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Author Study: Leo Tolstoy Curated by Grace Xu '19

Russian Rulers History Podcast (Episode 162): "Leo Tolstoy - Marriage, War and Peace, and Anna Karenina"


  • Impact of Tolstoy's marriage and personal life on his works
  • Context of and inspiration behind writing War and Peace and Anna Karenina
  • Criticisms of novels: characterization, themes, crafting of novel 






1852, first published novel


“What emerges is a mixture of portraits, scenes, episodes, digressive reflection, and psychological analysis...The narrator examines his own developing consciousness, attempting to relate a microscopic analysis of individual moments to large patterns of meaning.”

~William W. Rowe in study, Leo Tolstoy

“In his Childhood and Youth, Tolstoy gives us the most vivid, the most natural, the most sensitive picture of childhood and youth that has ever been penned by the hand of man”

~Maurice Baring, Landmarks in Russian Literature (1910)

“already in this early book [Childhood, Boyhood and Youth], the author is seeking the why and wherefore of life, seeking what can be found worthy under all these veils of illusions and worldly pretense”

~Constance and Edward Garnett, North American Review

  • Many critics citing feeling of dissatisfaction after reading: reflects Tolstoy’s constant struggle to find truly moral way of living
  • Attention to detail: criticized but mostly applauded by contemporaries, including Ivan Turgenev and Fyodor Dostoyevsky


Sevastopol Sketches


1855, inside account of experience in the Crimean War


“Sevastopol in December” (first installment): widespread approval, earned praise of Czar Alexander II

“[these early works] clearly anticipate Tolstoy’s belief, voiced repeatedly in War and Peace, that the course of war is quite arbitrary, depending less on the strategies of generals than on the spontaneous actions of individual soldiers in the front lines.”

~William Rowe

Prince Andrey listened carefully to what was said between Prince Bagration and the commanding officers, and to any orders issued, and he was astounded to observe that no orders were really given; Prince Bagration was just trying to pretend that everything they were being forced to do, every accidental development or anything brought about by individual commanders, was happening, if not according to his orders, then at least as part of his plan.” (War and Peace, Volume I, Part II, Chapter 17)


  • “Sevastopol in May” and “Sevastopol in August”: reflects Tolstoy’s disillusionment with war
  • Censored for criticism of army’s officers



Anna Karenina




Portrayal of daily life



“Tolstoy shows us life as it really is, with its complexities, its necessary tedium, its frivolities. He does not deceive us: his finest characters have their weak points; he knows that perfection is not human”

~Nation critic

“[the novel] is a picture of Russian life, terrible in the merciless fidelity of its realistic coloring, and interesting in its study of various characters”

~F. W. Farrar

“its tragical grandeur [is] one of the most remarkable dramatic effects in modern a true and artistic picture of ‘high life’ this novel is a masterpiece without an equal, perhaps, in any literature”

~S. E Shevitch, North American Review

“His novels are something more than novels; they are sections of human life, slow in movement, vast in their inclusiveness.”

~Prince Kropotkin, Ideals and Realities in Russian Literature (1916)


“What impresses is Tolstoy’s absolute confidence in his own ability; his portrait of 1860s Russia is so vibrantly complete that you move, in a rapture of discovery, through this world as you do through your own.” 

~Jason Cowley, New Statesmen, 1997

Verisimilitude of and ability to relate to characters



“Nearly every novelist, with the exception of Fielding, ends, in spite of himself, by placing his hero either above or beneath the standard of real life...No novelist except Tolstoy has ever had the power to put this simple thing, an ordinary man, into a book.”

~Maurice Baring

“No novelist has entered into the instinctive soul of a woman or evoked her physical charm more compellingly than the creator of Anna Karenina”

~Hugh l’Anson Fausset



A Confession




“Tolstoy records the unique and overwhelming personal experience of a man perplexed in the extreme by life’s most agonizing problem--the relation of man to the infinite. The result is a masterpiece of the highest art, comparable to the Book of Job in its terrible human urgency of the need to know, as well as in its wonderful language, with biblical echoes, and its compelling use of parables to illustrate ideas.”

~Ernest J. Simmons, An Introduction to Tolstoy’s Writings

“the inner history of any strong personal experience is instructive; more deeply so when it is that of a man of ardent feeling, of earnest aspiration, and fine intellect. The life of Count Tolstoy, as it has been revealed in his writings, has excited universal interest.”

~Sara A. Hubbard, Dial review, 1887



The Kingdom of God is Within You




“without explicitly stating it in his book, Tolstoy quite clearly anticipated a growing movement of civil disobedience based on the principle of nonresistance to evil, which he was convinced would eventually undermine the whole structure of government”

~Ernest J. Simmons

  • Reinforces Tolstoy’s belief that governments are essentially immoral and serve rich and powerful
  • Influence on Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.






