|Tolstoy, Lev Nikolayevich (1828-1910)|
novelist, a profound social and moral thinker, and one of the greatest
writers of realistic fiction of all time.
Tolstoy, the son of a nobleman landowner, was born on September 9, 1828, at Yasnaya Polyana, the family estate south of Moscow. He was orphaned at the age of nine, then raised by relatives and educated by French and German tutors. At the age of 16, Tolstoy enrolled at Kazan' University (now Kazan' State University), first studying languages and then law; influenced by the writings of the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, he became dissatisfied with formal study and in 1847 left without a degree. After a brief, futile attempt to improve the condition of the serfs on his estate, he plunged into the dissipations of Moscow's high society, which he candidly recorded in his diary with vows to reform.
In 1851 Tolstoy joined his brother in the Caucasus, where his regiment was stationed, and after a time Tolstoy joined the army there. In the Caucasus, he came into contact with cossacks, and later focused on them in one of his best shorter novels, The Cossacks (1863). In it he compared the effeteness of a sophisticated young Muscovite with the vigorous and natural cossack life, portrayed with sympathy and profound poetic realism. Between battles with the hill tribes, Tolstoy completed an autobiographical novel, Childhood (1852), followed by two others, Boyhood (1854) and Youth (1856), which without rhetoric or sentimentality draw on the psychologically significant memories common to all growing boys. These works received instant acclaim, as did Sevastopol Stories (1855-56), based on Tolstoy's participation in the Crimean War. It is a sobering exposure of the pretentious heroics of the military command as opposed to the uncomplaining bravery of common soldiers and war's grim reality.
Tolstoy returned to Saint Petersburg in 1856 and became interested in the education of peasants. While on trips abroad (1857 and 1861), he visited French and German elementary schools, and at Yasnaya Polyana he started a village school that, in its teaching methods, foreshadowed the tenets of modern progressive education. In 1862 the novelist married Sonya (Sofya) Andreyevna Bers, a member of a cultured Moscow family. In the next 15 years he raised a large family, successfully managed his estate, and wrote his two greatest novels, War and Peace (1865-69) and Anna Karenina (1875-77).
War and Peace and Anna Karenina
War and Peace, considered one of the greatest novels ever written, is an epic of Russian society between 1805 and 1815, just before and after the Napoleonic invasion. It contains 559 characters, commemorates important military battles, and portrays famous historical personalities, but its main theme is the chronicle of the lives of five aristocratic families. The work is a masterpiece of realism. The characters are brilliantly realized by the descriptions of significant physical details, and by Tolstoy's penetrating psychological analysis that illumines their inner worlds, showing how they seem to themselves and to others at different moments of their lives. Spontaneous, unaffected Natasha Rostova, one of the most famous heroines in Russian literature, who matures from an exuberant adolescent into a solid matron, embodies Tolstoy's ideal of womanhood. Natasha remains abundantly herself, engrossed in private concerns of love, marriage, and children in the midst of the national holocaust. She confirms Tolstoy's iconoclastic views, expounded in separate philosophical chapters in the novel, of the historical process; history, for him, was the result of anonymous motivations and personal happenings rather than great public events instigated by national leaders. A profoundly optimistic philosophy emanates from the vast novel. Despite the revelations of the horrors of war and acknowledgment of human failings, the general message of War and Peace, inspired by Tolstoy's personal happiness during these creative years, is a zestful love of life in all its manifestations.
Tolstoy's shorter masterpiece, Anna Karenina, is one of the greatest modern psychological novels. The same creative methods convey reality, but the novel has more artistic unity than the earlier work, and exuberance gives way to pessimistic overtones; the inner conflicts of the main protagonists remain unresolved. Anna's adulterous passion for the young officer Vronsky, set against a background of St. Petersburg society life in the 1860s, is effectively contrasted with the lawful union of Kitty and Constantin Levin and their life on a country estate. Tolstoy shows deep compassion for his beautiful, erring heroine, but ultimately she is condemned to suffering and suicide for her transgression of moral and social laws. The principal hero, Levin, is an autobiographical character. He echoes the author's disapproval of intellectuality and urban sophistication, and he becomes tormented by the same doubts about the meaning of life and the relation of human beings to the infinite that assailed Tolstoy when he was completing Anna Karenina.
Tolstoy's Moral Philosophy
In the uniquely candid, powerful Confession (1882), Tolstoy described his growing spiritual turmoil, castigated himself and his class for leading a selfish, empty existence, and started his long quest for moral and social certitudes. He found them in two principles of the Christian Gospels: love for all human beings and nonresistance to the forces of evil. He expanded upon and illustrated his new radical faith in eloquent essays and tracts, including The Kingdom of God is Within You (1894). From within autocratic Russia, Tolstoy fearlessly attacked social inequality and coercive forms of government and church authority, urging freedom from hatreds and a purer life dictated by one's own moral conscience. In What Is Art? (1898), an indictment of almost all classical and modern art-including his own masterpieces, which he claimed were produced for the cultured elite-he advocated a morally inspired art, accessible to everyone. His didactic essays, translated into numerous languages, won adherents in many countries and from all walks of life. Many of them visited Yasnaya Polyana seeking instruction and advice.
Returning to imaginative fiction, Tolstoy wrote a number of brief, edifying tales (Stories for the People, early to mid-1880s) with peasant settings; they are models of economy in construction. Other works, intended for the educated reader, are also morally purposeful in subject matter but give fuller rein to his immense creative powers. The best known of these are the short stories "The Death of Ivan Ilych" (1886) and "Master and Man" (1895), both depicting the spiritual conversion of a man facing death; the short story The Kreutzer Sonata (1889), about a loveless marriage; the play The Power of Darkness (1888), a naturalistic peasant tragedy of cupidity and lust leading to violence; and the novel Resurrection (1899), the story of the moral regeneration of a conscience-stricken nobleman.
At the age of 82, increasingly tormented by the disparity between his teachings and his personal wealth, and by endless quarrels with his wife, who resisted his attempts to renounce their material possessions, Tolstoy left his home one night. He fell ill three days later and died on November 20, 1910, at a remote railroad station. At his death he was hailed as a uniquely powerful moral force throughout the world. That force and his timeless and universal art continue to provide inspiration today