Why Read Leo Tolstoy in the 21st Century?

Why Read Leo Tolstoy in the 21st Century?
20 April 2023

Inexorably, Russian literature is immensely broad, deeply convoluted and far from a transparent sub-genre for any non-native prospective reader. In this regard, Tolstoy is the master; as many believe, the greatest русский писатель that ever lived. With this in mind, and the fact that many of the ‘Russian classics’ seem to have unanimously decided upon uniting in an often-insurmountable enormous page count, the question naturally arises. Why read Leo Tolstoy in the 21st century?

Indeed, it’s tempting for us native English speakers to lose ourselves in the pages of Austen, the Brontës or Dickens should we fancy a tipple on the intoxicating wonder that is 19th century literature. Further, the oeuvre of the above is similarly, often far from transparent, even when reading in English, owing to era specific contexts and outdated jargon. Regardless, millions of new readers, stumble across, and fall in love with the literature of what I believe was the most fruitful epoch in history. But any reader considering themselves ‘versed’ in said epoch is only deceiving themselves if they are yet to read Tolstoy…

Tolstoyan Breadth

My primary argument for Tolstoy is, simple; the breadth of subject matter. Where Austen and Dickens confront specific social issues (the unfavourable social standing of women and the deplorable state of social affairs in 19th century Britain respectively), Tolstoy’s inimitable mastery covers practically every issue imaginable. Much like Austen, Anna in Анна Каренина and Natasha in Война и Мир expose the uneven social standing of women of the time and its often deadly consequences. Similarly, Anna Pavlova’s salons and the many instances of introspective musings of Bolkonsky and Levin (as is required of any high society man of the time) expose a social narrative, often commentative, that stands on at least an equal level as Dickens…

From the image of the паровоз emblemising the relentless advance of industrialisation, one of the 19thcentury’s defining epithets, to Levin’s countless reflections on the agricultural status of contemporary Russia, the breadth of Tolstoy’s social awareness is almost unfathomable. That being said, it is worth noting that unlike many of the authors outside of Russia at the time, Tolstoy, himself a religious and deeply moral member of the very high society he writes on, didn’t take on a static view of the morality that characterises his work.

Tolstoy’s Morality

It is here that my secondary argument lies: Tolstoy’s didactic expressions of morality. They evolve as the writer himself evolves and betray the image of an old man’s changing views, and fundamentally, may be transposed on to the current issues of the day.

In reading his works as a broader corpus, there is a discernible shift in moral values from early works of the 50s like Детство, through much later work like Смерть Ивана Ильича in the 80s. As a theme, Tolstoy’s evolving outlook on morality is worthy of volumes of writing far beyond the scope of this article, but from my reading of most of his output, I feel I can briefly characterise it.

That is, Tolstoy’s initial self-reflective view of morality (and all of the social commentary that stems from it) begins grounded in the natural world, as was the accepted convention of the 1850s. This is especially evident when reading Война и мир, where death (especially that of Andrei Bolkonsky), is seen as a mercy. After all, death is the most natural of all phenomena and therefore, the most moral fate. This is why Platon Karatayev, the man whose first description is of большие карие нежные глаза были круглые (circularity symbolising the cyclicality of nature, and therefore, morality) is hailed as the moral archetype.

However, by the 1870s a ‘Tolstoyan morality’ became the responsibility of the individual; Anna chooses to be unfaithful to her husband, but suffers from the guilt of her own conscience, and so her death under the wheels of the locomotive is ensured. Death is now a consequence, not a moral ending. Moreover, this moral evolution may be most clearly discerned in one of his last works: The Death of Ivan Illyich, where the reference to the черный мешок betrays Ivan’s fear of death. A far cry from the salvation that was Bolkonsky’s death…

So why read Tolstoy?

As a writer, Tolstoy does something that few can claim successfully; he makes the reader really think. It’s hard to say whether this is by virtue of the breadth of subject matter, as the reader is constantly confronted with new characters, ideas and information. Or else, owing to the subtle but unrelentingly palpable didacticism of his texts. Whether you subscribe to his ideas of the 50s, 60s or later, I wager that at least one originally Tolstoyan notion will resonate with you when reading. His ideology is one of change, but also of conviction. He writes with such earnest, that it is impossible not to be taken in to the world of the Oblonksys, Karenins, Rostovs and Bolkonskys, and once you enter it, it’s hard to leave it.

Admittedly, the breadth of his cast might, at times, be a little hard to follow, but the engagement he evinces through his characters is unrivalled. His ideas change with the time of writing, as I attempted to outline with the example of morality, but this doesn’t detract from the impact. In fact, it serves as the final, and most convincing argument for Tolstoy as a writer: he is self-aware. Willingness to not only relinquish former convictions, but to do so through the medium of prose is a rare skill. A skill Tolstoy displays. His oeuvre is vast, his characters equally so, his beliefs complex and multifaceted, but this is what makes Tolstoy, Tolstoy, and what posits him at the pinnacle of 19th century literature, and arguably, all time.

Reading Tolstoy is no mean feat, it takes dedication, undivided attention and an aptitude for reading between the lines that only true bibliophiles possess. That being said, should you attempt to tackle a Tolstoyan tome, which I implore you do, you will finish the final page with a new outlook on life…

Patrick, currently studying Russian at Liden and Denz, Riga.

Image Credit: https://unsplash.com/photos/WCU2iOtx2-w

Posted by Patrick Groves

Hi, I'm Patrick. I'm a student at Wadham College, University of Oxford spending most of my time writing essays on Tolstoy or in one of Oxford's many pubs. I'm currently studying Russian at Liden and Denz, Riga.

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