Leo Tolstoy Archive

Essays on Russian Novelists: Tolstoy
William Lyon Phelps

Written: 1911
Source: Text from WikiSource.org
Transcription/Markup: Andy Carloff
Online Source: WikiSource.org

Leo Tolstoy

ON the 6 September 1852, signed only with initials, appeared in a Russian periodical the first work of Count Leo Tolstoi--Childhood. By 1867, his name was just barely known outside of Russia, for in that year the American diplomat, Eugene Schuyler, in the preface to his translation of Fathers and Sons, said, "The success of Gogol brought out a large number of romance-writers, who abandoned all imitation of German, French, and English novelists, and have founded a truly national school of romance." Besides Turgenev, "easily their chief," he mentioned five Russian writers, all but one of whom are now unknown or forgotten in America. The second in his list was "the Count Tolstoi, a writer chiefly of military novels." During the seventies, the English scholar Ralston published in a review some paraphrases of Tolstoi, because, as he said, "Tolstoi will probably never be translated into English." To-day the works of Tolstoi are translated into forty-five languages, and in the original Russian the sales have gone into many millions. During the last ten years of his life he held an absolutely unchallenged position as the greatest living writer in the world, there being not a single contemporary worthy to be named in the same breath.

Tolstoi himself, at the end of the century, divided his life into four periods:[1] the innocent, joyous, and poetic time of childhood, from earliest recollection up to the age of fourteen; the "terrible twenties," full of ambition, vanity, and licentiousness, lasting till his marriage at the age of thirty-four; the third period of eighteen years, when he was honest and pure in family life, but a thorough egoist; the fourth period, which he hoped would be the last, dating from his Christian conversion, and during which he tried to shape his life in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount.

He was born at Yasnaya Polyana, in south central Russia, not far from the birthplace of Turgenev, on the 28 August 1828. His mother died when he was a baby, his father when he was only nine. An aunt, to whom he was devotedly attached, and whom he called "Grandmother," had the main supervision of his education. In 1836 the family went to live at Moscow, where the boy formed that habit of omnivorous reading which characterised his whole life. Up to his fourteenth year, the books that chiefly influenced him were the Old Testament, the Arabian Nights, Pushkin, and popular Russian legends. It was intended that he should follow a diplomatic career, and in preparation for the University of Kazan, he studied Oriental languages. In 1844 he failed to pass his entrance examinations, but was admitted some months later. He left the University in 1847. From his fourteenth to his twenty-first year the books that he read with the most profit were Sterne's Sentimental Journey, under the influence of which he wrote his first story, Pushkin, Schiller's Robbers, Lermontov, Gogol, Turgenev's A Sportsman's Sketches; and to a less degree he was affected by the New Testament, Rousseau, Dickens's David Copperfield, and the historical works of the American Prescott. Like all Russian boys, he of course read the romances of Fenimore Cooper.

On leaving the University, he meant to take up a permanent residence in the country; but this enthusiasm waned at the close of the summer, as it does with nearly everybody, and he went to St. Petersburg in the autumn of 1847, where he entered the University in the department of law. During all this time he had the habit of almost morbid introspection, and like so many young people, he wrote resolutions and kept a diary. In 1851 he went with his brother to the Caucasus, and entered the military service, as described in his novel, The Cossacks. Here he indulged in dissipation, cards, and women, like the other soldiers. In the midst of his life there he wrote to his aunt, in French, the language of most of their correspondence, "You recall some advice you once gave me--to write novels: well, I am of your opinion, and I am doing literary work. I do not know whether what I write will ever appear in the world, but it is work that amuses me, and in which I have persevered for too long a time to give it up." He noted at this time that the three passions which obstructed the moral way were gambling, sensuality, and vanity. And he further wrote in his journal, "There is something in me which makes me think that I was not born to be just like everybody else." Again: "The man who has no other goal than his own happiness is a bad man. He whose goal is the good opinion of others is a weak man. He whose goal is the happiness of others is a virtuous man. He whose goal is God is a great man!"

He finished his first novel, Childhood, sent it to a Russian review, and experienced the most naïve delight when the letter of acceptance arrived. "It made me happy to the limit of stupidity," he wrote in his diary. The letter was indeed flattering. The publisher recognised the young author's talent, and was impressed with his "simplicity and reality," as well he might be, for they became the cardinal qualities of all Tolstoi's books. It attracted little attention, however, and no criticism of it appeared for two years. But a little later, when Dostoevski obtained in Siberia the two numbers of the periodical containing Childhood and Boyhood, he was deeply moved, and wrote to a friend, asking, Who is this mysterious L. N. T.? But for a long time Tolstoi refused to let his name be known.

Tolstoi took part in the Crimean war, not as a spectator or reporter, but as an officer. He was repeatedly in imminent danger, and saw all the horrors of warfare, as described in Sevastopol. Still, he found time somehow for literary work, wrote Boyhood, and read Dickens in English. About this time he decided to substitute the Lord's Prayer in his private devotions for all other petitions, saying that "Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven" included everything. On the 5 March 1855 he wrote in his diary a curious prophecy of his present attitude toward religion: "My conversations on divinity and faith have led me to a great idea, for the realisation of which I am ready to devote my whole life. This idea is the founding of a new religion, corresponding to the level of human development, the religion of Christ, but purified of all dogmas and mysteries, a practical religion not promising a blessed future life, but bestowing happiness here on earth."

In this same year he wrote the book which was the first absolute proof of his genius, and with the publication of which his reputation began--Sevastopol in December. This was printed in the same review that had accepted his first work, was greeted with enthusiasm by Turgenev and the literary circles at Petersburg, was read by the Tsar, and translated into French at the imperial command. It was followed by Sevastopol in May and Sevastopol in August, and Tolstoi found himself famous.

