Leo Tolstoy’s Art

Tolstoy is one of those writers whose life intervened in his literary activity; the events from real life influenced the specificity of themes and topics, raised in his works. He practiced various genres from novels, short stories to non-fiction letters.

The beginning of his work as a writer coincided with his military service. The first considerable writing took six year to be completed. It was a trilogy that consisted of three novels dealing with different period of life of a person: Childhood (1852), Boyhood, (1854) and Adolescence (1857). The first novel of the trilogy in a lyrical and enchanting manner describes the innocence and joy of life through child’s-eye view. The trilogy is autobiographical and presents the psychological and moral development of the hero from age ten to his late teens.

After Tolstoy left army in 1856 he strengthened himself as a talented participator of Russian literary processes. His military experience, gained in Crimean War, served him as a prolific source of material for new literary works, and consequently was employed for a number of short stories. Thus his “Sebastopol Tales” fiercely criticize war and ennoble an ordinary soldier. When Childhood, Adolescence, and the war stories appeared, everyone hailed them as “the first full and complete artistic expression of the psychological process.”[1]

One the greatest novels by Tolstoy is War and Peace. While the scope of War and Peace is epic, Tolstoy does not load the novel down with historical facts and dates. Instead, he brings history alive by making it personal. A reader watches the intimate destinies of the Rostovs, the Bezukhovs, the Bolkonskys unfold with a level of emotion and attachment that no historical account could convey. And their fates are projected on to the destiny of a nation. It is this powerful historical fiction with a purpose that won Tolstoy his well-deserved international acknowledgement. War and Peace is universal in its appeal because of the universality of its themes: that war is profoundly alien to human nature; that the average soldier’s patriotism is the building block of nations (e.g. the character of captain Tushin); the limited impact that even great individuals have on history (Napoleon and Kutuzov).

Tolstoy draws his characters with simple brush strokes, with psychological depth, that makes them real. For example, the character of Natasha Rostova, whose beauty and attractiveness depended not so much on her appearance, as on her youth and her inner energy, the beauty of her soul reveals to us the symbolic significance she has in the novel. Unlike all the other main characters whose names are known to the reader before their physical appearance is described, Natasha is left nameless. She appears not like a true human being but sooner as a mythical creature that personifies the joy of life: “This black-eyed, wide-mouthed girl, not pretty but full of life . . . ran to hide her flushed face in the lace of her mother’s mantilla—not paying the least attention to her severe remark—and began to laugh. She laughed, and in fragmentary sentences tried to explain about a doll which she produced from the folds of her frock.” [2]

In Anna Karenina, probably his stylistically most perfect novel, he sought to create a novel in the tradition of the Greek classics. He dwells on marital happiness, the fate of an abused woman in society and the role of physical and spiritual love in marriage. In Anna Karenina the epic horizons are narrower than in War and Peace, yet the feelings of the characters are more sharp and acute, their sufferings at times even more profound. Anna’s and Vronsky’s story of forbidden love strikes readers because Tolstoy shows the fatal inevitability of a mutual attraction, its development and then its fading and its tragic denouement. Anna and Vronsky are depicted as being destroyed by some external force, in fact, by each other.

Tolstoy writes that they involuntarily submit to the other:  “Involuntarily submitting to the weakness of Anna –who had given herself up to him entirely, and placed her fate in his hands, ready to accept anything–he had long ceased to think that they might part, as he had thought then….  [He] had completely abandoned himself to his passion, and that passion was binding him more and more closely to her.”[3]

The brilliance of Tolstoy’s art is his almost casual description of details that, at first sight seems insignificant and accidental, but which later come to play a crucial role in a character’s fate. In the end, the drama of Anna’s love is portrayed with such strength that it cannot leave any reader indifferent.

After he had written Anna Karenina, Tolstoy got determined against literature. He wanted henceforth to be a moral philosopher rather than an artist. And as Anthony Daniels notes in his article, many people subsequently fell under Tolstoy’s didactic teaching, even – for a time – Chekhov.[4] This didactics became peculiar to his successive works. In Tolstoy’s literature we find the contemplation of what are the proper ways of living. For instance in his short story “How Much Land Does A Man Need?” the main character is an ordinary farmer whose own greed destroys him. In this literary work, the author exploits Pahom’s search as a symbolic warning that longing for too much can result in loss of everything.

