LITERATURE: Leo Tolstoy

LITERATURE: Leo Tolstoy


The Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy was a believer in the novel not as a source of entertainment but as a tool for psychological
education and reform. It was in his eyes, the supreme medium by which we can get to know others especially those who might from the outside seem unappealing and thereby expand our humanity and tolerance. Leo Tolstoy was born in 1828 at Yasnaya Polyana, a huge family estate, a hundred miles south of Moscow. It was to be his home on and off for the rest of his life. His parents died when he was young and he was brought up their
relatives. He flopped at university. One lecturer described him as being unable
and unwilling to learn. He spent a few years gambling and
drinking and chasing gypsy women before signing on as an artillery officer in
the Crimean War. He got married in his early thirties. His wife Sophia, who came from a sophisticated high-cultured background was only 18. They had 13 children, 9 of whom
survived infancy. It was a difficult marriage. There were huge arguments about sex and bitterness on both sides. Leo grew a very long beard, became a fitness fanatic and spent most of his time in his study. What he did there was to write several
hugely successful books among them “War and Pace”, “Anna Karenina” and “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”. Tolstoy didn’t believe in the idea of art for art’s sake. He was deeply invested in the belief that good art should make us less moralistic and judgmental and should be a supplement to religion in terms of developing our
reserves of kindness and morality. This crusading moralistic side of Tolstoy has often been ignored by modern critics who don’t wish to dirty art with a
mission, but it is in fact the most important side of Tolstoy, and none of his efforts can properly be appreciated without keeping it in mind. Tolstoy’s first great novel was “War and Peace” published in 1869, when he was 41. In it, we meet Natasha Rostova, a delightful free-spirited young woman. At the start she’s engaged to Andrei, a kind and sincere man who loved her
deeply, But is also rather emotionally remote
and avoidant. While Andrey is away travelling in Italy, Natasha meets a handsome cynical waster called Anatole and falls under his spell. He almost manages to seduce her and persuades her to run away with him. Though her family managed to stop her at the very last minute. Everyone is appalled and furious with
Tasha. This sort of madness wrecks her own prospects and deeply shames her family. By the world standards, Natasha has failed terribly. If we encountered a news clip about such a person, we might rapidly come to the conclusion that she lies beyond the range of normal sympathy. She had so much; she thought only of herself, she got what she deserved. And yet Tolstoy’s view is that if we grasp what things are like for Natasha inside her mind, we can’t and won’t withdraw our sympathy. She isn’t in truth self-indulgent, frivolous or totally lacking in devotion. She’s just a sexually inexperienced young woman who feels abandoned by her preoccupied boyfriend. She is someone who has a deeply impulsive and warm nature and is easily carried away by joy and happiness. She is also acutely worried about letting other people down, which is what leads her into trouble with the scheming and manipulative Anatole. Tolstoy keeps us on Natasha’s side and by doing so, he is getting us to rehearse a move he believes is fundamental to an ethical life: if we more accurately saw the inner lives of others, they couldn’t appear to us in the normal cold and one-dimensional way, and we would treat them with the kindness which they truly need and deserve. No one should be outside the circle of sympathy and forgiveness. For Tolstoy, a particular task of the novel is to help us to understand the so-called ‘dislikeable’ characters. One of the most initially repellant characters in his fiction is the husband of Anna Karenina, the heroine of his great novel of the same name, the pompous and stiff Karenin. The novel, a tragedy, tells the story of the beautiful, clever, lively and generous hearted married Anna, whose life falls apart when she falls in love with Vronsky, a splendid young cavalry officer. Anna’s husband – Count Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin is a fussy, status conscious, mannered high-ranking government official who is often callous towards Anna and unable to answer any of her emotional yearnings. As Anna’s affair with Vronsky develops, her husband’s main worry is that it might lead to social gossip which could undermine his public standing. He appears to have no sincere feelings at all about the marriage itself. He comes across as simply cold and brutish. But then Anna gives birth to her lover’s child, she is ill, and in a highly touching scene Karenin is deeply moved, weeps for the infant, for the mother, and forgives Anna: No, you can’t forgive me, says Anna. And yet he suddenly felt a blissful spiritual condition that gave him all