It was evident that a man so absorbed in religious ideas and so sensitive to the hideous wholesale murder of war, could not remain for long in the army. He arrived at Petersburg on the 21 November 1855, and had a warm reception from the distinguished group of writers who were at that time contributors to the Sovremennik[2] (The Contemporary Review), which had published Tolstoi's work. This review had been founded by Pushkin in 1836, was now edited by Nekrassov, who had accepted Tolstoi's first article, Childhood, and had enlisted the foremost writers of Russia, prominent among whom was, of course, Turgenev. The books which Tolstoi read with the most profit during this period were Goethe, Hugo's Notre-Dame, Plato in French, and Homer in Russian.

Turgenev had a fixed faith in the future of Tolstoi; he was already certain that a great writer had appeared in Russia. Writing to a friend from Paris, in 1856, he said, "When this new wine is ripened there will be a drink fit for the gods." In 1857, after Tolstoi had visited him in Paris, Turgenev wrote, "This man will go far and will leave behind him a profound influence." But the two authors had little in common, and it was evident that there could never be perfect harmony between them. Explaining why he could not feel wholly at ease with Tolstoi, he said, "We are made of different clay."

In January 1857, Tolstoi left Moscow for Warsaw by sledge, and from there travelled by rail for Paris. In March, accompanied by Turgenev, he went to Dijon, and saw a man executed by the guillotine. He was deeply impressed both by the horror and by the absurdity of capital punishment, and, as he said, the affair "pursued" him for a long time. He travelled on through Switzerland, and at Lucerne he felt the contrast between the great natural beauty of the scenery and the artificiality of the English snobs in the hotel. He journeyed on down the Rhine, and returned to Russia from Berlin. During all these months of travel, his journal expresses the constant religious fermentation of his mind, and his intense democratic sentiments. They were the same ideas held by the Tolstoi of 1900.

On the 3 July 1860, he left Petersburg by steamer, once more to visit southern Europe. He visited schools, universities, and studied the German methods of education. He also spent some time in the south of France, and wrote part of The Cossacks there. In Paris he once more visited Turgenev, and then crossed over to London, where he saw the great Russian critic Herzen almost every day. Herzen was not at all impressed by Tolstoi's philosophical views, finding them both weak and vague. The little daughter of Herzen begged her father for the privilege of meeting the young and famous author. She expected to see a philosopher, who would speak of weighty matters: what was her disappointment when Count Tolstoi appeared, dressed in the latest English style, looking exactly like a fashionable man of the world, and talking with great enthusiasm of a cock-fight he had just witnessed!

After nine months' absence, Tolstoi returned to Russia in April 1861. He soon went to his home at Yasnaya Polyana, established a school for the peasants, and devoted himself to the arduous labour of their education. Here he had a chance to put into practice all the theories that he had acquired from his observations in Germany and England. He worked so hard that he injured his health, and in a few months was forced to travel and rest. In this same year he lost a thousand rubles playing billiards with Katkov, the well-known editor of the Russian Messenger. Not being able to pay cash, he gave Katkov the manuscript of his novel, The Cossacks, which was accordingly printed in the review in January 1863.

On the 23 September 1862, he was married. A short time before this event he gave his fiancée his diary, which contained a frank and free account of all the sins of his bachelor life. She was overwhelmed, and thought of breaking off the engagement. After many nights spent in wakeful weeping, she returned the journal to him, with a full pardon, and assurance of complete affection. It was fortunate for him that this young girl was large-hearted enough to forgive his sins, for she became an ideal wife, and shared in all his work, copying in her own hand his manuscripts again and again. In all her relations with the difficult temperament of her husband, she exhibited the utmost devotion, and that uncommon quality which we call common sense.

Shortly after the marriage, Tolstoi began the composition of a leviathan in historical fiction, War and Peace. While composing it, he wrote: "If one could only accomplish the hundredth part of what one conceives, but one cannot even do a millionth part! Still, the consciousness of Power is what brings happiness to a literary man. I have felt this power particularly during this year." He suffered, however, from many paroxysms of despair, and constantly corrected what he wrote. This made it necessary for his wife to copy out the manuscript; and it is said that she wrote in her own hand the whole manuscript of this enormous work seven times!

The publication of the novel began in the Russki Viesinik (Russian Messenger) for January 1865, and the final chapters did not appear till 1869. It attracted constant attention during the process of publication, and despite considerable hostile criticism, established the reputation of its author.

During its composition Tolstoi read all kinds of books, Pickwick Papers, Anthony Trollope, whom he greatly admired, and Schopenhauer, who for a time fascinated him. In 1869 he learned Greek, and was proud of being able to read the Anabasis in a few months. He interested himself in social problems, and fought hard with the authorities to save a man from capital punishment. To various schemes of education, and to the general amelioration of the condition of the peasants, he gave all the tremendous energy of his mind.

On the 19 March 1873, he began the composition of Anna Karenina, which was to give him his greatest fame outside of Russia. Several years were spent in its composition and publication. Despite the power of genius displayed in this masterpiece, he did not enjoy writing it, and seemed to be unaware of its splendid qualities. In 1875 he wrote, "For two months I have not soiled my fingers with ink, but now I return again to this tiresome and vulgar Anna Karenina, with the sole wish of getting it done as soon as possible, in order that I may have time for other work." It was published in the Russian Messenger, and the separate numbers drew the attention of critics everywhere, not merely in Russia, but all over Europe.

The printing began in 1874. All went well enough for two years, as we see by a letter of the Countess Tolstoi, in December 1876. "At last we are writing Anna Karenina comme il faut, that is, without interruptions. Leo, full of animation, writes an entire chapter every day, and I copy it off as fast as possible; even now, under this letter, there are the pages of the new chapter that he wrote yesterday. Katkov telegraphed day before yesterday to send some chapters for the December number." But, just before the completion of the work, Tolstoi and the editor, Katkov, had an irreconcilable quarrel. The war with Turkey was imminent. Tolstoi was naturally vehemently opposed to it, while Katkov did everything in his power to inflame public opinion in favour of the war party; and he felt that Vronsky's departure for the war, after the death of Anna, with Levin's comments thereupon, were written in an unpatriotic manner. Ridiculous as it now seems to give this great masterpiece a political twist, or to judge it from that point of view, it was for a time the sole question that agitated the critics. Katkov insisted that Tolstoi "soften" the objectionable passages. Tolstoi naturally refused, editor and author quarrelled, and Tolstoi was forced to publish the last portion of the work in a separate pamphlet. In the number of May 1877, Katkov printed a footnote to the instalment of the novel, which shows how little he understood its significance, although the majority of contemporary Russian critics understood the book no better than he.

