduced to brothels at a young age. He had an insatiable appetite. He wanted to control his desires but was unable to as a young man, even though he was revolted by his own actions.
4. Young adulthood. His years as a young man were characterized by a combination of riotous behavior, drinking, gambling, wenching and extreme guilt because of his behavior. His gambling was so bad that it forced him to enter the army, he thought he would escape gambling in this fashion. While in the army he participated in the Crimean War. It is during these formative years that Tolstoy began to write and we begin to see Tolstoy the artist.
a. His complicated and even tortured thoughts on sex are reflected in his early stories. In one story Tolstoy wishes that he was a peasant. Why? Because Tolstoy believed that peasants were able to respond to life spontaneously and naturally. Peasants weren't tormented by feelings of sexual guilt. Tolstoy was.
b. His early stories focused on the military and the horror of war. In these stories we see the dawning in Tolstoy of a sense of common humanity. The enemy, in his stories are not evil and faceless but human beings with wives, children, lives of their own. Tolstoy was particularly affected by the role of the church and the govt. in the Crimean war. Priests sprinkled soldiers with holy water and encouraged them to kill their fellow men. The hypocrisy of this action spurred Tolstoy to yearn for some form of Christianity which was cut loose from the Church. Tolstoy wanted to worship truth and he came to believe that both the church and the govt had little connection with truth. The govt. after all was prosecuting the Crimean war and Tolstoy came to view war as an enemy of truth. Tolstoy's introduction to his book on the war, Sevastopol Sketches, demonstrates his views on this matter: "The hero of my tale - whom I love with all the power of my soul, whom I have tried to portray in all his beauty, who has been, is and will be beautiful--is Truth." By the way, the red cross was formed during this war. The poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade" was about a battle in this war. Florence Nightingale was a nurse in this war.
5. Tolstoy's art is usually divided into three parts.
a. early period (1851-63)
b. period of the great novels (1863- 77)
c. Later period which is preoccupied with the message of his religious teaching (1878-1910)
6. Early period: I have already spoken about a bit about his early
period. The novel that culminates this part of his artistic life is called The Cossacks,
1863. I have mentioned how Tolstoy came to revere the simple, rural life and disdain the
affected and corrupt life of society in the cities. In this novel the hero, Olenin, leaves
Moscow for the Caucasus, i.e. he leaves the city and society for a primitive life in a
village in the Caucasus. Like his very early stories in which Tolstoy admires the natural
and unaffected behavior of the peasants, Tolstoy's Olenin attempts to remake himself, to
turn himself into a "natural" man such as he imagines the village people are. He
is unable, however, to fit into the society. He is unable to change his nature. Society,
which is viewed by Tolstoy as corrupt and which is symbolized by the world that Olenin
left behind, i.e. Moscow, is rejected, but the natural and simplistic life of the village
also proves to be impossible to join. The novel raises the question of the individual in
both a historical context and in the context of a social collective. Where does the
individual fit in? How is the individual to live?
7. Middle period. The question of the individual within a historical and social context is addressed in his greatest novels: War and Peace and Anna Karenina.
a. War and Peace 65-69. This began as a novel about the Decembrist uprising. Tolstoy realized that to write about that he had to go back to 1812 and Napoleon's invasion of Russia. Tolstoy presents this vast moment in history, when millions were all affected by this common event, and attempts to examine it through his principle characters. The individual is seen when faced with an event that goes beyond the immediately personal context. In this way Tolstoy explores the issues of freedom and necessity. The individual desires to maximize his sense of personal freedom, yet there arise situations in which necessity forces constraints on that freedom because the group must come first. Within this context we see the psychological and moral development of the two principle characters. Andrei Bolkonsky initially dreams of military glory, but faced by the reality of war he becomes disillusioned. He then dreams of honor in the career of statesman, but faced by the reality of service to the govt. he again becomes disillusioned. He then dreams of love, but this also leads to a final disillusionment which ends in death. Pierre Bezukhov also passes through various phases in the face of the momentous events that he witnesses. He at times despairs completely, at times gives himself up entirely to the sensuous life that society represented, then rejecting sensuality and becoming a believer in mysticism. His end is less definite. He continues to go along, just as life continues without any definite end.
b. Anna Karenina 72-77. His second great novel also explores the issue of the individual within a social context, but in a more intimate way. Anna is married but her marriage is loveless, her emotional needs are unmet. She falls in love and begins a love affair. The society of her time tolerates, in some ways, even approves of affairs, but the mores of the time insist that an affair be discreet. This is where Anna comes into conflict with society. She abhors hypocrisy and deceit but in many respects this is what her society is based upon. She finds herself in a 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 a group. Anna in the end is not able to resolve this conflict and commits suicide. The other principle figure, Levin, is also in conflict with society. He is an outsider who recognizes the tension between his individual ideals and the reality of a social group which doesn't acknowledge his ideals. Levin however is able to find a middle ground which allows him to remain within the group and yet function as himself. Levin is able to do this because he recognizes that the one and only thing in this life that he is fully in control of is his soul. Society cannot control his soul and in this sense Levin comes to realize that his life is "full of the meaning with which I have the power to invest it." I spoke earlier about the influence of Rousseau's teaching on Tolstoy. That true religion is concentrating on the state of one's soul and conscience. This is the awareness that Levin achieves at the end of Anna Karenina.
8. Later period. Shortly after completing his second great novel Tolstoy experienced his own time of doubt and crisis, resulting in what he called his conversion in 1878 to the teachings of Jesus. Remember that Tolstoy was brought up by a very religious aunt but he could never accept the Russian church as an outlet for his religious feelings. His doubt and crisis partly stemmed from his inability to believe in the church and its teachings, prominent among which was the divinity of Christ. His conversion is a conversion to a Christianity which rejects the dogma of organized religion and seeks inspiration directly from the teachings of Christ. For the rest of his life Tolstoy's literature was to be concerned with teaching moral truths. This is not necessarily a dramatic change from his past because in exploring the individual and society, Tolstoy has been examining the issue of life and all the major events in life, birth,death, marriage, love, how one should live, etc. This continues to be true in the works of his last period.
a. "Kreutzer Sonata"
b. "The Death of Ivan Ilych," 1886. marks his return to fiction. The issue is life, as explored through the death of Ivan.
9. Tolstoy's "post-conversion" philosophy.
a. eating meat is wrong
b. smoking and drinking are sinful
c. violence must not be resisted with violence
d. death penalty is wrong
e. organized religion is wrong
f. art must make people better
g. private property is theft
10. His art grows from three love-hate relationships:
a. relationship with God (i.e. love for god but not for the church).
b. relationship with women (physical desire for them but spiritual revulsion at the sex act itself).
c. relationship with Russia (Russia was unique, but there was something wrong with Russia).