Opinion & Featured Articles

The Weird Tolstoy: Facts from the Life of a Legend

Leo Tolstoy
The serfs are long gone from Yasnaya Polyan, but the spirit of the writer and the moral reformer who was born there still shines brilliantly. Widely considered as one of the greatest novelists of all time, Count Leo Tolstoy was a paradoxical persona and an intriguing character. Here are some facts that made Tolstoy an interesting study:

Religious dogmatism marked by a lack of conviction

Tolstoy rejected the state and church and eventually went on to become a Christian anarchist. As an extreme moralist, he advocated theories like indictment of the demands of the flesh, and denunciation of private property.  In a series of pamphlets, he also indulged in free interpretation of the gospels. The Russian Church excommunicated Tolstoy for his theories. But the writer always sneered at the decisions of the church.

Ironically, it seems that Tolstoy himself was a victim of the flesh. His wife — Sofya Andreyevna Behrs — bore him 13 children. Sofya’s marriage to Tolstoy ruined her in a way; she was her husband’s copy editor, and was guiding him financially, but got limited attention from him. It is said that she copied the manuscript of War and Peace eight times by hand. Researchers suggest that Sofya, as someone who spent her entire life with Tolstoy, deserves a good measure of sympathy.

Failure as a student of law

Tolstoy was sent to law school, but he was a major disappointment there. His teachers found him completely unwilling to learn law business and Tolstoy was eventually sent home.

Shakespeare ain’t that good

Tolstoy had profound distaste for Shakespeare. He felt “no delight” but just “..an irresistible repulsion and tedium” by reading the famous works of the legendary British dramatist. George Orwell, in his essay Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool, says that Tolstoy’s arguments against Shakespeare are “weak”, “dishonest”, based on “arbitrary assumptions”, and depends on “vague terms”. Orwell further writes that Tolstoy’s attacks against the dramatist “..are, so to speak, evidence of malice.”

Hate story: Tolstoy and Turgenev

Dynamic and egocentric as few others on earth, Tolstoy had a strained relationship with his famous contemporary — Ivan Turgenev. The writer despised Turgenev for his love of Western Europe and the latter, in turn, was repulsed by the fact that Tolstoy had become a prophet. The animosity between the two reached such heights that Tolstoy challenged his adversary to a dual, backing-off and apologizing afterwards.

It’s worth mentioning that Turgenev recognized his fellow writer’s literary genius and in a letter to Tolstoy’s sister he wrote that “he’ll become a great writer”.

Preacher overwhelms the writer

The moralist in Tolstoy’s became such a freak that he started criticizing the “excessive” praise for War and Peace and Anna Karenina. The preacher in Tolstoy came into conflict with the writer in him and shocked everyone. The writer ended up misunderstanding himself and his creative nature.

Tolstoy vs. Dostoevsky: the debate continues

Though the two never met, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy admired each other. Some modern critics argue that the author of Crime and Punishment exhibits more maturity than the writer of War and Peace. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina throws herself under a train; a godless existence succumbs to sin and there are no answers to any of the questions raised. Dostoevsky, on the other hand, has clearly defined goals and actions. Do you agree?

Yes, Leo Tolstoy never won a noble. With all his talent, he made some people on the jury quite nervous with his weird ideas. The Swedish Academy considered him too eccentric for such an honor. Tolstoy, of course, wasn’t sorry for himself because it saved him “from the painful necessity of dealing in some way with money–generally regarded as very necessary and useful, but which I regard as the source of every kind of evil.”

Tolstoy and his contemporary writers

Tolstoy and his contemporary writers:
Top row (from left): Leo Tolstoy, Dmitry Grigorovich, Bottom row (from left): Ivan Goncharov, Ivan Turgenev, Alexander Druzhinin, and Alexander Ostrovsky

6 thoughts on “The Weird Tolstoy: Facts from the Life of a Legend

  1. I’m a big Tolstoy fan, although a choice between him and Dostoevsky would be hard. I’m restraining my urge to gush so I’ll just say some of his later writings were an influence on Gandi.

    • Right, that’s actually a tough choice, something like choosing between Apocalypse Now and Raging Bull. I guess life is incomplete without both of them. And yes, Tolstoy influenced both Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

  2. As a staunch defender of Tolstoy, I have to point out that life isn’t always defined by clear goals and actions anyway! Nor do I think that the maturity of a character reflects, in any way, on the maturity of the writer. Actually I’m kinda digging my own grave by saying this, because obviously, a work of literature is always limited by the worldview of the writer… but you know what I mean, right?

    He’s definitely a weirdo, and that does shine through in his writings, esp. his earliest and latest works, but he does it all so wonderfully, don’t you think?

    • Yes, I agree that Tolstoy’s weird nature actually made his works more appealing and three dimensional. Also, beneath the apparent immaturity of his characters, there is something subtle, something intricately related with everyday reality. May be the Russian was an unpleasant person to live with, but he had an unmatched understanding of human mind and soul.

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