Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Leo Tolstoy: Resurrection

Resurrection, published in 1899, was the final Leo Tolstoy novel. It’s a novel with a funny publication history and incredible personal consequences for the author. Tolstoy serialized the novel in a magazine in order to raise funds to help the Doukhobors migrate to Canada. The Doukhobors were a Christian sect that practiced pacifism and was at odds with the government’s universal military conscription laws. The sectarians’ refusal to yield caused the government vexation especially when it became an international debacle. A solution was found to let the sectarians migrate to Canada, at their personal expense, for which journey Tolstoy ended up raising 30,000 roubles. Speaking of Christianity, it is also said that this novel, viciously critical of organised religion, was the insult that finally wore down the Orthodox Church’s patience and led it to excommunicate Tolstoy in 1901.

The Church, but also the government, prisons, law courts and nobility are thoroughly attacked by Tolstoy in this novel. This was certainly no longer the author of War and Peace, an admirable historical novel about two families hurled into chaos by the Napoleonic Invasions; it wasn’t even the excellent novel about love, adultery and social appearances that was Anna Karenina. After this novel Tolstoy went through a crisis of faith, reorganized his life around a personal view of Christianity and started writing utilitarian fiction, valuing social intervention over aesthetics, according to the tenets postulated by himself in What Is Art? (1897). Resurrection is the result. Whether or not this novel is a failure depends on what the reader expects from it. If the reader is expecting War and Peace again, he’ll be disappointed: this novel is not subtle, it’s not full of minute details and its characters lack the interiority of Natasha and Pierre. And indeed it seems many were disappointed for this is Tolstoy’s least admired novel. But if the reader accepts that this novel was above all an excuse to illustrate and dismantle all the hypocrisy, wickedness, ignorance, injustice and apathy of fin-de-siècle Russia which sent millions of people to the most abject of existences, then this novel is certainly admirably achieves what it set out to do. For all the trepidations I had about it before reading it, I was extremely surprised by the beauty of this novel and I don’t think it’s a blight on Tolstoy’s career.

The novel’s plot is simple: a young nobleman impregnates a housemaid and she quits her employee’s service, an action that leaves her hapless and initiates her in a descent to depravity that will end with her being tried for murder. In court, the same nobleman who defiled her, now doing jury service, remembers her and realizes that he was the reason she was turned into a criminal. Full of regret he does everything in his power to obtain her release and to aid her while in prison, including moving to Siberia to be with her.

Maslova, the victim, is the daughter of an unmarried woman at a dairy-farm. When she dies, Maslova is only 3 and she’s brought up by the granddaughters of a woman landowner, growing up to serve at their house as a maid. It’s a happy, care-free existence, and she receives opportunities few in her circumstances could aspire to, including learning to write and read, so that “the girl turned out half servant, half young lady.” But this idyll ends at the age of 16 when one of the ladies’ nephews, an officer on army leave, seduces her and goes away leaving her pregnant. To the ladies’ credit, they had for Maslova’s sexual frolics (obviously they did not know who was the father) the same tolerance their grandmother had for the frolics of Maslova’s mother, a woman who “had a baby every year,” since you can’t expect peasant people to control their instincts any better than a beast. But Maslova turns the table on them. Feeling anaemic, repulsed and despondent, she asks to be dismissed from service and leaves. After this it’s one long chain of sordid events: patrons who molest her; a stillborn; carelessness with money; inability to adjust to poverty after the luxury of her first job; physical violence; and working in a brothel. “From that day a life of chronic sin against human and divine laws commenced for Katusha Maslova, a life which is led by hundreds of thousands of women and which is not merely tolerated but sanctioned ny the government, anxious for the welfare of its subjects: a life which for nine women out of ten ends in painful disease, premature decrepitude, and death.” In this manner she works seven years until the day she’s wrongly accused of murder and brought to court. Tolstoy has only compassion for Maslova is quick to defend that her moral degradation is not an inherent aspect of her personality but a fate that could befall anyone else: “Every man bears in himself the germs of every human quality; but sometimes one quality manifests itself, sometimes another, and the man often becomes unlike himself, while still remaining the same man.”

