Authors: Leo Tolstoy

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Russian novelist

September 9, 1828

Yasnaya Polyana, Russia

November 20, 1910

Astapovo, Russia


Among the world’s greatest novelists, Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy (TAWL-stoy) also wrote an important body of nonfiction advocating pacifism and social justice. The fourth son of Princess Marya Nikolayevna Volkonsky and Nikolay Ilyich Tolstoy, a retired lieutenant colonel and gentleman farmer, Tolstoy was born on the family estate of Yasnaya Polyana, Tula Province, Russia, on September 9 (August 28 according to the Russian Julian calendar), 1828. His mother died two years later in giving birth to her fifth child; her death may explain why Tolstoy, who fathered thirteen children, developed a terror of childbirth and in his novels portrayed it as a harrowing experience. Although he could not have remembered much about his mother, he drew on accounts of her to create Princess Marya in War and Peace. His father, who died when Leo was nine years old, served as the model for Nikolay Rostov in that work, and many of Tolstoy’s other relatives and acquaintances provided him with characters for his fiction, as he himself was the model for Levin in Anna Karenina. {$I[AN]9810000747} {$I[A]Tolstoy, Leo} {$I[geo]RUSSIA;Tolstoy, Leo} {$I[tim]1828;Tolstoy, Leo}

Leo Tolstoy

(Library of Congress)

Tolstoy’s youth was carefree and dissipated. In 1846 he enrolled in Kazan University to prepare for a diplomatic career but left after a year of studying Oriental languages. He would later become adept at Greek (which he claimed he taught himself in three months), Hebrew, German, French, and English, all of them represented in his fourteen-thousand-volume library. Despite a rigorous program of self-improvement that he established for himself after leaving the university, he spent the next four years as a typical Russian aristocrat (Tolstoy was a count), traveling between his country estate and the cities of St. Petersburg and Moscow. Though he eventually abandoned this social milieu, his experiences in high society allowed him to paint vivid portraits of its members.

Bored, in 1851 he joined the army and served in the Caucasus and in the Crimean War. He would reject this life, too, but he learned at first hand what war was like. In War and Peace, he presents the Battle of Austerlitz not as a grand panorama of clashing armies and heroic encounters but rather from the limited perspective of a soldier engaged in the action. As an officer, he would also have met characters like Count Vronsky and his circle, so well depicted in Anna Karenina. More immediately, he used his observations to create a series of sketches that appeared as Sebastopol; many of these stories contrast the quiet bravery of common soldiers with the vainglorious posturing of their officers.

Resigning his commission in 1856, Tolstoy turned his attention to improving the lot of the peasants who lived on his land, setting up a school, publishing textbooks, and traveling to Western Europe to observe teaching methods. In 1862 he married the eighteen-year-old Sofia Andreyevna Bers, sixteen years his junior. The next decade and a half, in which he created his two monumental novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, would be the happiest and most productive of his life. In his later years, he became increasingly concerned with religion, pacifism, and social issues, writing a large number of tracts attacking the established church, war, and injustice. Like his character Levin, he worked alongside the peasants. He also made his own shoes, became a vegetarian, and refused to allow others to serve him. He wrote his novel Resurrection to raise money for the Dukhobars, a group of pacifists seeking to emigrate to Canada. Like much of his writing in this period, the novel attacks the Russian Orthodox church, which excommunicated him in 1901. Several times he attempted to abandon the trappings of aristocracy. In November, 1910, he made the last of these efforts, dying in a railway station in Astapovo on his way to his beloved Caucasus.

Tolstoy not only produced two of the world’s greatest novels but also revolutionized the genre. In 1851 he tried in “A History of Yesterday” to re-create a typical day in his life. Rejecting the Romantic fiction popular at the time, he sought to describe life in all of its contradictions and complexity while at the same time depicting the psychological motivations of his characters as they revealed themselves through subtle gestures and simple expressions. From this literary experimentation came works of epic proportions and epic stature. War and Peace contains more than 550 characters, at least 50 of them significant; Anna Karenina treats 143, and again some 50 play important roles in the work. Both are social histories, the one of the period 1805 to 1814, the other of the 1860s, and while Tolstoy focuses on the aristocratic world he knew so intimately, he shows a keen understanding of the common people as well. In his work, Tolstoy combines psychological probing with the novel of manners on a grand scale. Although he writes in the third person as an omniscient author, he allows his characters to reveal themselves.

Tolstoy’s preeminence as a writer of fiction is unquestioned. John Galsworthy and E. M. Forster are only two of the many who have called War and Peace the greatest novel ever written, and another critic has commented that if God wrote a novel, it would be Anna Karenina. More problematic is Tolstoy’s position as a reformer. Yet even here he has been influential. In his own day, he was regarded as the conscience of the nation as he pleaded for the lives of revolutionaries condemned to death, and Mahatma Gandhi found his works deeply inspirational. Though Tolstoy often adopted extreme positions, he has come to be recognized as a serious thinker, even if his religious and social tracts pale before the brilliance of his novelistic achievement.

