Life of Tolstoy/Chapter XV



Ten years separated Resurrection from the Kreutzer Sonata;[1] ten years which were more and more absorbed in moral propaganda. Ten years also separated the former book from the end for which this life hungered, famished as it was for the eternal. Resurrection is in a sense the artistic testament of the author. It dominates the end of his life as War and Peace crowned its maturity. It is the last peak, perhaps the highest—if not the most stupendous— whose invisible summit is lost in the mists. Tolstoy is seventy years old. He contemplates the world, his life, his past mistakes, his faith, his righteous anger.

He sees them from a height. We find the same ideals as in his previous books; the same warring upon hypocrisy; but the spirit of the artist, as in War and Peace, soars above his subject. To the sombre irony, the mental tumult of the Kreutzen Sonata and The Death of Ivan Ilyitch he adds a religious serenity, a detachment from the world, which is faithfully reflected in himself. One is reminded, at times, of a Christian Goethe.

All the literary characteristics which we have noted in the works of his later period are to be found here, and of these especially the concentration of the narrative, which is even more striking in a long novel than in a short story. There is a wonderful unity about the book; in which respect it differs widely from War and Peace and Anna Karenin. There are hardly any digressions of an episodic nature. A single train of action, tenaciously followed, is worked out in every detail. There is the same vigorous portraiture, the same ease and fullness of handling, as in the Kreutzer Sonata. The observation is more than ever lucid, robust, pitilessly realistic, revealing the animal in the man—"the terrible persistence of the beast in man, more terrible when this animality is not openly obvious; when it is concealed under a so-called poetical exterior." Witness the drawing-room conversations, which have for their object the mere satisfaction of a physical need: "the need of stimulating the digestion by moving the muscles of the tongue and gullet"; the crude vision of humanity which spares no one; neither the pretty Korchagina, "with her two false teeth, the salient bones of her elbows, and the largeness of her finger-nails," and her décolletage, which inspires in Nekhludov a feeling of "shame and disgust, disgust and shame"; nor the herione, Maslova, nothing of whose degradation is hidden; her look of premature age, her vicious, ignoble expression, her provocative smile, the odour of brandy that hangs about her, her red and swollen face. There is a brutality of naturalistic detail: as instance, the woman who converses while crouched over the commode. Youth and the poetic imagination have vanished; except in the passages which deal with the memories of first love, whose music vibrates in the reader's mind with hypnotic intensity; the night of the Holy Saturday, and the night of Passover; the thaw, the white mist so thick "that at five paces from the house one saw nothing but a shadowy mass, whence glimmered the red light of a lamp"; the crowing of the cocks in the night; the sounds from the frozen river, where the ice cracks, snores, bubbles, and tinkles like a breaking glass; and the young man who, from the night outside, looks through the window at the young girl who does not see him: seated near the table in the flickering light of the little lamp—Katusha, pensive, dreaming, and smiling at her dreams.

The lyrical powers of the writer are given but little play. His art has become more impersonal; more alien to his own life. The world of criminals and revolutionaries, which he here describes, was unfamiliar to him;[2] he enters it only by an effort of voluntary sympathy; he even admits that before studying them at close quarters the revolutionaries inspired him with an unconquerable aversion. All the more admirable is his impeccable observation—a faultless mirror. What a wealth of types, of precise details! How everything is seen; baseness and virtue, without hardness, without weakness, but with a serene understanding and a brotherly pity. . . . The terrible picture of the women in the prison! They are pitiless to one another; but the artist is the merciful God; he sees, in the heart of each, the distress that hides beneath humiliation, and the tearful eyes beneath the mask of effrontery. The pure, faint light which little by little waxes within the vicious mind of Maslova, and at last illumines her with a sacrificial flame, has the touching beauty of one of those rays of sunshine which transfigure some humble scene painted by the brush of Rembrandt. There is no severity here, even for the warders and executioners. "Lord, forgive them, for they know not what they do!" . . . The worst of it is that often they do know what they do; they feel all the pangs of remorse, yet they cannot do otherwise. There broods over the book the sense of the crushing and inevitable fatality which weighs upon those who suffer and those who cause that suffering: the director of the prison, full of natural kindness, as sick of his jailer's life as of the pianoforte exercises of the pale, sickly daughter with the dark circles beneath her eyes, who indefatigably murders a rhapsody of Liszt; the Governor-General of the Siberian town, intelligent and kindly, who, in the hope of escaping the inevitable conflict between the good he wishes to do and the evil he is forced to do, has been steadily drinking since the age of thirty-five; who is always sufficiently master of himself to keep up appearances, even when he is drunk. And among these people we find the ordinary affection for wife and children, although their calling renders them pitiless in respect of the rest of humanity.