Then we have the real criminal. Prince Nekhlyudov, the man who seduces her, is described as a dissolute officer, a rack who plays with women and discards them, a womanizer with multiple affairs at the same time, and who promises to marry a lady while seeing a married woman in secret. His pettiness and insensibility are blamed on the army, another institution that does not escape the author’s ire, charged here with transforming good people into indolent, immoral cads. “He had then been an honest, unselfish lad, ready to sacrifice himself for any good cause; now he was a depraved, refined egotist, caring only for his own enjoyment. Then God’s world seemed a mystery which he tried enthusiastically and joyfully to solve; now everything in life seemed clear and simple, defined by the conditions of life he was leading. Then he had felt the importance and necessity of communion with nature, and with those who had lived and thought and felt before him – philosophers and poets. What he now considered necessary and important were human institutions and intercourse with his comrades. Then women seemed mysterious and charming – charming by the very mystery that enveloped them; now the purpose of women, all women except those of his own family and the wives of his friends, was a very definite one: women were the best means towards an already experienced enjoyment. Then money was not needed, for he did not require even one-third of what his mother allowed him, and it was possible to refuse the property inherited from his father and give it to the peasants. But now his allowance of fifteen hundred roubles a month did not suffice, and he had already had some unpleasant talks about it with his mother.” And in his egotistic pleasure-seeking he has his way with Maslova, ignoring the consequences. “On this last day with his aunts, while the previous night was still fresh in his memory, two feelings kept struggling in Nekhlyudov’s breast. One was the burning, sensual recollection of animal love (though it had far from fulfilled his expectations) mixed with a certain satisfaction at having gained his end; and the other was the consciousness of having done something very wrong, which had to be put right not for her sake but for his own.” Obviously he can’t put anything right and then returns to the army. He doesn’t see Maslova again until he’s ordered to serve in a jury in a murder case, and during the trial he recognizes her and realizes that he was responsible for degrading her to her current state. “‘No, it cannot be,’ said Nekhlyudov to himself; and yet he was now certain that this was she, that same girl, half ward, half servant, with whom he had once been in love, really in love, and whom he had seduced in a moment of delirious passion, and then abandoned and never again brought to mind – because the memory would have been too painful, would have convicted him too clearly, proving that he who was so proud of his integrity had treated this woman in a revolting, scandalous way.”

The jurymen are portrayed as heartless, reactionary, and incompetent, Nekhlyudov included. After Maslova’s sentence is decreed, based on a technical mistake caused by the jury, which leaned towards a not guilty verdict, Nekhlyudov decides to seek her pardon, marry her, atone for his crime by following her to Siberia to serve her, and doing everything in his power to repeal her sentence. This is his resurrection. Along the way he becomes immerse in the problems of countless people, prisoners and criminals alike, giving the reader a raw picture of the inhumanity that the ordinary Russian citizen had to endure in his daily life.

Tolstoy, in spite of his obvious pity for Maslova, does not make her a perfect person: she can be ungrateful, she sometimes doesn’t think rationally about things and makes annoying blunders, she takes to drinking in order to run away from life’s pressure, and more than once worsens her own situation because of her behaviour. One gets the impression that her saviour is wasting his goodwill and newfound goodness on her. He gives her money in prison, for an emergency, and she uses it to buy booze, a minor offense in prison. At the same time Maslova shows signs of wanting to change her ways, so she embodies a tension between her self-destruction and her will to reform. To her credit, she’s also capable of thinking lucidly about Nekhlyudov’s sacrifices for her, and she understands that his infatuation with her can only make him miserable in the long-run, and she loves him too much to be tools of his own unhappiness.

And yet, regardless of the consequences his new life may have on him, Nekhlyudov is relentless in his mission to obtain Maslova’s freedom. He sees judges, lawyers, ministers and appeals even to the Tsar to repeal the sentence. This, of course, permits Tolstoy to shift from the squalor of the ordinary citizens to the general indifference and cruelty of the well-off. The court is full of inert, soulless people and automatons reasoning according to the latest fads: “Skovorodnikov was a materialist and a Darwinian, and counted every manifestation of abstract morality, or, worse still, religion, not only as despicable folly but as a personal affront to himself. All this bother about a prostitute, with the presence of a celebrated advocate and Nekhlyudov in the Senate, were in the highest degree repugnant to him.  Si he stuffed his beard into his mouth and made faces, and very skilfully pretended to know nothing of this case, excepting that the reasons for the appeal were insufficient, and that he, therefore, agreed with the president that the decision of the Court should remain unaltered.” And then we have the Minister, more concerned with luxury than with people: “Count Ivan Mikhaylich had been a Minister, and was a man of strong convictions. His convictions consisted in the belief that just as it was natural for a bird to feed on worms, to be clothed in feathers and down, and to fly in the air, so it was natural for him to feed on the choicest and most expensive food, prepared by highly paid cooks, to wear the most comfortable and most expensive clothing, to drive with the best and fastest horses; and that, therefore, all these things should be ready found for him.” And this is just the tip of the iceberg, tireless Nekhlyudov also has to deal with the dramas and problems of governors, policemen, inspectors and prison officers. Sometimes the novel reaches zones that we today would can Kafkaesque. But it’s also very 19th century: Dickens. Laws and the minute working of the judicial system were clearly big themes at the time.

