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The greatness of Tolstoy

February 25, 2012

Tolstoy in his old age, in a rare early color photograph taken in 1908. Courtesy Wikipedia, .Tolstoy_Prokudin-Gorsky.jpg

Tolstoy is the most masterful novelist of all, and yet he’s barely read today except by Comp-Lit students. His novels are lengthy and packed with unfamiliar tripartate Russian names. And they were written long ago, which is more than enough to deter many modern readers. That’s really a shame, because you don’t need a professor or the help of a study guide to journey with pleasure through his novels.

His narratives mirror the mixed lot of human emotions: ambition, desire, fear, hope, doubt, and affection. His characters are fully-rounded people who possess complex motivations. He characterizes each character so effortlessly that we become able to recognize them as we do our own acquaintances. As we read, we mutter to ourselves “she’s constantly doing things like that” or “he’s just behaving like that because of his horrible old father.”

Virginia Woolf said something to the effect of (I can’t find the exact quote) “Before Henry James, there was no psychology in novels.” This is quite true. Think about it: novels written before the late 1800s generally contained characters who are essentially puppets dangling on strings, encountering obstacles of various kinds before finally arriving at a happy or an unhappy conclusion. These puppet characters have no inner lives, no sense of a real human character. Think of “The Odyssey,” in which Odysseus passes from one adventure to the next but is unchanged by his experiences. Or think of D’Artagnan of “The Three Musketeers,” who wielded both sword and pistol throughout constant adventures but never held an interesting thought in his head. His creator, Alexander Dumas, finding that he had a hit with the reading public, wrote numerous formulaic sequels in which D’Artagnan endured the same adventure-packed basic recipe. I do not deny that D’Artagnan entertains us, but on the other hand he has no inner depth. He has no father issues and no sibling rivalries. He has no facial tics or a characteristic expression. He has no secret fears or vices that would resonate with us. He’s incapable of ambivalence, and he lacks moments of weakness or doubt. He fails to exhibit any sense of human psychology. He’s merely a pawn in his creator’s hands.

A sketch of Pierre Bezukhov by M. S. Bashilov, illustrator. Image lifted from

On the other hand, Nicolai and Pierre in “War and Peace” and Levin and Anna in “Anna Karenina” are so finely delineated that they give every appearance of being drawn from life. We experience Tolstoy’s characters in a completely different manner than we do D’Artagnan, because Tolstoy’s work is the product of a powerful understanding of human motivations. Nicolai in “War and Peace” marches off to war just as D’Artagnan did to the Siege of La Rochelle; but whereas D’Artagnan and his companions show no fear and engage in casual conversation while firing at the enemy, Nicolai hears the whizzing of the cannonballs, countless thoughts hurry through his mind, he realizes that he could die at any instant. He then finds himself wounded, unable to move, sprawled on his back while battle continues around him, his mind drifting off effortlessly into the mighty masses of cumulus clouds stacked in the sky high above. And one can’t omit the plump and bespectacled Pierre, who readers come to love even though he’s obviously a clumsy and somewhat laughable doofus. Yet the reader’s sympathy is at once engaged by the characterization, and by the novel’s end Pierre has grown to acquire dignity and has become a hero of sorts.

A friend of mine confided that as a teenager she was never able to get beyond the first chapter of “War and Peace.” This reminds me of the anecdote that I mentioned in my essay on Jane Austen (see, in which a friend of my parents gave me a copy of “Pride and Prejudice” when I was thirteen. He advised me that if the very first page did not strike me as amusing, then I should simply put away the book and try it again in a couple of years. I would make this same recommendation to anyone who does not find the first chapter of “War and Peace” to be engaging. It depicts two society people gossiping together, people who are intrinsically shallow despite their noble status. Tolstoy doesn’t overtly state to the reader that the lady of the court and the prince are petty and rather repellent; he lets us make that judgement for ourselves based on the the conversation that the two characters are having. If the reader cannot detect the fact that the two nobles are not sympathetic characters, return the book to the shelf and try again in a couple of years.

Tolstoy is not intrinsically difficult to read. He’s a painter with a fine brush covering a vast canvas, and his creations are subtle and rich. With plots and characterizations of this quality, the reader is very glad to have a long book to savor at length rather than a short tale that is swiftly finished.




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