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Essay On Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy, Leo

Religious and Philosophical Writings

(Full name Count Leo [Lev Nikolaevich] Tolstoy. Also transliterated as Lyof; also Nikolayevich; also Tolstoi, Tolstoj, Tolstoï). Russian novelist, short story and novella writer, essayist, dramatist, and critic. See also Smert Ivana Ilyicha Criticism, The Kreutzer Sonata Criticism, and Khozyain I rabotnik Criticism.

Tolstoy is regarded as one of the greatest novelists in the history of world literature. His Voina i mir (War and Peace) and Anna Karenina are almost universally acknowledged as all-encompassing documents of human existence and supreme examples of the realistic novel. Tolstoy is also considered a major religious and philosophic thinker, germs of which can be seen in his earlier fiction, but which ultimately came to fruition after the spiritual crisis he underwent beginning with deep depression in 1875. Characterized chiefly by his devotion to a close and literal reading of the Gospels of Christ, Tolstoy's religious convictions led him to a life of personal asceticism and social action that influenced Christian thinking around the world, and had a major impact on the thought and works of such social activists as Mohandas K. Gandhi in India and Jane Addams in the United States.

Biographical Information

Tolstoy was born in 1828 to a wealthy family who resided just outside of Moscow. After his mother died in 1830 and his father in 1837, Tolstoy's upbringing and education fell into the hands of relatives, who hired private tutors for him. In 1844 he entered Kazan University, but failed to earn a degree. He returned to the family estate, Yasnaya Polyana, in 1847 to manage the affairs there. Dissatisfied, Tolstoy joined the army in 1851, seeing active service in the Caucasus and in the siege of Sevastopol during the Crimean War, which he later wrote about in his Sevastopolskiye rasskazy (Sevastopol Sketches). While in the army, Tolstoy began to write and publish fiction, which met with much success. He left the army in 1856 and traveled through Europe before returning to Yasnaya Polyana, where he lived for the rest of his life. At this point, he became interested in social reform, focusing his efforts on educational and philanthropic work with the peasants around his estate. In 1862 he married Sonya Andreyevna Behrs, and began working on his two greatest works, War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Beginning around 1875, Tolstoy was plagued by depression and an obsession with death that lasted until his final spiritual crisis-a "conversion" to the orthodoxy of his youth-in 1878. Concentrating for the next several years on intensive study of theology and the Christian scriptures, Tolstoy developed his own interpretation of Christianity based on an ethical foundation of universal love and brotherhood, which eventually led to his renunciation of the aristocratic lifestyle. Rather than enter the secluded monastic life he admired, Tolstoy chose to remain at his estate and devote himself to public service, wearing peasants' clothing, doing manual labor, and practicing a strict regimen of pacifism, vegetarianism, and sexual abstinence. He turned away from writing the kind of novels that had won him worldwide fame and concentrated instead on writing philosophical and religious works, many designed to educate the masses. While several of Tolstoy's thirteen children sympathized with him, his spiritual rigor created tension in the family, especially with his wife. Government harassment and excommunication from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1901 increased tensions in the family, and Tolstoy found that by 1905 his stance of pacifism and nonresistance were running counter to the realities of poverty and government-sanctioned slaughter of early Russian revolutionaries, many of them strongly influenced by Tolstoy's own banned writings. Beset by family problems, and overwhelmed by the responsibility of upholding his teachings in the face of massive social upheaval, Tolstoy fled from his home in 1910, dying in a railway station in Astapovo.