Author Works Long Fiction: Detstvo, 1852 (Childhood, 1862) Otrochestvo, 1854 (Boyhood, 1886) Yunost’, 1857 (Youth, 1886) Semeynoye schast’ye, 1859 (Family Happiness, 1888) Kazaki, 1863 (The Cossacks, 1872) Voyna i mir, 1865–1869 (War and Peace, 1886) Anna Karenina, 1875–1877 (English translation, 1886) Smert’ Ivana Il’icha, 1886 (The Death of Ivan Ilyich, 1887) Kreytserova sonata, 1889 (The Kreutzer Sonata, 1890) Voskreseniye, 1899 (Resurrection, 1899) Khadzi-Murat, wr. 1904, pb. 1911 (Hadji Murad, 1911) Short Fiction: Sevastopolskiye rasskazy, 1855–1856 (Sebastopol, 1887) The Forged Coupon and Other Stories and Dramas, 1911 The Kreutzer Sonata, the Devil, and Other Tales, 1940 Notes of a Madman, and Other Stories, 1943 Tolstoy Tales, 1947 Drama: Vlast’ t’my, pb. 1886 (The Power of Darkness, 1888) The First Distiller, 1886 Plody prosveshcheniya, pr. 1889 (The Fruits of Enlightenment, 1891) Zhivoy trup, pr., pb. 1911 (The Live Corpse, 1919) Ot hey vse kachestva, 1910 (The Cause of It All) I svet vo tme svetit, pb. 1911 (The Light Shines in Darkness, 1923) The Dramatic Works, pb. 1923 Nonfiction: Ispoved’, 1884 (A Confession, 1885) V chom moya vera, 1884 (What I Believe, 1885) The Gospel in Brief, 1886 O zhizni, 1888 (Life, 1888) Kritika dogmaticheskogo bogosloviya, 1891 (A Critique of Dogmatic Theology, 1904) Church and State and Other Essays, 1891 Why Do Men Intoxicate Themselves?, 1892 Soedinenie i perevod chetyrekh evangeliy, 1892–1894 (The Four Gospels Harmonized and Translated, 1895–1896) Tsarstvo Bozhie vnutri vas, 1893 (The Kingdom of God Is Within You, 1894) Patriotismus und Christentum, 1894 (Christianity and Patriotism: With Pertinent Extract from Other Essays, 1905) Chto takoye iskusstvo?, 1898 (What Is Art?, 1898) Tak chto zhe nam delat?, 1902 (What to Do?, 1887) O Shekspire i o drame, 1906 (Shakespeare and the Drama, 1906) The Diaries of Leo Tolstoy, 1847–1852, 1917 The Journal of Leo Tolstoy, 1895–1899, 1917 Tolstoi’s Love Letters, 1923 The Private Diary of Leo Tolstoy, 1853–1857, 1927 “What Is Art?,” and Essays on Art, 1929 L. N. Tolstoy o literature: Stati, pisma, dnevniki, 1955 Lev Tolstoy ob iskusstve i literature, 1958 Leo Tolstoy: Last Diaries, 1960 Children’s/Young Adult Literature: Azbuka, 1872 Novaya azbuka, 1875 (Stories for My Children, 1988) Russkie knigi dlya chteniya, 1875 Classic Tales and Fables for Children, 2002 (includes selections from Azbuka and Novaya azbuka) Miscellaneous: The Complete Works of Count Tolstoy, 1904–1905 (24 volumes) Tolstoy Centenary Edition, 1928–1937 (21 volumes) Polnoye sobraniye sochinenii, 1928–1958 (90 volumes) Bibliography Bayley, John. Leo Tolstoy. Plymouth, England: Northcote House, 1997. Criticism and interpretation of Tolstoy’s work. Bayley, John. Tolstoy and the Novel. London: Chatto and Windus, 1966. Influenced by Henry James’s organic conception of the novel, Bayley concentrates on trenchant analyses of War and Peace and Anna Karenina. He also perceptively examines Family Happiness, The Kreutzer Sonata, and The Devil. Bayley, John, ed. Introduction to The Portable Tolstoy. New York: Viking, 1978. Bayley has written a discerning introduction as well as compiled a comprehensive chronology and select bibliography. This anthology omits the long novels but does excerpt Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth. The fiction choices are fine. Also included are A Confession and The Power of Darkness. Benson, Ruth Crego. Women in Tolstoy: The Ideal and the Erotic. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973. Concentrates on Leo Tolstoy’s changing vision of the role and importance of family life. Suggests that Tolstoy struggled most of his life with a dichotomous view of women, regarding them in strictly black-and-white terms, as saints or sinners. Analyzes the female characters in the major and several minor works in terms of such a double view. An interesting and provocative piece of feminist criticism. Bloom, Harold, ed. Leo Tolstoy. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. A collection of critical essays. The views expressed give a good sampling of the wide range of opinions about Tolstoy prevalent among Western critics. Many of these critics assign a prominent place in literary history to Tolstoy, comparing him to, among others, Homer and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Includes bibliography. Christian, R. F. Tolstoy: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1969. Christian is a leading Tolstoyan who is knowledgeable about his subject’s sources and influences, writes clearly, and provides particularly helpful interpretations of Family Happiness and The Kreutzer Sonata. Gustafson, Richard F. Leo Tolstoy, Resident and Stranger: A Study in Fiction and Theology. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1986. Gustafson seeks to rescue Tolstoy from those who would classify him solely as a realist. By focusing on what he sees as the inherently and uniquely Russian attributes of Tolstoy’s writing, Gustafson reunites the preconversion artist and the postconversion religious thinker and prophet. The study’s bibliography is divided between books devoted to Tolstoy and those focusing on Eastern Christian thought. Jahn, Gary R. The Death of Ivan Ilich: An Interpretation. New York: Twayne, 1993. After providing a summary and critique of previous criticism on Tolstoy’s most famous story, Jahn examines the context of the story within other works by Tolstoy to argue that the story is an affirmation of life rather than a document of despair. Orwin, Donna Tussig. Tolstoy’s Art and Thought, 1847-1880. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993. Divided into three parts, which coincide with the first three decades of Tolstoy’s literary career, Orwin’s study attempts to trace the origins and growth of the Russian master’s ideas. After focusing on Tolstoy’s initial creative vision, Orwin goes on to analyze, in depth, his principal works. Rowe, William W. Leo Tolstoy. Boston: Twayne, 1986. Concise introduction to Tolstoy’s life and work, with special emphasis on the major novels and later didactic writings. Discusses, briefly, most of Tolstoy’s major concerns. Excellent treatment of individual characters in the major novels. Includes bibliography. Seifrid, Thomas. “Gazing on Life’s Page: Perspectival Vision in Tolstoy.” PMLA 113 (May, 1998): 436–448. Suggests that the typical visual situation in Tolstoy’s fiction is perspectival; argues that Tolstoy’s impulse can be linked with the material nature of books and that this linkage has implications for Russian culture as well as for the relation between the verbal and the visual in general. Simmons, Ernest T. Introduction to Tolstoy’s Writings. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968. Simmons is the dean of Russian literature studies in the United States and has also written a two-volume biography of Tolstoy. This book is compact, well organized, comprehensive, and reliable. Its style, unfortunately, is pedestrian. Smoluchowski, Louise. Lev and Sonya: The Story of the Tolstoy Marriage. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1987. With the publication of Sonya Tolstoy’s diaries it became apparent that in order to understand Tolstoy, it is necessary to understand his marriage to the extraordinary Sonya. Smoluchowski does a good job of retelling the story, relying mainly on the words of the principals themselves. Steiner, George. Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: An Essay in the Old Criticism. 2d ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996. This welcome reappearance of a classic study of the epic versus the dramatic, first published in 1959, carries only a new preface. In it, however, Steiner makes a compelling case for the reprinting, in the age of deconstructionism, of this wide-ranging study not just of individual texts, but of contrasting worldviews. Tolstaia, Sophia Andreevna. The Diaries of Sophia Tolstoy. Translated by Cathy Porter, edited by O. A. Golinenko et al. New York: Random House, 1985. This massive personal record of Tolstoy’s wife, detailing their life together, spans the years 1862–1910. Sophia Tolstoy kept an almost daily account of her husband’s opinions, doubts, and plans concerning his literary activity and social ventures as well as of his relationship with other writers and thinkers. Her notes give a fascinating and intimate view of the Tolstoy family and of the extent to which it served as background for many of the literary episodes. Illustrated. Tolstoy, Alexandra. Tolstoy: A Life of My Father. 1953. Reprint. New York: Octagon Books, 1973. Many of Tolstoy’s offspring, relations, and peers wrote about him. This is a good place to begin for those who wish to understand why Tolstoy inspired such reverence in those around him. Wasiolek, Edward. Tolstoy’s Major Fiction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978. Having written a superb study of Fyodor Dostoevski’s fiction, Wasiolek has composed an equally first-rate critique of Tolstoy’s. He concentrates on thorough analyses of ten Tolstoyan works, including Family Happiness, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, and “Master and Man.” His is a close and acute reading, influenced by Russian Formalists and by Roland Barthes. A twenty-page chronicle of Tolstoy’s life and work is illuminating. Wilson, A. N. Tolstoy. New York: W. W. Norton, 1988. A long but immensely readable biography, breezy, insightful, and opinionated, by a highly regarded British novelist. Illustrated; includes a useful chronology of Tolstoy’s life and times as well as notes, bibliography, and index.

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