"In our last number, at the foot of the novel Anna Karenina, we printed, 'Conclusion in the next issue.' But with the death of the heroine the real story ends. According to the plan of the author, there will be a short epilogue, in which the reader will learn that Vronsky, overwhelmed by the death of Anna, will depart for Servia as a volunteer; that all the other characters remain alive and well; that Levin lives on his estates and fumes against the Slavonic party and the volunteers. Perhaps the author will develop this chapter in a special edition of his novel."

Levin's conversation with the peasant, toward the close of Anna Karenina, indicates clearly the religious attitude of Tolstoi, and prepares us for the crisis that followed. From 1877 to 1879 he passed through a spiritual struggle, read the New Testament constantly, and became completely converted to the practical teachings of the Gospel. Then followed his well-known work, My Religion, the abandonment of his former way of life, and his attempts to live like a peasant, in daily manual labour. Since that time he wrote a vast number of religious, political, and social tracts, dealing with war, marriage, law-courts, imprisonment, etc. Many of the religious tracts belong to literature by the beauty and simple directness of their style. Two short stories and one long novel, all written with a didactic purpose, are of this period, and added to their author's reputation: The Death of Ivan Ilyich, The Kreuzer Sonata, and Resurrection.

One cannot but admire the courage of Tolstoi in attempting to live in accordance with his convictions, just as we admire Milton for his motives in abandoning poetry for politics. But our unspeakable regret at the loss to the world in both instances, when its greatest living author devotes himself to things done much better by men destitute of talent, makes us heartily sympathise with the attitude of the Countess, who hardly knew whether to laugh or to cry. In a letter to her husband, written in October 1884, and filled with terms of affectionate tenderness, she said: "Yesterday I received your letter, and it has made me very sad. I see that you have remained at Yasnaya not for intellectual work, which I place above everything, but to play 'Robinson.' You have let the cook go . . . and from morning to night you give yourself up to manual toil fit only for young men. . . . You will say, of course, that this manner of life conforms to your principles and that it does you good. That's another matter. I can only say, 'Rejoice and take your pleasure,' and at the same time I feel sad to think that such an intellectual force as yours should expend itself in cutting wood, heating the samovar, and sewing boots. That is all very well as a change of work, but not for an occupation. Well, enough of this subject. If I had not written this, it would have rankled in me, and now it has passed and I feel like laughing. I can calm myself only by this Russian proverb: 'Let the child amuse himself, no matter how, provided he doesn't cry."

In the last few weeks of his life, the differences of opinion between the aged couple became so acute that Tolstoi fled from his home, and refused to see the Countess again. This flight brought on a sudden illness, and the great writer died early in the morning of the 20 November 1910. He was buried under an oak tree at Yasnaya Polyana.

Although Count Tolstoi divided his life into four distinct periods, and although critics have often insisted on the great difference between his earlier and his later work, these differences fade away on a close scrutiny of the man's whole production, from Childhood to Resurrection.

"Souls alter not, and mine must still advance," said Browning. This is particularly true of Tolstoi. He progressed, but did not change; and he progressed along the path already clearly marked in his first books. The author of Sevastopol and The Cossacks was the same man mentally and spiritually who wrote Anna Karenina, Ivan Ilyich, The Kreuzer Sonata, and Resurrection. Indeed, few great authors have steered so straight a course as he. No such change took place in him as occurred with Björnson. The teaching of the later books is more evident, the didactic purpose is more obvious, but that is something that happens to almost all writers as they descend into the vale of years. The seed planted in the early novels simply came to a perfectly natural and logical fruition.

Not only do the early novels indicate the direction that Tolstoi's whole life was bound to assume, but his diary and letters show the same thing. The extracts from these that I have given above are substantial proof of this--he saw the truth just as clearly in 1855 as he saw it in 1885, or in 1905. The difference between the early and later Tolstoi is not, then, a difference in mental viewpoint, it is a difference in conduct and action.[3] The eternal moral law of self-sacrifice was revealed to him in letters of fire when he wrote The Cossacks and Sevastopol; everything that he wrote after was a mere amplification and additional emphasis. But he was young then; and although he saw the light, he preferred the darkness. He knew then, just as clearly as he knew later, that the life in accordance with New Testament teaching was a better life than that spent in following his animal instincts; but his knowledge did not save him.

Even the revolutionary views on art, which he expressed toward the end of the century in his book, What is Art? were by no means a sudden discovery, nor do they reveal a change in his attitude. The accomplished translator, Mr. Maude, said in his preface, "The fundamental thought expressed in this book leads inevitably to conclusions so new, so unexpected, and so contrary to what is usually maintained in literary and artistic circles," etc. But while the conclusions seemed new (and absurd) to many artists, they were not at all new to Tolstoi. So early as 1872 he practically held these views. In a letter to Strakov, expressing his contempt for modern Russian literature and the language of the great poets and novelists, he said: "Pushkin himself appears to me ridiculous. The language of the people, on the contrary, has sounds to express everything that the poet is able to say, and it is very dear to me." In the same letter he wrote, "'Poor Lisa' drew tears and received homage, but no one reads her any more, while popular songs and tales, and folk-lore ballads will live as long as the Russian language."