Major Works

In Ispoved (A Confession), Tolstoy outlined the spiritual upheaval that caused him to question the basis of his existence. The piece is considered among the great literary works of personal conversion that include St. Augustine's Confession and Rousseau's Confessions. Tolstoy's attempt at a solution to this crisis took the form of a radical Christianity whose doctrines ultimately included pacifism, vegetarianism, and sexual abstinence. At this point in his career, Tolstoy was concerned with producing two types of fiction: simple tales written in a folk tradition for uneducated readers and more literary works focusing on his moral preoccupations of this period. The folktales, such as "Brazhe iepko, a bozhe krepko" ("Evil Allures but Good Endures"), were designed as examples of "universal art" and have often been praised for delivering their didactic point in an artful manner. Much the same estimation has been accorded Tolstoy's literary fiction of this time, including Smert Ivana Ilyicha (The Death of Ivan Ilitch) and Kreitserova sonata (The Kreutzer Sonata). If the moral stance of these fictional tracts on death and sex has been criticized as simplistic or severe, the two works have also been considered among the best examples of Tolstoy's art of storytelling. However, Tolstoy's longest work of his post-conversion period and his last major novel, Voskresenie (Resurrection), is considered far less successful than his early masterpieces. Although Tolstoy's genius for description and characterization are still evident in this work, the intrusion of social and moral issues is regarded as detrimental to the novel's artistic value. Among the later novels, Khadzhi Murat (Hadji Murad) is more often viewed as the work that shows the extent and endurance of Tolstoy's narrative power. During his later period Tolstoy also produced a number of dramatic works in an attempt to express his post-conversion ideas in a genre outside fiction. Like many of his other works, these dramas are often highly regarded for their vivid and compelling sense of realism, and for the sincere and sometimes overwhelming urgency of the author's concerns. The chief work among these plays is Vlast tmy (The Power of Darkness). The somber action of the drama-including adultery, murder, and religious torment-culminates in the redeeming vision of Christian faith that was a spiritual focus of the older Tolstoy. In the social comedy Plody prosvesh cheniya (The Fruits of Enlightenment), the object of Tolstoy's criticism is aristocratic society, and in the unfinished drama I svet vo tme svetit (The Light That Shines in Darkness), it is the author's own life. The latter play is of particular interest for Tolstoy's view of his sprirtual conversion and its effect on the people around him. The artistic repercussions of his conversion are spelled out in Chto takoe iskusstvo (What Is Art?). The major concern of this essay is to distinguish bogus art, which he called an elitist celebration of aesthetics, from universal art, which successfully "infects" its recipient with the highest sentiment an artist can transmit-that of religious feeling. This conception of art led Tolstoy to dismiss most of history's greatest artists, including William Shakespeare and Richard Wagner, and to repudiate all of his own previous work save for two short stories. During this period Tolstoy also wrote his many moral and theological tracts, for which he was eventually excommunicated. His pamphleteering on social, political, and economic subjects also resulted in the censorship of his work by the government.

Critical Reception

As a religious and ethical thinker Tolstoy has been criticized for the extremism, and sometimes the absurdity, of his ideas. Many critics have also found it difficult to reconcile Tolstoy's lifestyle with his profession of such an extreme ethical code. Tolstoy himself was acutely aware of the contradiction between his aristocratic upbringing and his later renunciation of elitism, and some critics have speculated that this is the reason for his doctrine of often excessive asceticism. However, he has also been admired for the gigantism of his ambition to discover absolute laws governing humanity's ethical and spiritual obligations amid the psychological and social complexities of the world. Whatever form Tolstoy's doctrines took, they were always founded on his expansive humanitarianism and based on one of the most intensive quests for wisdom in human history. Although Tolstoy ultimately believed that art should serve a religious and ethical code, he himself serves primarily as a model of the consummate artist, and his greatest works are exemplary of the nature and traditions of modern literature.

Leo Nikolaivich Tolstoy was born on August 28, 1828 to Princess Marie Volkonsky and Count Nicolas Tolstoy. Tolstoy was born at Yasnaya Polyana, the Volkonsky manor house on the road to Kieff in Russia. It was here that he was to spend the majority of his adult life. Leo was the fourth and last son of the family; they also had one daughter. Tolstoy's mother died when he was 18 months old, an event that would forever affect his feelings about women and motherhood. His father died when Tolstoy was nine years old, and the children grew up with a variety of aunts. According to Tolstoy, one of those aunts, Tatiana Yergolsky, "had the greatest influence on [his] life" because she taught him "the moral joy of love."