Tolstoy strengthens his moral believes by his stories. Through the symbolism he endeavors to preach his philosophy and deliver hidden messages to readers. Thus, main character’s running against the sun conveys the symbolic meaning that Pahom is moving against time and course of life. This symbolic device produces the atmosphere of haste and panic. However, at the end of the story the main character dies and all his pursuit for unreal aim turns out to be worthless. The morality of the story is that we must properly estimate our abilities and what is more important our needs. Tolstoy finishes this story with the conclusion that finally we all will need not more that only small piece of land: “His servant picked up the spade and dug a grave long enough for Pahóm to he in, and buried him in it. Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed”.[5]

In the mid-1880s Tolstoy continues writing short stories. He tends to use fairy tales or religious legends to develop their ideas in his own works. The style of these short stories is plain but expressive. They often reveal Tolstoy’s religious convictions. In 1886, Tolstoy publishes the novella “The Death of Ivan Illych.”  The story concerns dying man who becomes aware that his life is nearly over. By the time Tolstoy wrote “The Death of Ivan Illych”, he got engaged in extremely puritanical ideas. His protagonist’s main pleasure in life is playing bridge with his friends, which is condemned by the writer as vicious because, like music at the conservatoire, it is frivolous, artificial, and inauthentic. He severely criticizes this character and depicts his life as a shallow, terrible being: “Ivan Illych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.”[6] Ivan is a conformist; opinions and expectations of people of socially higher rank usually determine Ivan’s behavior and wishes.

He tries to keep up friendship with only those who have good social position. That is why his life is terrible; there is no place for free will, for well-grounded decision. And the only exemplary character in this story is a peasant Gerasim. Tolstoy wrote about the peasants as about the moral agents, bearers of moral virtues. In “The Death of Ivan Illych” Ivan learned something from Gerasim, who made him see a possibility to which Ivan’s way of living had kept his eyes shut, a possibility that was excluded by the way he lived. Ivan Illych had been caught up in a way of life that excluded the possibility of care for and devotion to other people. By his example Gerasim opened up for Ivan what was a new possibility and made him realize what was wrong with his life. In this story Tolstoy juxtaposes moral peasant with a morally weak nobleman.

Though in his late works Tolstoy exhibited too ideological approach when evolving his characters and presenting themes that led to simplifications, his penetrating psychological analysis had great influence on later literature. The most important thing is that Tolstoy succeeded in his major endeavor as a writer to use his linguistic and artistic means to portray eternal human passions through typical traits of his epoch, going beyond linguistic, ethnic and other borders. Tolstoy solved this task excellently. And this is why he is a classic of both Russian and world literature.

Works Cited List:

Daniels, Anthony. “Chekhov & Tolstoy”. New Criterion. Vol. 23: 8, April 2005.

Orwin Tussing, Donna. Tolstoy’s Art and Thought, 1847-1880. Princeton University Press, 1993

Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina. Aylmer Maude – Transl., Louise Maude – Transl., London: Penguin, 1978.

—-, “How Much Land Does a Man Need?”  Twenty-three Tales, Transl. L. and A. Maude, New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1907: 113-122

—-, “The Death of Ivan Illych” Aylmer Maude – Transl., Louise Maude – Transl., Retrieved on December 3, 2005 from Tolstoy Library http://home.aol.com/Tolstoy28

—-, War and Peace. Henry Gifford – editor, Aylmer Maude – Transl., Louise Maude – Transl., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.[1]Donna Tussing Orwin. Tolstoy’s Art and Thought, 1847-1880. Princeton University Press, 1993: 19

[2] Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, 39
[3] Tolstoy, Leo Anna Karenina, 381
[4] Anthony Daniels, Chekhov & Tolstoy, 31
[5] Tolstoy Leo, Twenty-three Tales, “How Much Land Does A Man Need?”, 122
[6] Tolstoy Leo, The Death of Ivan Illych, Chapter II

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