War and Peace




Emphasis on realism


“I felt that I was thrown among new men and women, that I lived with them, that I knew them, that non of them could be indifferent to me, that I could never forget them. I entered into their souls, and it seemed almost as if they could enter into mine. Such a power in a writer is almost a miracle.”

~Nation critic, 1885

Debate: length of novel

“[War and Peace] attempts to do more than any single work ought to attempt, and a certain confusion is inevitable...the novelist ought to...make the world of his creation more intelligible than the everyday world in which we actually live.”

~William Morton Payne

“His apparent purposelessness is part of his purpose. We find in his pages what we find in the living world, and he leaves us with ineffaceable impressions of the horror, haphazard, and futility of war, and of the thrice-redoubled vanity of a life which is not illuminated from within by the light of the unseen.”

~F.W. Farrar, Forum article, 1888

Debate: cohesiveness of broad stories combined with detailed descriptions 


“Whether the story was to be the drama of youth and age, or the drama of war and peace, in either case it would have been incomparably more impressive if all the great wealth of the material had been used for its purpose, all brought into one design. And furthermore, in either case again, the story is incomplete; neither of them is finished, neither of them is given its full development, for all the size of the book...That so much remains, in spite of everything, gives the measure of Tolstoy’s genius...He could work with such lordly neglect of his subject and yet he could produce such a book--it is surely as much as to say that Tolstoy’s is the supreme genius among novelists”

~Percy Lubbock, The Craft of Fiction (1921)

“He takes one of the largest canvases ever attacked by man; and he writes a prose epic on a period full of tremendous events. His piercing glance sees through all the fictions of national prejudice and patriotic bias; and he gives us what we feel to be the facts as they were, the very truth. No detail is too small for him, no catastrophe too great. He traces the growth of the spreading tree to its minute seed, the course of the great river to its tiny source...He makes a whole vanished generation of public and private men live before our eyes in such a way that it is difficult to believe that these people are not a part of our actual experience; and that his creations are not men and women we have seen with our own eyes, and whose voices we have heard with our own ears."

~Maurice Baring

Crafting characters

“It is as though one saw what is described and heard the sounds that are uttered. The author hardly speaks in his own person; he brings forward the characters and then allows them to speak, feel, and act; and they do it so that every movement is true and amazingly exact, in full accord with the character of those portrayed. It is as if we had to do with real people, and saw them more clearly than one can in real life...the battles and historic events are usually described not by informing us of the author’s conception of them, but by the impression they produce on the characters in the story...In this respect the work is an artistic marvel. Tolstoy has seized not some separate traits but a whole living atmosphere, which varies around different individuals and different classes of society.”

~Aylmer Maude, Life of Tolstoy, 1908


  • Tolstoy's ability to communicate views and values indirectly through characters
  • Using characterization (thoughts, actions) to move narrative

Universality of themes of the human experience


“In Tolstoy’s heroes in War and Peace there is a basic denominator of human experience which is common to all men an women regardless of class, country, age and intellectual attainment. Their mental, spiritual and emotional problems, their pleasures and pursuits, their enthusiasms and their aversions are as relevant to England today as they ever were to Tolstoy’s Russia. And it is ultimately this fact which ensures that War and Peace and especially the main heroes of War and Peace will always be a part of the literary heritage of the reading public throughout the world”

~R.F. Christian, Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”: A Study (1962)







“[Resurrection] is the only long work of fiction written by Tolstoy during the last twenty years, and one faithfully reflecting his mature opinions on all the great problems of life. That this book-conveying, as it does, feelings (on such subjects as army service, legal proceedings, church services, marriage, etc.) which run counter to those that have grown up and become general in connection with our established order of society--should, nevertheless, have had a great success in many lands, is an instance of the power which literary art exerts among us to-day”

~Aylmer Maude, Tolstoy and His Problems (1901)


“The greatness of [Resurrection] resides not primarily in the narrative of Nekhlyudov’s journey from betrayal to contrition, nor in the finely (if faintly) drawn figure of Katusha as innocent maiden and exploited woman. It resides in the things that happen near and about these figures; in the events for which they serve mainly as literary auxiliaries or catalysts; in the thickly brushed depictions of what the world calls justice, of the sadism it calls punishment, of the heartlessness of what it declares to be civilization, of the humiliations of those forgotten and obscure souls upon whom it turns its back" (Howe) 

  • Writing after 1881: donated all profits to charity
  • Publication of Resurrection: in support of Doukhobors (religious group attempting to emigrate to Canada to avoid persecution)
  • Target of Tolstoy’s criticism: Russia's established institutions (ex. Russian Orthodox Church, government, prison system)