All four Tolstoy sons attended the University of Kazan. An irregular student, Tolstoy studied law, but he was more attracted by high society than by the rote learning methods employed at the University. When his brother Nicolas finished school and enlisted in the Russian military, Tolstoy took advantage of the opportunity to leave as well. He went to St. Petersburg and Moscow, where he led a debauched life and claimed in his diary that "I am living like a beast." In April 1851 Nicolas, disturbed by the direction of his brother's life, convinced him to head for the Caucasus Mountains with Nicolas' artillery division. Their journey to the Caucasus, over land and sea, was to form the backbone of Leo's 1861 novel The Cossacks. Tolstoy became a soldier and stayed in the Caucasus' for three years, where he wrote his first novel, Childhood, in the winter of 1851-1852. It was published in a leading St. Petersburg review, Sovremennik, in September 1852. The review would also serialize some of Tolstoy's later works, including Boyhood and Youth.

When the Crimean War broke out in 1853, Tolstoy was transferred to the front. During his experience with the War in Sebastopol, he had the first of many religious awakenings, believing that he needed to "create a new religion corresponding to the development of mankind." After Sebastopol capitulated in August 1855, he went to St. Petersburg to report on the battle, and then he left the army for good. In St. Petersburg, Tolstoy was well-received by the literary community, but he also often fought with many of them, including disagreements with the great author Turgenev (Fathers & Sons). He was elected a member of the Moscow Literary Society in February 1859.

When Tolstoy's beloved brother Nicolas died of consumption on September 20, 1860, he turned his focus towards his religious feelings and his desire to do good works. He toured Europe, studying its educational systems in the hope of starting new schools in Russia. When the serfs were liberated on February 19, 1861, he hurried back to Russia in order to mediate between them and their former masters. Unfortunately, because he frequently sided with the serfs, he was forced out of his mediator position. This conflict between Tolstoy's status as a wealthy landowner and his desire to help the poor would cause him problems for the rest of his life.

On September 23, 1862, at the age of 34, Tolstoy married 18-year-old Sophia Behrs, the youngest daughter of a wealthy family which he had known for many years. During their early days of marriage, he conceived the idea of a novel based on the Decembrists, a group of noble families who attempted to bring the idea of a constitution to state attention in December 1825. As soon as he started doing research on their work, however, the whole period of the Napoleonic wars unfolded. The novel was to eventually become Tolstoy's great epic, War and Peace. The novel was serialized over a period of five years, 1864-1869, and at first, the critics were completely baffled by it. Even Turgenev was unsure of the novel's importance. It did not gain critical adoration until several years after it was completed.

Anna Karenina, Tolstoy's next work, was based on the real-life case of a young woman whom Tolstoy knew. She was a young society woman who threw herself under a train over what was then called "a romance." The novel was serialized during 1873-1876, and was widely regarded as a triumph. At the time of Anna Karenina's composition, Tolstoy was undergoing another important stage in his religious process. He was questioning the integrity of the Greek Orthodox Church and the morality of Russian high society; those questions are brought to the fore in this work.

Throughout the composition of Anna Karenina and later writings including Resurrection (1899) and the masterful short novel The Death of Ivan Ilyitch (1886), Tolstoy was heavily involved in public works. His work in the 1880s, for example, mostly involved a stream of pamphlets and didactic articles concerning religion, educational instruction, economics, and lifestyle. He wrote articles praising vegetarianism, temperance, chastity, and wealth redistribution through collective ownership of land. He underlined the importance of these lessons through personal example. When a series of famines struck Russia in the early 1890s, for example, he and his family moved deep into the countryside in order to set up soup kitchens - 246 of them by July 1892.

By the turn of the century, Tolstoy was universally loved and respected by all classes of people except for the very wealthy and powerful. In part to mediate some of his influence, the Russian Church (Greek Orthodox) excommunicated him in March 1901. He was also denounced by the state as an anarchist in 1891, and he increasingly had to publish his works abroad because of censorship. These measures failed to lessen Tolstoy's popularity with the working class - on the day after the Church's excommunication announcement, students and workers paraded in public squares and accosted Tolstoy with such support and sympathy that he was forced to run back into his house.

Though his health began to fail in 1901, Tolstoy continued his writing and his public work until the end of his life. In his final years, he became more fixed on spiritual ideas and moral perfection. Desiring complete freedom from social responsibilities, he left his wife on November 10, 1910 in order to live in a hut in the woods and concentrate on spiritual matters. It was during this final journey that he died, on November 21, 1910, in a village near the Shamardin Convent. Appropriately, peasants brought his body to Yasnaya Polyana.