In his views of art, in his views of morals, in his views of religion, Tolstoi developed, but he did not change. He simply followed his ideas to their farthest possible extreme, so that many Anglo-Saxons suspected him even of madness. In reality, the method of his thought is characteristically and purely Russian. An Englishman may be in love with an idea, and start out bravely to follow it; but if he finds it leading him into a position contrary to the experience of humanity, then he pulls up, and decides that the idea must be false, even if he can detect no flaw in it; not so the Russian; the idea is right, and humanity is wrong.

No author ever told us so much about himself as Tolstoi. Not only do we now possess his letters and journals, in which he revealed his inner life with the utmost clarity of detail, but all his novels, even those that seem the most objective, are really part of his autobiography. Through the persons of different characters he is always talking about himself, always introspective. That is one reason why his novels seem so amazingly true to life. They seem true because they are true.

Some one said of John Stuart Mill, "Analysis is the king of his intellect." This remark is also true of most Russian novelists, and particularly true of Tolstoi. In all his work, historical romance, realistic novels, religious tracts, his greatest power was shown in the correct analysis of mental states. And he took all human nature for his province. Strictly speaking, there are no minor characters in his books. The same pains are taken with persons who have little influence on the course of the story, as with the chief actors. The normal interests him even more than the abnormal, which is the great difference between his work and that of Gorki and Andreev, as it was the most striking difference between Shakespeare and his later contemporaries. To reveal ordinary people just as they really are,--sometimes in terrific excitement, sometimes in humdrum routine,--this was his aim. Natural scenery is occasionally introduced, like the mountains in The Cossacks, to show how the spectacle affects the mind of the person who is looking at it. It is seldom made use of for a background. Mere description occupied a very small place in Tolstoi's method. The intense fidelity to detail in the portrayal of character, whether obsessed by a mighty passion, or playing with a trivial caprice, is the chief glory of his work. This is why, after the reading of Tolstoi, so many other "realistic" novels seem utterly untrue and absurd.

The three stories, Childhood, Boyhood, Youth, now generally published as one novel, are the work of a genius, but not a work of genius. They are interesting in the light of their author's later books, and they are valuable as autobiography. The fact that he himself repudiated them, was ashamed of having written them, and declared that their style was unnatural, means little or much, according to one's viewpoint. But the undoubted power revealed here and there in their pages is immature, a mere suggestion of what was to follow. They are exercises in composition. He learned how to write in writing these. But the intention of their author is clear enough. His "stress lay on the incidents in the development of a soul." There is not a single unusual or sensational event in the whole narrative, nor did the hero grow up in any strange or remarkable environment. The interest therefore is not in what happened, but wholly in the ripening character of the child. The circumstances are partly true of Tolstoi's own boyhood, partly not; he purposely mixed his own and his friends' experiences. But mentally the boy is Tolstoi himself, revealed in all the awkwardness, self-consciousness, and morbidity of youth. The boy's pride, vanity, and curious mixture of timidity and conceit do not form a very attractive picture, and were not intended to. Tolstoi himself as a young man had little charm, and his numerous portraits all plainly indicate the fact. His Satanic pride made frank friendship with him almost an impossibility. Despite our immense respect for his literary power, despite the enormous influence for good that his later books have effected, it must be said that of all the great Russian writers, Tolstoi was the most unlovely.

These three sketches, taken as one, are grounded on moral ideas--the same ideas that later completely dominated the author's life. We feel his hatred of dissipation and of artificiality. The chapter on Love, in Youth, might also form a part of the Kreuzer Sonata, so fully does it harmonise with the teaching of the later work.

"I do not speak of the love of a young man for a young girl, and hers for him; I fear these tendernesses, and I have been so unfortunate in life as never to have seen a single spark of truth in this species of love, but only a lie, in which sentiment, connubial relations, money, a desire to bind or to unbind one's hands, have to such an extent confused the feeling itself, that it has been impossible to disentangle it. I am speaking of the love for man."[4]

Throughout this book, as in all Tolstoi's work, is the eternal question Why? For what purpose is life, and to what end am I living? What is the real meaning of human ambition and human effort?

Tolstoi's reputation as an artist quite rightly began with the publication of the three Sevastopol stories, Sevastopol in December [1854], Sevastopol in May, Sevastopol in August. This is the work, not of a promising youth, but of a master. There is not a weak or a superfluous paragraph. Maurice Hewlett has cleverly turned the charge that those 'who oppose war are sentimentalists, by risposting that the believers in war are the real sentimentalists: "they do not see the murder beneath the khaki and the flags." Tolstoi was one of the first novelists to strip war of its glamour, and portray its dull, commonplace filth, and its unspeakable horror. In reading that masterpiece La Débâcle, and every one who believes in war ought to read it, one feels that Zola must have learned something from Tolstoi. The Russian novelist stood in the midst of the flying shells, and how little did any one then realise that his own escape from death was an event of far greater importance to the world than the outcome of the war!

There is little patriotic feeling in Sevastopol, and its success was artistic rather than political. Of course Russian courage is praised, but so is the courage of the French. In spite of the fact that Tolstoi was a Russian officer, actively fighting for his country, he shows a singular aloofness from party passion in all his descriptions. The only partisan statement is in the half sentence, "it is a comfort to think that it was not we who began this war, that we are only defending our own country," which might profitably be read by those who believe in "just" wars, along with Tennyson's Maud, published at the same time. Tennyson was cock-sure that the English were God's own people, and in all this bloodshed were doing the blessed work of their Father in heaven.

"God's just wrath shall be wreak'd on a giant liar."

Throughout the heat of the conflict, Tolstoi felt its utter absurdity, really holding the same views of war that he held as an old man. "And why do not Christian people," he wrote in Sevastopol in May, "who profess the one great law of love and self-sacrifice, when they behold what they have wrought, fall in repentance upon their knees before Him who, when He gave them life, implanted in the soul of each of them, together with the fear of death, a love of the good and beautiful, and, with tears of joy and happiness, embrace each other like brothers?"

