Tolstoy’s Resurrection.

I can no longer recall precisely why, in late December, I decided to read Tolstoy’s last big novel Воскресение (Resurrection), but it was a slog — it took me almost two months to read a book that should have taken three weeks or so at my usual pace. Frankly, if it hadn’t been by Tolstoy (and the most widely read book of his during his lifetime) I might well have given up. The problem is that what should have been a hundred-page novella has been stretched out to almost six hundred pages by dawdling, repetition, and ranting. By this time he didn’t really want to be writing fiction at all (he thought he’d given up after Anna Karenina), and only finished and published this one (in 1899, after a decade of desultory work) because he urgently wanted to raise money to help the heretical Dukhobors resettle in Canada. The result is an ungainly mix of gripping characters and plotlines (Tolstoy couldn’t help being Tolstoy) and long-winded preaching, with a side of social mockery. Here’s the meat of Prince Mirsky’s discussion in A History Of Russian Literature, incisive as usual:

Resurrection is not a perfect work of art: the moral idea, profusely supported by texts from the Gospels, is not organically fused into the fabric. The story of Nekhlyúdov’s conversion is on an inferior plane to that of Tolstóy’s own in A Confession, or of Iván Ilyích’s, or of the merchant in Master and Man. It is not a revelation of inner light, but a cold decision to adapt himself to the moral law so as to escape the stings of conscience and acquire inner peace. Resurrection presents Tolstóy and his teaching from the most unattractive side. For all that, it is a book by Tolstóy. But its best qualities are not characteristic of the later Tolstóy: they are rather, in a minor degree, those of Anna Karénina and War and Peace. The best thing in the novel is the minor realistic details he condemned so severely in What Is Art? The early story of Máslova is the best part of the book. It is full of that elusive poetry which reminds one of the subtle poetic atmosphere that accompanies Natásha in War and Peace. The account of the trial is excellent — sustained, concentrated, unexaggerated satire. It has not been surpassed by Tolstóy, except perhaps in the second part of the same novel, where he satirizes the bureaucratic society of Petersburg.

The style is severely impacted by all the moral tales he’d been cranking out for the edification of children and peasants; here’s a sample, from Louise Maude’s widely read translation (which came out the same year as the novel, 1899in 1900):

This is how the things he saw during these three months impressed Nekhludoff: From among the people who were free, those were chosen, by means of trials and the administration, who were the most nervous, the most hot tempered, the most excitable, the most gifted, and the strongest, but the least careful and cunning. These people, not a wit more dangerous than many of those who remained free, were first locked in prisons, transported to Siberia, where they were provided for and kept months and years in perfect idleness, and away from nature, their families, and useful work—that is, away from the conditions necessary for a natural and moral life. This firstly. Secondly, these people were subjected to all sorts of unnecessary indignity in these different places—chains, shaved heads, shameful clothing—that is, they were deprived of the chief motives that induce the weak to live good lives, the regard for public opinion, the sense of shame and the consciousness of human dignity. Thirdly, they were continually exposed to dangers, such as the epidemics so frequent in places of confinement, exhaustion, flogging, not to mention accidents, such as sunstrokes, drowning or conflagrations, when the instinct of self-preservation makes even the kindest, most moral men commit cruel actions, and excuse such actions when committed by others.

Fourthly, these people were forced to associate with others who were particularly depraved by life, and especially by these very institutions—rakes, murderers and villains—who act on those who are not yet corrupted by the measures inflicted on them as leaven acts on dough.

And, fifthly, the fact that all sorts of violence, cruelty, inhumanity, are not only tolerated, but even permitted by the government, when it suits its purposes, was impressed on them most forcibly by the inhuman treatment they were subjected to; by the sufferings inflicted on children, women and old men; by floggings with rods and whips; by rewards offered for bringing a fugitive back, dead or alive; by the separation of husbands and wives, and the uniting them with the wives and husbands of others for sexual intercourse; by shooting or hanging them. To those who were deprived of their freedom, who were in want and misery, acts of violence were evidently still more permissible. All these institutions seemed purposely invented for the production of depravity and vice, condensed to such a degree that no other conditions could produce it, and for the spreading of this condensed depravity and vice broadcast among the whole population.

One can share his indignation at society’s sins without wanting to be browbeaten while reading a novel. (I should mention that over half a century ago Tolstoy’s writings on pacifism and anarchism were extremely helpful to me in forming my own views, and I remain grateful to him; I simply think he should have kept his fiction and his propaganda apart.) I don’t know that I can recommend this novel to anyone (as Lizok reports, George Saunders called it the darkest novel he’s ever read), but I’m glad I got through it.

As matters of linguistic interest, there are a couple of mentions of Siberian dialects (the only actual example is Tolstoy’s footnote explaining that лопоть is a Siberian word for ‘clothing’) and the occasional appearance of English phrases and sentences (one of the characters is modeled on George Kennan); also, the Russian word for ‘resurrection,’ воскресение, is only slightly different from the word for ‘Sunday,’ воскресенье.


  1. How did his writings on pacifism & anarchism influence you?

  2. J.W. Brewer says

    “They had him locked in a gunny sack
    His hands were tied behind his back
    He claimed he was a Doukhobor
    But they never heard of that in Baltimore
    The police said he’d better go home
    And he went back alone
    Back to the snow”

  3. Paul Clapham says

    As for the Doukhobors: those that moved to British Columbia wanted to live in the forest away from society. But in the 1950’s the governments moved in and took their children and sent then to residential schools. It was just this month that the provincial government apologized for those actions — often bad things happened to children in those schools.

  4. How did his writings on pacifism & anarchism influence you?

    They helped make me a pacifist and an anarchist! In fact, quoting Tolstoy (along with Thoreau and other wise men) impressed my draft board enough to get me conscientious-objector status so I didn’t have to go fight (or rather refuse to fight) in Vietnam (or, of course, flee the country). Good man, Tolstoy.

  5. one of the characters is modeled on George Kennan

    he sounds fascinating! i’d only known of his namesake until now, somehow!

  6. He was fascinating, and it’s a shame that he’s been so eclipsed by his distant cousin the diplomat.

  7. J.W. Brewer says

    I too was unaware of the elder Kennan and am pleased to become better-informed. That the Wilson administration reportedly did not heed the elder one’s advice to the same extent the Truman administration heeded the younger one’s advice might have something to do with his loss of prominence?

  8. Robert Everett-Green says

    Strange to say, Resurrection, which I read in English when I was about 14, was the book that ignited my interest in literary fiction.

  9. Amazing! Well, as I said, Tolstoy couldn’t help being Tolstoy, and I imagine he would have been pleased to hear that in some secret part of his complicated soul.

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