Then there’s the book’s merciless attack on organized religion. I could cite several examples, but let’s just consider the scene with the priest giving a sermon to prisoners: “The priest did his part with a quiet conscience because he had been brought up from childhood to consider that this was the one true faith, which had been held by all the holy men of olden time, and was still held by the Church and demanded by the State authorities. He did not believe that the bread turned into flesh, that to repeat so many words  was useful for the soul, or that he had actually swallowed a bit of God. No one could believe this; but he believed that one ought to believe it.” The final sentence is excellent. Here’s a priest just going through the motions, preaching without any conviction, shouldered only by a tenuous belief that he’s doing some good to somebody; religion may not be useful to him, but to the wretched prisoners it may be. Also perfect is the way Nekhlyudov sums up the Bible: “What a pity that this is so incoherent; yet one feels that there is something good in it.” For all the exegesis the Bible has been subjected to, this may be the soundest thing written about it in the most succinct way possible. Nekhlyudov, searching for a guide to life, ends up favouring self-reform over social reform, changing himself before changing the world: “It became clear to him that all the dreadful evil he had been witnessing in prisons and jails, and the quiet self-assurance of the perpetrators of this evil, resulted from men attempting what was impossible: to correct evil while themselves evil. Vicious men were trying to reform other vicious men, and thought they could do it by using mechanical means. And the result of all this was that needy and covetous men, having made a profession of this pretended punishment and reformation of others, themselves became utterly corrupt, and unceasingly corrupt  also those whom they torment.” It’s not wonder that so many people, Gandhi included, were influenced by his later teachings; as a moral system, it’s actually quite sensible and realistic, and doesn’t preach anything more bizarre than learning to be good. And with that Nekhlyudov is relieved by one final hope: “Nekhlyudov now understood that society, and order in general, exist, not thanks to those lawful criminals, who judge and punish others, but because notwithstanding their depraving influence men still pity and love one another.”

Read for Rose City Reader’s 2014 European Reading Challenge.


  1. Wonderful. I have not read this one, but have meant to, and then meant to again.

    Maybe I wouldn't be able to do much good with the book, with my usual aesthetic blah blah blah. The novel sounds like one where the best reader really plunges into the book's ethics.

    1. The novel sounds like one where the best reader really plunges into the book's ethics.

      It's certainly a great affirmation of moral principles, some sound, others arguable. Clearly removed from Tolstoy's earlier aesthetics, but for all that I don't see how this is a bad novel, just not a great one. Maslova and Nekhlyudov are certainly not one-dimensional, like I read somewhere.

  2. Thank you for that marvellous appreciation of a novel that hardly anyone seems to rate!

    “Whether or not this novel is a failure depends on what the reader expects from it.”

    Absolutely! And I think the reason this novel is not rated so highly is that it doesn’t conform to what we expect a novel to be. We think that to be didactic is a black mark against a work of art, but this novel is didactic with a vengeance. Indeed, this is The Novel as a Sermon. But it’s no ordinary sermon: it’s Tolstoy, after all! And this sermon forces us, the readers, to peer deep into our own moral selves.

    Judged by our standards of what a novel should be, this one is a disastrous failure. But it hits me with a sort of visceral power. Which means, I need to put aside any idea I may have of what a novel should be, and try to figure out why it makes so powerful an effect. And, to judge from your post, that means I need to revisit this.

  3. Himadri, thank you.

    I wonder if besides the didactic tone, what bothers some reader is Nekhlyudov's honest, unironic turn to goodness and expiation; Tolstoy forces him to bear a tremendous moral change throughout the novel. And is it possible that no one's capable of believing in the purity of his selflessness anymore? The novel, after all, ends on a hopeful belief in the goodness of men to triumph over evil. Perhaps that's too much for the reader to bear.

    For me, though, Tolstoy showed a careful and credible journey from wickedness to self-reform, and I see Nekhlyudov in the tradition of his troubled, conflicted characters like Vronsky, Pierre and Anna.