Together with the fear of death-this fear is analysed by Tolstoi in all its manifestations. The fear of the young officer, as he exchanges the enthusiastic departure from Petersburg for the grim reality of the bastions; the fear of the still sound and healthy man as he enters the improvised hospitals; the fear as the men watch the point of approaching light that means a shell; the fear of the men lying on the ground, waiting with closed eyes for the shell to burst. It is the very psychology of death. In reading the account of Praskukhin's sensations just before death, one feels, as one does in reading the thoughts of Anna Karenina under the train, that Tolstoi himself must have died in some previous existence, in order to analyse death so clearly. And all these officers, who walk in the Valley of the Shadow, have their selfish ambitions, their absurd social distinctions, and their overweening, egotistical vanity.

At the end of the middle sketch, Sevastopol in May, Tolstoi wrote out the only creed to which he remained consistently true all his life, the creed of Art.

"Who is the villain, who the hero? All are good and all are evil.

"The hero of my tale, whom I love with all the strength of my soul, whom I have tried to set forth in all his beauty, and who has always been, is, and always will be most beautiful, is--the truth."

The next important book, The Cossacks, is not a great novel. Tolstoi himself grew tired of it, and never finished it. It is interesting as an excellent picture of an interesting community, and it is interesting as a diary, for the chief character, Olenin, is none other than Leo Tolstoi. He departed for the Caucasus in much the same manner as the young writer, and his observations and reflections there are Tolstoi's own. The triple contrast in the book is powerfully shown: first, the contrast between the majesty of the mountains and the pettiness of man; second, the contrast between the noble simplicity of the Cossack women and the artificiality of the padded shapes of society females; third, the contrast between the two ways of life, that which Olenin recognises as right, the Christian law of self-denial, but which he does not follow, and the almost sublime pagan bodily joy of old Uncle Yeroshka, who lives in exact harmony with his creed. Yeroshka is a living force, a real character, and might have been created by Gogol.

Olenin, who is young Tolstoi, and not very much of a man, soliloquises in language that was echoed word for word by the Tolstoi of the twentieth century.

"Happiness consists in living for others. This also is clear. Man is endowed with a craving for happiness; therefore it must be legitimate. If he satisfies it egotistically,--that is, if he bends his energies toward acquiring wealth, fame, physical comforts, love, it may happen that circumstances will make it impossible to satisfy this craving. In fact, these cravings are illegitimate, but the craving for happiness is not illegitimate. What cravings can always be satisfied independently of external conditions? Love, self-denial."[5]

His later glorification of physical labour, as the way of salvation for irresolute and overeducated Russians, is as emphatically stated in ÊThe Cossacks as it is in the Kreuzer Sonata.

"The constant hard field labour, and the duties intrusted to them, give a peculiarly independent, masculine character to the Greben women, and have served to develop in them, to a remarkable degree, physical powers, healthy minds, decision and stability of character."

The chief difference between Turgenev and Tolstoi is that Turgenev was always an artist; Tolstoi always a moralist. It was not necessary for him to abandon novels, and write tracts; for in every novel his moral teaching was abundantly clear.

With the possible exception of Taras Bulba, War and Peace is the greatest historical romance in the Russian language, perhaps the greatest in any language. It is not illumined by the humour of any such character as Zagloba, who brightens the great chronicles of Sienkiewicz; for if Tolstoi had had an accurate sense of humour, or the power to create great comic personages, he would never have been led into the final extremes of doctrine. But although this long book is unrelieved by mirth, and although as an objective historical panorama it does not surpass The Deluge, it is nevertheless a greater book. It is greater because its psychological analysis is more profound and more cunning. It is not so much a study of war, or the study of a vital period in the earth's history, as it is a revelation of all phases of human nature in a time of terrible stress. It is filled with individual portraits, amazingly distinct.

Professors of history and military experts have differed widely--as it is the especial privilege of scholars and experts to differ--concerning the accuracy of War and Peace as a truthful narrative of events. But this is really a matter of no importance. Shakespeare is the greatest writer the world has ever seen; but he is not an authority on history; he is an authority on man. When we wish to study the Wars of the Roses, we do not turn to his pages, brilliant as they are. Despite all the geographical and historical research that Tolstoi imposed on himself as a preliminary to the writing of War and Peace, he did not write the history of that epoch, nor would a genuine student quote him as in authority. He created a prose epic, a splendid historical panorama, vitalised by a marvellous imagination, where the creatures of his fancy are more alive than Napoleon and Alexander. Underneath all the march of armies, the spiritual purpose of the author is clear. The real greatness of man consists not in fame or pride of place, but in simplicity and purity of heart. Once more he gives us the contrast between artificiality and reality.

This novel, like all of Tolstoi's, is by no means a perfect work of art. Its outline is irregular and ragged; its development devious. It contains many excrescences, superfluities, digressions. But it is a dictionary of life, where one may look up any passion, any emotion, any ambition, any weakness, and find its meaning. Strakov called it a complete picture of the Russia of that time, and a complete picture of humanity.

Its astonishing inequalities make the reader at times angrily impatient, and at other times inspired. One easily understands the varying emotions of Turgenev, who read the story piecemeal, in the course of its publication. "The second part of 1805 is weak. How petty and artificial all that is! ...where are the real features of the epoch? where is the historical colour?" Again: "I have just finished reading the fourth volume. It contains things that are intolerable and things that are astounding; these latter are the things that dominate the work, and they are so admirable that never has a Russian written anything better; I do not believe there has ever been written anything so good." Again: "How tormenting are his obstinate repetitions of the same thing: the down on the upper lip of the Princess Bolkonsky. But with all that, there are in this novel passages that no man in Europe except Tolstoi could have written, things which put me into a frenzy of enthusiasm."