at once a new happiness he had never known: a glad feeling of love and forgiveness for his enemies filled his heart. He knelt down, and laying his head in the curve of Anna’s arm; he sobbed like a little child. Thanks to the judicious Tolstoy, we see entirely unexpected aspects of the man. His inner life is not at all what we would expect, judging from the outside. But Tolstoy’s point is that Karenin is not really an exceptional character. He is just the normal mixture of bad and good. It is highly usual for rather off-putting people to have huge reserves of buried tenderness, to have dimensions to their characters very different from and often much nicer than those that their forbidding appearance suggests. We are invited on a comparable journey in relation to another character in Tolstoy’s fiction, the hero of the The Death of Ivan Illych, published in 1886. At the start of the novel, we meet Ivan, a high court judge at the pinnacle of society who appears selfish, vain and cynical. But one day, while helping hang some curtains, Ivan falls from a ladder and becomes aware of an inner pain which is the first sign of a disease which is soon diagnosed as fatal. He will have just a few months left to live. As his health declines, Ivan spends a lot of time sitting on the sofa at home. His family, aware at just how inconvenient his death will be to their social and financial standing, begin to resent him and his illness. He’s short and ill-tempered back. And yet inside, Ivan is going through a range of epiphanies. He looks back over his life and atones for its shallowness. He becomes newly sensitive to nature and to the ordinary kindness of his manservant, a humble uneducated man of peasant stock. He grows furious at the stupid way in which everyone avoids paying attention to the one really crucial fact about life: that we all die. He realises that our mortality should be constantly before our minds and should inspire continual kindness and sympathy. As he dies, Tolstoy imagines Ivan finally feeling pity and forgiveness for all those around him. As is typical in his writing, Tolstoy recounts in detail the vast philosophical and psychological dramas going on inside his hero’s head. All that those around him – the doctors and his family get to see is a sullen man who spends a lot of time with his face to the wall and yet we can see a visionary, a prophet and a man of outstanding moral courage and generosity. In writing about Ivan, Tolstoy wanted us to see his life as representative of all human potential, if only we could wake up to it before it is too late. When he was about seventy, Tolstoy pulled together his thinking about being a writer in a long essay, What is art? It is one of his most important books. In it, Tolstoy proposes that art has a great mission. Through great art, he tells, us ‘Lower feelings – less kind and less needed for the good of humanity are forced out and replaced by kinder feelings which better serve us individually and collectively. This is the purpose of art.’ As a supremely skilled and seductive writer, Tolstoy knew that novels need to be entertaining, or we simply won’t bother to read them. But he was also convinced that they have to aspire to be something else as well: key supports for our own stumbling path to maturity and kindness. And they can do this because they are able to get into a place we need but rarely have access to: the inner lives of other people. In What is art?, Tolstoy was mostly writing about the works of other authors, but it is really his own achievement that he is, indirectly and modestly, summing up. Great writers shouldn’t ever be just helping their readers pass the time. Their writing must be a form of therapy, an attempt to educate us towards emotional health and ethical good sense. As they aged, the tensions between Leo and and his wife Sophia grew. He complained that they had “totally opposite ideas of the meaning of existence”. Ye he insisted that even as Sophia “grew more and more irritable, despotic and uncontrollable” he continued to love her, though he admitted that he had given up trying to express his feelings. “There is no greater tragedy than the tragedy of the marital bed”, he wrote. Finally, when he was past eighty, Tolstoy couldn’t take it any more, and deserted his wife and family. He ran away in the middle of a freezing November night, caught pneumonia and died at the nearby railway station, where he was waiting for a train. Tolstoy’s funeral was a major public occasion. Thousands showed up from across Russia and the world. This was fitting, for his central proposal has enormous social implications. Tolstoy realised that our picture of what other people are like is a great driving force of relationships, economics and politics. He held up the tantalising idea that art could be the major vehicle for getting more accurate and often much kinder – ideas about what is going on in the minds and lives of other people. His body was taken back to his house and buried in the garden, under some trees where he liked to play as a child.

