Saturday, May 3, 2014

Tolstoy: Genius or Madman?

This post was inspired by Hanna's Wednesday post.

The novellas we've read by Tolstoy, as well as his works Anna Karenina and War and Peace, have been rather dark. Although I feel that society at large tends to attribute this to the fact that he's Russian, I want to explore how we feel about Tolstoy. His works are no doubt masterpieces, but are they the musings of a genius or of a madman?

If we consider Pierre and Levin as reflections of Tolstoy, what then are we learning about Tolstoy? In Pierre, which was earlier, we see a lot of epiphanies that are ultimately disappointing and a great sense of purposelessness. Tolstoy seems to have been searching for meaning in life with disappointing results. Then comes Levin. Through Levin we can assume that Tolstoy has created some more structure in his life and some things are more sorted out for him. Yet, Levin has a very serious breakdown near the end of Anna Karenina. I'm curious as to whether there are any indications that Tolstoy himself attempted suicide. I think we can confidently state that Tolstoy was at least thinking about death throughout Anna Karenina and afterwards as well. By the end of Anna Karenina, it seems Tolstoy was saved through religion but what does the Kreutzer Sonata tell is about Tolstoy's new-found religion? Tolstoy seems more concerned with the behavior of women than of men. How can the man who wrote a dialogue in which the double standards between men and women were clearly covered? Can Tolstoy truly feel that murder of an adulterous woman is justified? How are Tolstoy's personal problems affecting this?

It seems to me that Tolstoy has a lot of issues that may have driven him crazy. I find that Tolstoy had a very negative outlook on life. I doubt not that he feared nearing his death and realizing that his life had been pointless. It's clear that Tolstoy finds meaning in family happiness but is unable to understand how it can succeed. Is this at the source of his misery? Basically, what I am asking is what can we know about the man given his writings? After these short stories, I'm beginning to think I would not want Tolstoy as my neighbor. He seems more suited to the Bates Motel.


  1. This is a great post Cynthia! Ultimately I see Tolstoy as having two major flaws: 1) putting too much of himself into his works; 2) loving/lusting for women too much. Unfortunately these flaws are acted out in his works in their extremes and his imagination seems to enact the scenarios he never performed in his actual life. I certainly would not want Tolstoy as my neighbor because of his misogynistic tendencies; however, I believe his genius comes from so realistically depicting absurdly negative lives. I don't believe he was a madman in the asylum sense but I certainly would not want to interact with him on a daily basis.

  2. Hanna, I completely agree! It really makes me wonder what Freud would say to Tolstoy or about him. It seems that religion really made him want to repress sexuality. How much of it reflects everyone else in Tolstoy's world and how much of it is just Tolstoy being extreme with himself? It also seems like his turn to religion made him stricter. Does anyone else think that Tolstoy was a little over concerned with sex? I get that humans can be unfaithful to their partners but I don't think it's quite the crisis Tolstoy imagines. I'm just trying to understand why Tolstoy is so negative. What in life disheartened him? Why doesn't he buy into the fuzzy American feelings?