Tolstoi's genius reached its climax in Anna Karenina. Greatly as I admire some of his other books, I would go so far as to say that if a forced choice had to be made, I had rather have Anna Karenina than all the rest of his works put together. Leave that out, and his position in the history of fiction diminishes at once. It is surely the most powerful novel written by any man of our time, and it would be difficult to name a novel of any period that surpasses it in strength. I well remember the excitement with which we American undergraduates in the eighties read the poor and clipped English translation of this book. Twenty years' contemplation of it makes it seem steadily greater.

Yet its composition was begun by a mere freak, by something analogous to a sporting proposition. He was thinking of writing a historical romance of the times of Peter the Great, but the task seemed formidable, and he felt no well of inspiration. One evening, the 19 March 1873, he entered a room where his ten-year-old boy had been reading aloud from a story by Pushkin. Tolstoi picked up the book and read the first sentence: "On the eve of the fête the guests began to arrive." He was charmed by the abrupt opening, and cried: "That's the way to begin a book! The reader is immediately taken into the action. Another writer would have begun by a description, but Pushkin, he goes straight to his goal." Some one in the room suggested playfully to Tolstoi that he try a similar commencement and write a novel. He immediately withdrew, and wrote the first sentence of Anna Karenina. The next day the Countess said in a letter to her sister: "Yesterday Leo all of a sudden began to write a novel of contemporary life. The subject: the unfaithful wife and the whole resulting tragedy. I am very happy."

The suicide of the heroine was taken almost literally from an event that happened in January 1872. We learn this by a letter of the Countess, written on the 10 January in that year: "We have just learned of a very dramatic story. You remember, at Bibikov's, Anna Stepanova? Well, this Anna Stepanova was jealous of all the governesses at Bibikov's house. She displayed her jealousy so much that finally Bibikov became angry and quarrelled with her; then Anna Stepanova left him and went to Tula. For three days no one knew where she was. At last, on the third day, she appeared at Yassenky, at five o'clock in the afternoon, with a little parcel. At the railway station she gave the coachman a letter for Bibikov, and gave him a ruble for a tip. Bibikov would not take the letter, and when the coachman returned to the station, he learned that Anna Stepanova had thrown herself under the train and was crushed to death. She had certainly done it intentionally. The judge came, and they read him the letter. It said: 'You are my murderer: be happy, if assassins can be. If you care to, you can see my corpse on the rails, at Yassenky.' Leo and Uncle Kostia have gone to the autopsy."

Most of the prominent characters in the book are taken from life, and the description of the death of Levin's brother is a recollection of the time when Tolstoi's own brother died in his arms.

Levin is, of course, Tolstoi himself; and all his eternal doubts and questionings, his total dissatisfaction and condemnation of artificial social life in the cities, his spiritual despair, and his final release from suffering at the magic word of the peasant are strictly autobiographical. When the muzhik told Levin that one man lived for his belly, and another for his soul, he became greatly excited, and eagerly demanded further knowledge of his humble teacher. He was once more told that man must live according to God--according to truth. His soul was immediately filled, says Tolstoi, with brilliant light. He was indeed relieved of his burden, like Christian at the sight of the Cross. Now Tolstoi's subsequent doctrinal works are all amplifications of the conversation between Levin and the peasant, which in itself contains the real significance of the whole novel.

Even Anna Karenina, with all its titanic power, is not an artistic model of a story. It contains much superfluous matter, and the balancing off of the two couples, Levin and Kitty, with Vronsky and Anna, is too obviously arranged by the author. One Russian critic was so disgusted with the book that he announced the plan of a continuation of the novel where Levin was to fall in love with his cow, and Kitty's resulting jealousy was to be depicted.

It has no organic plot--simply a succession of pictures. The plot does not develop--but the characters do, thus resembling our own individual human lives. It has no true unity, such as that shown, for example, by the Scarlet Letter. Our interest is largely concentrated in Anna, but besides the parallel story of Kitty, we have many other incidents and characters which often contribute nothing to the progress of the novel. They are a part of life, however, so Tolstoi includes them. One might say there is an attempt at unity, in the person of that sleek egotist, Stepan--his relation by blood and marriage to both Anna and Kitty makes him in some sense a link between the two couples. But he is more successful as a personage than as the keystone of an arch. The novel would really lose nothing by considerable cancellation. The author might have omitted Levin's two brothers, the whole Kitty and Levin history could have been liberally abbreviated, and many of the conversations on philosophy and politics would never be missed. Yes, the work could be shortened, but it would take a Turgenev to do it.

Although we may not always find Art in the book, we always find Life. No novel in my recollection combines wider range with greater intensity. It is extensive and intensive--broad and deep. The simplicity of the style in the most impressive scenes is so startling that it seems as if there were somehow no style and no language there; nothing whatever between the life in the book and the reader's mind; not only no impenetrable wall of style, such as Meredith and James pile up with curious mosaic, so that one cannot see the characters in the story through the exquisite and opaque structure,--but really no medium at all, transparent or otherwise. The emotional life of the men and women enter into our emotions with no let or hindrance, and that perfect condition of communication is realised which Browning believed would characterise the future life, when spirits would somehow converse without the slow, troublesome, and inaccurate means of language.

I believe that the average man can learn more about life by reading Anna Karenina than he can by his own observation and experience. One learns much about Russian life in city and country, much about human nature, and much about one's self, not all of which is flattering, but perhaps profitable for instruction.

This is the true realism--external and internal. The surface of things, clothes, habits of speech, manners and fashions, the way people enter a drawing-room, the way one inhales a cigarette,--everything is truthfully reported. Then there is the true internal realism, which dives below all appearances and reveals the dawn of a new passion, the first faint stir of an ambition, the slow and cruel advance of the poison of jealousy, the ineradicable egotism, the absolute darkness of unspeakable remorse. No caprice is too trivial, no passion too colossal, to be beyond the reach of the author of this book.

Some novels have attained a wide circulation by means of one scene. In recollecting Anna Karenina, powerful scenes crowd into the memory--introspective and analytic as it is, it is filled with dramatic climaxes. The sheer force of some of these scenes is almost terrifying. The first meeting of Anna and Vronsky at the railway station, the midnight interview in the storm on the way back to Petersburg, the awful dialogue between them after she has fallen (omitted from the first American translation), the fearful excitement of the horse race, the sickness of Anna, Karenin's forgiveness, the humiliation of Vronsky, the latter's attempt at suicide, the steadily increasing scenes of jealousy with the shadow of death coming nearer, the clairvoyant power of the author in describing the death of Anna, and the departure of Vronsky, where the railway station reminds him with intrusive agony of the contrast between his first and last view of the woman he loved. No one but Tolstoi would ever have given his tragic character a toothache at that particular time; but the toothache, added to the heartache, gives the last touch of reality. No reader has ever forgotten Vronsky, as he stands for the last time by the train, his heart torn by the vulture of Memory, and his face twisted by the steady pain in his tooth.

Every character in the book, major and minor, is a living human being. Stepan, with his healthy, pampered body, and his inane smile at Dolly's reproachful face; Dolly, absolutely commonplace and absolutely real; Yashvin, the typical officer; the English trainer, Cord; Betsy, always cheerful, always heartless, probably the worst character in the whole book, Satan's own spawn; Karenin himself, not ridiculous, like an English Restoration husband, but with an overwhelming power of creating ennui, in which he lives and moves and has his being.

From the first day of his acquaintance with Anna, Vronsky steadily rises, and Anna steadily falls. This is in accordance with the fundamental, inexorable moral law. Vronsky, a handsome man with no purpose in life, who has had immoral relations with a large variety of women, now falls for the first time really in love, and his love for one woman strengthens his mind and heart, gives him an object in life, and concentrates the hitherto scattered energies of his soul. His development as a man, his rise in dignity and force of character, is one of the notable features of the whole book. When we first see him, he is colourless, a mere fashionable type; he constantly becomes more interesting, and when we last see him, he has not only our profound sympathy, but our cordial respect. He was a figure in a uniform, and has become a man. Devotion to one woman has raised him far above trivialities.

The woman pays for all this. Never again, not even in the transports of passion, will she be so happy as when we first see her on that bright winter day. She grows in intelligence by the fruit of the tree, and sinks in moral worth and in peace of mind. Never, since the time of Helen, has there been a woman in literature of more physical charm. Tolstoi, whose understanding of the body is almost supernatural, has created in Anna a woman, quite ordinary from the mental and spiritual point of view, but who leaves on every reader an indelible vision of surpassing loveliness. One is not surprised at Vronsky's instant and total surrender.

As a study of sin, the moral force of the story is tremendous. At the end, the words of Paul come irresistibly into the mind. To be carnally minded is death; to be spiritually minded is life and peace.

One can understand Tolstoi's enthusiasm for the Gospel in his later years, and also the prodigious influence of his parables and evangelistic narratives, by remembering that the Russian mind, which, as Gogol said, is more capable than any other of receiving the Christian religion, had been starved for centuries. The Orthodox Church of Russia seems to have been and to be as remote from the life of the people as the political bureaucracy. The hungry sheep looked up and were not fed. The Christian religion is the dominating force in the works of Gogol, Tolstoi, and Dostoevski. How eager the Russian people are for the simple Gospel, and with what amazing joy they now receive it, remind one of the Apostolic age. Accurate testimony to this fact has lately been given by a dispassionate German observer:--

"In the second half of the nineteenth century the Bible followed in the track of the knowledge of reading and writing in the Russian village. It worked, and works, far more powerfully than all the Nihilists, and if the Holy Synod wishes to be consistent in its policy of spiritual enslavement, it must begin by checking the distribution of the Bible. The origin of the 'Stunde,' from the prayer hour of the German Menonites and other evangelical colonist meetings, is well known. The religious sense of the Russian, brooding for centuries over empty forms, combined with the equally repressed longing for spiritual life,--these quickly seized upon the power of a simple and practical living religious doctrine, and the 'Stundist' movement spread rapidly over the whole south of the Empire. Wherever a Bible in the Russian language is to be found in the village, there a circle rapidly forms around its learned owner; he is listened to eagerly, and the Word has its effect. . .

"Pashkov, a colonel of the Guards, who died in Paris at the beginning of 1902, started in the 'eighties' a movement in St. Petersburg, which was essentially evangelical, with a methodistical tinge, and which soon seized upon all the strata of the population in the capital. Substantially it was a religious revival from the dry-as-dust Greek church similar to that which in the sixteenth century turned against the Romish church in Germany and in Switzerland. The Gospel was to Pashkov himself new, good tidings, and as such he carried it into the distinguished circles which he assembled at his palace on the Neva, and as such he brought it amongst the crowds of cabmen, labourers, laundresses, etc., whom he called from the streets to hear the news. Pashkov's name was known by the last crossing-sweeper, and many thousands blessed him, some because they had been moved by the religious spirit which glowed in him, others because they knew of the many charitable institutions which he had founded with his own means and with the help of rich men and women friends. I myself shall never forget the few hours which I spent in conversation with this man, simple in spirit as in education, but so rich in religious feeling and in true humility. To me he could offer nothing new, for all that to him was new I, the son of Lutheran parents, had known from my childhood days. But what was new to me was the phenomenon of a man who had belonged for fifty years to a Christian Church and had only now discovered as something new what is familiar to every member of an evangelical community as the sum and substance of Christian teaching. To him the Gospel itself was something new, a revelation.

"This has been the case of many thousands in the Russian Empire when they opened the Bible for the first time. The spark flew from village to village and took fire, because the people were thirsting for a spiritual, religious life, because it brought comfort in their material misery, and food for their minds. Holy Vladimir, with his Byzantine priests, brought no living Christianity into the land, and the common Russian had not been brought into contact with it during the nine hundred years which have elapsed since. Wherever it penetrates to-day with the Bible, there its effect is apparent. It is such as the best Government could not accomplish by worldly means alone. But it is diametrically opposed to the State Church; it leads to secession from orthodoxy, and the State has entered upon a crusade against it."[6]

In The Power of Darkness, Ivan Ilyich, and the Kreuzer Sonata. Tolstoi has shown the way of Death. In Resurrection he has shown the way of Life. The most sensational of all his books is the Kreuzer Sonata; it was generally misunderstood, and from that time some of his friends walked no more with him. By a curious freak of the powers of this world, it was for a time taboo in the United States, and its passage by post was forbidden; then the matter was taken to the courts, and a certain upright judge declared that so far from the book being vicious, it condemned vice and immorality on every page. He not only removed the ban, but recommended its wider circulation. The circumstances that gave rise to its composition are described in an exceedingly interesting article in the New York Sun for 10 October 1909, A Visit to Count Leo Tolstoi in 1887, by Madame Nadine Helbig. The whole article should be read for the charming picture it gives of the patriarchal happiness at Yasnaya Polyana, and while she saw clearly the real comfort enjoyed by Tolstoi, which aroused the fierce wrath of Merezhkovski, she proved also how much good was accomplished by the old novelist in the course of a single average day.

"Never shall I forget the evening when the young Polish violinist, whom I have already mentioned, asked me to play with him Beethoven's sonata for piano and violin, dedicated to Kreuzer, his favourite piece, which he had long been unable to play for want of a good piano player.

"Tolstoi listened with growing attention. He had the first movement played again, and after the last note of the sonata he went out quietly without saying, as usual, good night to his family and guests.

"That night was created the 'Kreuzer Sonata' in all its wild force. Shortly afterward he sent me in Rome the manuscript of it. Tolstoi was the best listener whom I have ever had the luck to play to. He forgot himself and his surroundings. His expression changed with the music. Tears ran down his cheeks at some beautiful adagio, and he would say, 'Tania, just give me a fresh handkerchief; I must have got a cold to-day.' I had to play generally Beethoven and Schumann to him. He did not approve of Bach, and on the other hand you could make him raving mad with Liszt, and still more with Wagner."

Many hundreds of amateur players have struggled through the music of the Kreuzer Sonata, trying vainly to see in it what Tolstoi declared it means. Of course the significance attached to it by Tolstoi existed only in his vivid imagination, Beethoven being the healthiest of all great composers. If the novelist had really wished to describe sensual music, he would have made a much more felicitous choice of Tristan und Isolde.

Although his own married life was until the last years happy as man could wish, Tolstoi introduced into the Kreuzer Sonata passages from his own existence. When Posdnichev is engaged, he gives his fiancée his memoirs, containing a truthful account of his various liaisons. She is in utter despair, and for a time thinks of breaking off the engagement. All this was literally true of the author himself. When a boy, the hero was led to a house of ill-fame by a friend of his brother, "a very gay student, one of those who are called good fellows." This reminds us of a precisely similar attempt described by Tolstoi in Youth. Furthermore, Posdnichev's self-righteousness in the fact that although he had been dissipated, he determined to be faithful to his wife, was literally and psychologically true in Tolstoi's own life.

The Kreuzer Sonata shows no diminution of Tolstoi's realistic power: the opening scenes on the train, the analysis of the hero's mind during the early years of his married life, and especially the murder, all betray the familiar power of simplicity and fidelity to detail. The passage of the blade through the corset and then into something soft has that sensual realism so characteristic of all Tolstoi's descriptions of bodily sensations. The book is a work of art, and contains many reflections and bitter accusations against society that are founded on the truth.

The moral significance of the story is perfectly clear--that men who are constantly immoral before marriage need not expect happiness in married life. It is a great pity that Tolstoi did not let the powerful little novel speak for itself, and that he allowed himself to be goaded into an explanatory and defensive commentary by the thousands of enquiring letters from foolish readers. Much of the commentary contains sound advice, but it leads off into that reductio ad absurdum so characteristic of Russian thought.

Many of the tracts and parables that Tolstoi wrote are true works of art, with a Biblical directness and simplicity of style. Their effect outside of Russia is caused fully as much by their literary style as by their teaching. I remember an undergraduate, who, reading Where Love is there God is Also, said that he was tremendously excited when the old shoemaker lost his spectacles, and had no peace of mind till he found them again. This is unconscious testimony to Tolstoi's power of making trivial events seem real.

The long novel, Resurrection, is, as Mr. Maude, the English translator, shows, not merely a story, but a general summary of all the final conclusions about life reached by its author. The English volume actually has an Index to Social Questions, Types, etc., giving the pages where the author's views on all such topics are expressed in the book. Apart from the great transformation wrought in the character of the hero, which is the motive of the work, there are countless passages which show the genius of the author, still burning brightly in his old age. The difference between the Easter kiss and the kiss of lust is one of the most powerful instances of analysis, and may be taken as a symbol of the whole work. And the depiction of the sportsman's feelings when he brings down a wounded bird, half shame and half rage, will startle and impress every man who has carried a gun.

Resurrection teaches directly what Tolstoi always taught--what he taught less directly, but with even greater art, in Anna Karenina.

In reading this work of his old age, we cannot help thinking of what Carlyle said of the octogenarian Goethe: "See how in that great mind, beaming in mildest mellow splendour, beaming, if also trembling, like a great sun on the verge of the horizon, near now to its long farewell, all these things were illuminated and illustrated."


  1. His own Memoirs, edited by Birukov, are now the authority for biographical detail. They are still in process of publication.
  2. An amusing caricature of the time represents Turgenev, Ovstrovski, and Tolstoi bringing rolls of manuscripts to the editors.
  3. For a very unfavourable view of Tolstoi's later conduct, the "Tolstoi legend," see Merezhkovski, Tolstoi as Man and Artist.
  4. Translated by Isabel Hapgood.
  5. Translated by Isabel Hapgood.
  6. Russia of To-day, by Baron E. von der Bruggen. Translated by M. Sandwith, London, 1904. Pages 165-167.