The only character in this book who has no objective reality is Nekhludov himself; and this is so because Tolstoy has invested him with his own ideas. This is a defect of several of the most notable types in War and Peace and in Anna Karenin; for example, Prince Andrei, Pierre Besoukhov, Levine, and others. The fault was less grave, however, in these earlier books; for the characters, by force of their circumstances and their age, were nearer to the author's actual state of mind. But in Resurrection the author places in the body of an epicurean of thirty-five the disembodied soul of an old man of seventy. I will not say that the moral crisis through which Nekhludov is supposed to pass is absolutely untrue and impossible; nor even that it could not be brought about so suddenly.[3] But there is nothing in the temperament, the character, the previous life of the man as Tolstoy depicts him, to announce or explain this crisis; and once it has commenced nothing interrupts it. Tolstoy has, it is true, with profound observation, represented the impure alloy which at the outset is mingled with the thoughts of sacrifice; the tears of self-pity and admiration; and, later, the horror and repugnance which seize upon Nekhludov when he is brought face to face with reality. But his resolution never flinches. This crisis has nothing in common with his previous crises, violent but only momentary.[4] Henceforth nothing can arrest this weak and undecided character. A wealthy prince, much respected, greatly enjoying the good things of the world, on the point of marrying a charming girl who loves him and is not distasteful to him, he suddenly decides to abandon everything—wealth, the world, and social position—and to marry a prostitute in order to atone for a remote offence; and his exaltation survives, without flinching, for months; it holds out against every trial, even the news that the woman he wishes to make his wife is continuing her life of debauchery.[5] Here we have a saintliness of which the psychology of a Dostoyevsky would have shown us the source, in the obscure depths of the conscience or even in the organism of his hero. Nekhludov, however, is by no means one of Dostoyevsky's heroes. He is the type of the average man, commonplace, sane, who is Tolstoy's usual hero. To be exact, we are conscious of the juxtaposition of a very materialistic[6] character and a moral crisis which belongs to another man, and that man the aged Tolstoy.

The same impression—one of elemental duality—is again produced at the end of the book, where a third part, full of strictly realistic observation, is set beside an evangelical conclusion which is not in any way essential; it is an act of personal faith,[7] which does not logically issue from the life under observation. This is not the first time that Tolstoy's religion has become involved with his realism; but in previous works the two elements have been better mingled. Here they are not amalgamated; they simply coexist; and the contrast is the more striking in that Tolstoy's faith is always becoming less and less indifferent to proof, while his realism is daily becoming more finely whetted, more free from convention. Here is a sign, not of fatigue, but of age; a certain stiffness, so to speak, in the joints. The religious conclusion is not the organic development of the work. It is a Deus ex machina. I personally am convinced that right in the depth of Tolstoy's being in spite of all his affirmations the fusion between his two diverse natures was by no means complete: between the truth of the artist and the truth of the believer.

Although Resurrection has not the harmonious fullness of the work of his youth, and although I, for my part, prefer War and Peace, it is none the less one of the most beautiful poems of human compassion; perhaps the most truthful ever written. More than in any other book I see through the pages of this those bright eyes of Tolstoy's, the pale-grey, piercing eyes, "the look that goes straight to the heart,"[8] and in each heart sees its God.

  1. Master and Servant (1895) is more or less of a transition between the gloomy novels which preceded it and Resurrection; which is full of the light of the Divine charity. But it is akin to The Death of Ivan Ilyitch and the Popular Tales rather than to Resurrection, which only presents, towards the end of the book, the sublime transformation of a selfish and morally cowardly man under the stress of an impulse of sacrifice. The greater part of the book consists of the extremely realistic picture of a master without kindness and a servant full of resignation, who are surprised, by night, on the steppes, by a blizzard, in which they lose their way. The master, who at first tries to escape, deserting his companion, returns, and finding the latter half-frozen, throws himself upon him, covering him with his body, gives him of his warmth, and sacrifices himself by instinct; he does not know why, but the tears fill his eyes; it seems to him that he has become the man he is seeking to save—Nikita—and that his life is no longer in himself, but in Nikita. "Nikita is alive; then I am still alive, myself." He has almost forgotten who he, Vassili, was. He thinks: "Vassili did not know what had to be done. But I, I know!" He hears the voice of Him whom he was awaiting (here his dream recalls one of the Popular Tales), of Him who, a little while ago, had commanded him to lie upon Nikita. He cries, quite happy: "Lord, I am coming!" and he feels that he is free; that nothing is keeping him back any longer. He is dead.
  2. While on the other hand he had mixed in all the various circles depicted in War and Peace, Anna Karenin, The Cossacks, and Sebastopol; the salons of the nobles, the army, the life of the country estate. He had only to remember.
  3. "Men carry in them the germ of all the human qualities, and they manifest now one, now another, so that they often appear to be not themselves; that is, themselves as they habitually appear. Among some these changes are more rare; among others more rapid. To the second class of men belongs Nekhludov. Under the influence of various physical or moral causes sudden and complete changes are incessantly being produced within him." (Resurrection.)
  4. "Many times in his life he had proceeded to clean up his conscience. This was the term he used to denote those moral crises in which he decided to sweep out the moral refuse which littered his soul. At the conclusion of these crises he never failed to set himself certain rules, which he swore always to keep. He kept a diary; he began a new life. But each time it was not long before he fell once more to the same level, or lower still, than before the crisis." (Resurrection.)
  5. Upon learning that Maslova is engaged in an intrigue with a hospital attendant, Nekhludov is more than ever decided to "sacrifice his liberty in order to redeem the sin of this woman."
  6. Tolstoy has never drawn a character with so sure, so broad a touch as in the beginning of Resurrection. Witness the admirable description of Nekhludov's toilet and his actions of the morning before the first session in the Palace of Justice.
  7. The word "act" to be found here and there in the text in such phrases as "act of faith," "act of will," is used in a sense peculiar to Catholic and Orthodox Christians. A penitent is told to perform an "act of faith" as penance; which is usually the repetition of certain prayers of the nature of a creed. The "act," in short, is a repetition, a declamation, a meditation: anything but an action. [Trans.]
  8. Letter of Countess Tolstoy's, 1884.