100 comments

  1. His books after he officially adopted Christianity like "Resuurection and My Religion What I Believe both bring to light his spiritual side to his writing. His theological insight is up there with many great theologians. I guess during long cold Russian winters you have a lot of time to think and carefully form your thought and then put them to paper. The literature snobs dismiss his other writings but they are just as good as War and Peace and Anna Karinina.

  2. A wonderful video overall, but I think your characterization of Karenin before the birth of Vronsky's child is a bit unfair. I'm reading the book now and the sections from Karenin's viewpoint (to me) paint him as a man who is deeply concerned with the state of his wife's soul and doesn't want to see her get hurt by being publicly shamed. It's not so much that he cares about his own reputation. But I definitely agree that he is a bit austere. Thanks for the video! Ever since reading Ivan Ilych in school I've wanted to explore more Tolstoy and I'm loving what I have read so far! Great content as always!

  3. “After I have read the Quran, I realized that all what humanity needs is this heavenly law.”

    “The legislation of Quran will spread all over the world, because it agrees with the mind, logic and wisdom.” – Leo Tolstoy

  4. well the whole "at the start of War and Peace Natasha is engaged to Andrei" is a whole lot of bullcrap, since it doesn't happen until almost two full volumes in…

  5. I highly recommend Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" — a fully comprehensible story about the inability of one human being to communicate the experience of transcendence.
    Tolstoy always believed in the possibility for a greater life, maybe even one that is veiled from our full view. As he child he played with his brothers in a forest. He imagined that one day he would find a green stick on which was written all the secrets of life. I have to say that I like that idea tremendously. We all are always looking for that green stick.

  6. Love your videos too. Thank you. There are some good points here.. more important in a sense, at least within the scope of this video, than the inner workings of his great novel.. but i cant help the sneaking suspicion that whomever wrote this, also failed to read Anna Karenina.

  7. “Undoubtedly, the Prophet Muhammad is one of the greatest reformers who served the social community. It suffices him for pride that he guided an entire nation to the light of truth, made his people inclined to peace and tranquility and giving preference to an ascetic life, prevented them from bloodshed and offering victims from among mankind and opened to them the way of development and civility. This is indeed a great work which could be done only by a man gifted with power, and such a man is worthy of respect and honor.”

    – Leo Tolstoy

  8. His book "My Religion: WhatI Believe" changed my spiritual worldview. in 1913, he was prophetic about the state of the church. You read the book today and it feels like it is a description of current trends but it was written over 100 years ago. BTW Ressurection is awesome too. I think it is one of his better works and I think that there were parts of it that were loosely autobiographical.

  9. He was a Christian. All this talk of his ideas about peoples' inner worlds, mixture of good and bad, our actions being motivated by the limited and flawed way we view others, kindness, all that came from his foundation. You didn't have to omit that in this video, that just furthers prejudice and a limited view of what people think christians are.

  10. Wow, your take on death of Ivan illych is so wrong, first of all Ivan isn't a terrible person, he's well respected and loved in his community and does allbhe can to ensure justice. He starts getting bitter due to how his wife treats him plus he didn't love but she did so he married her. Secondly he is not told that he's going to die, in fact everyone tries to hide it from him and he figures it out over a span of months. In this period while he is incredibly I'll, he has darker and darker thoughts, and he starts to feel that he is a burden to everyone, he feels that everyone wants him to die, and even worse he wants to die, but he can't figure out why God did this to him and moments before death he relies that he was never truly happy except in his childhood and he wasn't as great a person as he thought.

  11. Yawn. His works sound outdated by now and ignorant of true evil. Maybe in his time it was something else but by now, it sounds pretty basic.

  12. Is so sad that when he finally decided to leave home because he wasn't happy, he end up dead. It got me thinking.

  13. I believe your retelling of “War and peace” is just awful. You showed it like the whole book is about Natasha and her lovers, which is definitely not true. This book is about Russians, our national spirit, soul and courage of people taking part in the war with Napoleon. Actually, love line is just a simple formality.

  14. Surprisingly he did not mention Pierre Bezukhov who is the central character of "War and Peace." Instead, he focused more on Natasha Rostova who is more of a supporting character.

  15. Basically he is doing to entertainment what modern liberals are doing which is turn entertainment into socialist propaganda.

  16. This indeed is one of the good things in a Great Sea of Garbage called You – Tube.
    This gives me a strong hope that a public channel viewing spot called You – tube has some very good Gems of excellent quality..
    You just only have to search for it…

  17. Found a transcript of the narration used here from the link below. So was the narration derived from this? Or the article was taken from the narration? Or is this a collaboration?

    https://www.lingq.com/lesson/19-literature-leo-tolstoy-759172/

  18. Tolstoy is not just about Natasha. Andrey is a character in his own right. Then there is Pierre and his personal and religious journey. And a host, and I mean a HOST of other characters, some coming in and out of the story (just like real life), and interacting with each other with their own wishes.
    I liked Maria. And there is the servant girl Sonya. And Boris. And so many more.

    This is not Anna Karenina. There's no need to reduce it all to Natasha.

    And all though I'm not an expert on Tolstoy, I think the main message is about free will and determinism. Literally half the book (every second part of the book) is a philosophical reflection on the nature of power, free will and determinism. You cannot just ignore that.

    But The Death of Ivan Illyich was explained well.

  19. Sorry, but something very important about Tolstoy isn't mentioned. He was actually writing a lot of essays with his thoughts about religion, Christianity, and God. This is crucial because this was the reason for which his literature was at some point banned by the Russian tzarist government since the ideas he wrote were much closer to Protestant ideas, and in particular to American menonites/amish with whom he was in correspondence. Some of his ideas were similar to Masonic ideas. The Russian Orthodox Church didn't like it and got him imprisoned. But the Soviet writers later twisted Tolstoy's ideas and claimed he wrote about the plight of the common man and as if he were against religion. He wasn't

  20. Lev Tolstoy wasn't born in 1928.he born 1828 . please respect your business and Do not give false information to people.

