Friday, 27 August 1999

Leo Tolstoy: Resurrection (1899)

Translation: Rosemary Edmonds, 1966
Edition: Penguin, 1979
Review number: 323

Tolstoy wrote two of the best known novels of all literature in any language, War and Peace and Anna Karenin. His third most famous work, Resurrection, is comparatively obscure, despite being, at the time it was published, extremely eagerly anticipated all over the world.

The major reason for this is that Tolstoy wrote the novel principally as a mechanism to preach at the reader. This always causes problems, being (for example) the reason that Sartre is not as great a novelist as Gide. After Anna Karenin, Tolstoy had given up writing fiction, feeling that to do so was somewhat dishonest. Instead, he turned to a series of philosophical works, putting forward his personal viewpoint as to what life is and how it should be lived. (To some extent, this kind of writing is present in both War and Peace and Anna Karenin, but it is always kept subordinate to plot and character.) After twenty years, he returned to the novel form, but the purpose of Resurrection is to introduce a wider audience to Tolstoy's ideas about society.

The plot of Resurrection is simple enough, and is based on a story Tolstoy read in a newspaper. Prince Nekhlyudov is rich and idle. Called to serve on a jury, he recognises the accused woman as a girl he seduced some years earlier. The seduction ruined her; rejected by those who had brought her up, she was reduced to prostitution. Though innocent of the murder she is accused of, Maslova is nevertheless found guilty through a legal error (the jury omits to add the formula that she was innocent of the intention to kill as well as the actual act). Overcome with remorse, seeing himself as the cause of Maslova's degradation, Nekhlyudov vows to reform his life.

This reformation is, of course, the resurrection of the title. It is a rather dramatic term to use, and immediately gives notice that part of the function of the book is to set something up in opposition to the Orthodox Christian church. In fact, large portions of the book were censored as defamatory of the church, and the full Russian text was actually first published in London.

As Rosemary Edmonds points out in her introduction, Tolstoy is not using the term "resurrection" in the same sense as it is in Christian theology. (This difference is important, since the word would immediately suggest this connotation to the Russian reader of 1899.) Nekhlyudov's resurrection does not involve death, not even the 'death to self' enjoined by the Bible. It is more like the process known as regeneration to Christian theologians, but even that is not a close comparison. The changes in lifestyle and attitudes to the world which are supposed to accompany a Christian conversion in orthodox theology are motivated and empowered by an external spiritual being, the Holy Spirit. Tolstoy's attitude to the church made him unwilling to accept this - he felt strongly that a person's own purity and strength should be the equivalent motivating factor - and so there is no external spiritual influence on Nekhlyudov. In fact, this is one of the strongest aspects of the novel, in a way. It would have been easy to write a sentimental novel on the subject by making Maslova a pure angel to inspire Nekhlyudov, uncorrupted by her degrading experiences. The character given her by Tolstoy, marked, scarred and even coarsened by her experiences, is far more interesting.

A change of heart backed up only by one's own strength is always subject to the temptation of a return to old habits, and such a lapse is much more difficult to return from than if there is a belief in an external force to help sustain you. Tolstoy gives hints throughout that the regeneration of Nekhlyudov may only be a temporary phase, by pointing to other times when a fad has taken hold of him. It is also the case that the path he takes is only open to a man of wealth; no poor man entirely reliant on what he has can give it away without risking starvation, but Nekhlyudov can afford to give away most of his land to the peasants who work on it.

These flaws in Nekhlyudov are interesting, because he is one of the self-portraits which occur throughout Tolstoy's novels. The believable flawed characters are one of the best features of Resurrection (and Tolstoy's work in general). Nekhlyudov, who dominates the novel, is most impressive. It is a pity that there is so much preaching in the work, and much of it is perhaps better skipped. (This is particularly true of the rather childish passages in which the Russian Orthodox church is made ridiculous.)

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