  21. In fact, Tolstoy didn't leave his house in winter and go to field because he was fed up with his marriage. neither did he went there to run away from complicated family life. the reason is his mental illness. at the end of his life he began to live like an ordinary peasant (wore old simple clothes with naked feet, plowed the land) though he was one of the richest earls in Russia. he wanted to feel "the connection with his Motherland" and refused to put on fur coat or felt boots. he just went mad (don't forget he was 82, there's nothing unusual in this).
    soo, life's not that simple and romantic as you think, especially in Russia!

  22. The Russians had an amazing history of cinema, music, art and literature. So what the hell happened?

  23. How to remember Tolstoy's year of birth? Simple – it's in the "e" – 2.7_1828_1828_459045….

  24. please, read my book and the link is here:
    https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07G31S7HQ?pf_rd_p=2d1ab404-3b11-4c97-b3db-48081e145e35&pf_rd_r=6QS8K62S8G1F45D1THWJ

  25. I'm actually related to him. My mom took my dads last name but her maiden name is Tolstoy. I'm not quite sure how I'm related to him but I know I am. I thing he's like my great grandfather or something. My pappy knows all about him

  26. How abot some great modern literature writers like haruki murakami he's one of my favourite modern writer and I would like to know your interpretation💗💗💗

  27. He also wrote “ The kingdom of God is within you” . This is a book that got him into a lot of trouble with Russian authorities. Worth a review

  28. It's sad, that West's representations about Russian culture is so superficial I'm russian.

  29. not a fan of Leo Tolstoy. Dostoevsky my favorite Russian writer and I believe he is the father of Psychology. Tolstoy was a jack ass

  30. Leo Tolstoy and Sofia (his cousin) were happily married (look at how many kids they had) until Leo Tolstoy become a mad monk and anti-aristocrat. Then they hated each other. He also condemned his first few novels ("War and Peace" and "Anne Karenina") for being too focused on bratty aristocrats and ignoring the struggles and lives of the workers. He pretty much became a socialist at the end of his life.

  31. I've read War and Peace. It's nothing like what you described. If you can't give a proper summary stop doing it and misleading people.
    This is a literary crime.

    I've also noticed you are putting your own words in the mix, may be the writer doesn't even mean that.

  32. I was rebellious at school as I was constantly pressured by not being academic. But went on and Studied Literature, early childhood and the individual in society. Then learning psychology and training for work 10 years later. After that Steiner Waldorf Education in the creative Arts for young children, then Language teaching. I help nuero diverse children and young people to learn literacy through painting and drawing for creative writing and English Literature. 💕

  33. No one should be outside the circle of sympathy and forgiveness. Yet, Tolstoy's wife seemed to step out of the circle of the 80-year-old Tolstoy.

  34. @The School of Life – This isn't the first video I watched on him by you. But, this one is definitely better. I think you pegged Tolstoy in this.

  35. Imagine thinking that your own subjective morality can be a substitute to the objective morality of God. Of course this video never mentioned how Tolstoy changed or anything like that.

  36. Its pretty wrong that you mentioned how much he "loved" his wife despite her being"irritable" but didnt think to mention the endless psychological abuse she endured AND her HUGE contribution to his work. She redrafted war and peace 7 TIMES to correct his errors and made additions to the plot. He read her short story and used it as the base for the Rostov family in W+P with no cedit. She took out a loan to publish his works when HE DIDNT WANT TO meaning we may not have some of his work without her. In his will, he gave the rights to his works to a friend, leaving her "cast aside" in her own words. While we can still appreciate genius and artists despite their wrongs, we still have to acknowledge them.

  37. I want to quibble about the word "kind". Tolstoy used the word "love", not "kind". While love often includes kindness it is not reducible to kindness. Love is to will the good of the other as other and that can often involve pain and suffering (as an instrumental good). Whoever wrote the "script" for this is obviously a secular humanist.

  38. Yes. Tolstoy warped the reality of difficult lives, especially his writings on religion, which may have contributed to the Bolshevik rebellion and Communism.

  39. Damm, after all that, he died cold and alone. Hope he was happy. Pretty interesting tho, religion also emphasizes constant awareness of mortality (or at least in Islam.

  40. His life is so wholesome and laddish at the same time, from being a drunk gambling layabout pestering gypsy women then getting bored and becoming an officer to penning literary masterpieces about inner kindness and understanding then just walking out on your family and dying of pneumonia. Absolute madman

  41. It often seems life that all these major philosophy influencers have had their parents killed or died when they were a child.

  42. How ironic, Tolstoy wants us to think about what goes on in other people's minds, yet he couldn't figure out his wife's :D.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *