Tolstoy & Dostoevsky: On Genuine and Lasting Change (1 of 2)

How will you face tomorrow? What will atone for all the wrong you have ever done? These are the questions of two major characters in Western Literature, Levin and Raskolnikov. Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment are wonderful novels displaying the human condition in all its beauty and complexity. Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky fundamentally describe humanity in different ways, one positive and another negative. My next two blog posts are attempts at uncovering what the authors were trying to communicate in regards to what is wrong with humanity and what will make it right. Today we will look at Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and next week we will compare and contrast Tolstoy’s outlook on humanity with Dostoevsky’s outlook in Crime and Punishment.

In Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy has written one of the best novels of all time; a story of grave individual conflict and societal consequences. Tolstoy’s artistry to depict the human condition and the world in which it lives is not outdone by many. There is a reason why this story continues to grab the imaginations of it’s readers. The settings keep the reader’s interest with force as it travels back and forth from the urban centers of nineteenth century Russia to the aristocratic farmlands. The plot of calamity and resolution is acted out by some of the most memorable characters of Russian literature. Yet, it is not only what Tolstoy brings to the table in regards to masterful descriptions and identifiable characters; it is Tolstoy’s genius of realism that threads all of the parts together to amount to a piece of literature that will continue to mold and shape minds and hearts for centuries to come.

Familial infidelity, unmet expectations, religious skepticism and the chase of inordinate desires light up the pages of Anna Karenina. Tolstoy writes of two families, one that dies and another that lives. Anna kills her marriage to Alexei Karenin by running away with a younger man, Alexei Vronsky. Levin, a countryman, wins the heart of his future wife Kitty, although through much adversity produced by Kitty’s earlier love for Vronsky (Anna’s later adulterous lover). Through these marriages Tolstoy gives us a vision of human experience, that of plight and resolution. Much can and ought to be said about all of these characters, but Levin will be the focus of seeing Tolstoy’s thoughts on humanity.

Levin: Suicide, Skepticism and Reorientation

Levin owns an estate in the country away from what he would call the Babylonian nature of Moscow. His character is conservitive and morally upright, yet he is free enough to chase love until it crushes him. In the beginning of the novel, Levin is devastated by Kitty’s refusal of his proposal because she was enchanted by Vronsky. Later after Vronsky breaks Kitty’s heart with his infatuation for Anna, Levin eventually marries Kitty. However, he is eventually ruined again by unmet expectations for family life and a crippling skepticism that leaves him in suicidal despair because he cannot find answers to the most important questions of faith and the divine. Tolstoy describes this despair when he writes: “. . . Levin was several times so close to suicide that he hid a rope lest he hang himself with it, and was afraid to go about with a rifle lest he shoot himself . . . he lived not knowing and not seeing any possibility of knowing what he was and why he was living in the world” (Tolstoy, 789 & 791). Here is a man who is teetering on the cliff of his existence.  He has a young family he has always dreamed of having and yet there is a darkness over his life that feels like it will never lift. How is Levin changed? How is he restored? What is the solution to the obvious plight of man through Tolstoy’s eyes?

Levin does not give in to his inclinations to commit suicide, he finds the power within himself to continue living even when life is filled with thoughts of death. Then a different type of thought comes to his mind, an epiphany of life changing power: “. . . one should not live for one’s needs – that is, one should not live for what we understand, for what we’re drawn to, for what we want – but for something incomprehensible, for God, whom no one can either comprehend or define” (795). Levin was caught in a web of doubts because he inordinately wanted to have a comprehensive comprehension of who he was in relation to God. Yet, Levin finds relief and restoration through embracing his finitude in comparison to God’s infinite nature. Tolstoy’s vision of humanity’s restoration is that of reorientation to God, but where does the power to do so come from? Levin goes on to answer this question:

“I haven’t discovered anything. I’ve only found out what I know. I’ve understood that power which not only gave me life in the past but is giving me life now. I am freed from deception, I have found the master . . . but my life now, my whole life, regardless of all that may happen to me, every minute of it, is not only not meaningless, as it was before, but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which it is in my power to put into it” (796 & 817).

The circumstances of Levin’s suffering led him to the thought of needing to refocus his desires on God and not on self. Tolstoy’s vision of humanity is seen in Levin’s restoration of life and sanity; Levin is the one who held the power to exercise his faith and the reordering of his being away from himself towards his Creator. The Kingdom of God was within Levin and he was successful in unearthing and appropriating this power.

Can We Really Fix Ourselves?

Tolstoy’s outlook on humanity is definitely positive in the sense that although the world is a broken place, filled with broken people, it is not beyond repairing itself. John Mark Reynolds picks up on Tolstoy’s perception of humanity in a book he edited, titled The Great Books Reader, by writing:

“He shows us most of the errors we’re likely to commit in our personal lives, and he spares us nothing. However, he does not seem to believe in any original corruption . . . any sin that cannot be blamed on upbringing or bad personal choices. Can we really fix ourselves? Can we really see what needs to be seen and do what needs to be done? Tolstoy suggests we can, even though the road will be long and arduous” (Reynolds, 588).

Reynolds is quick to mention Tolstoy does not shy away from using his gift for realism in describing humanity’s personal errors, but at the same time questions Tolstoy’s ability to put forth a realistic solution to the depths of error humanity creates. When many people read Tolstoy, they accept his descriptions of plight solution in the same way his descriptions of plight are accepted. Why is this? Frederica Mathewes-Green writes in her article, “On Anna Karenina” within The Great Books Reader: Lionel “Trilling believes Tolstoy’s expectation – that there is some good in every ordinary person – feels to us like reality because it is the reality we want” (Mathewes-Green, 580). Trilling is talking about the good in which Tolstoy suggests Levin is able to tap into for the reorientation of his whole being as a way of resolution and restoration. If humanity can fix themselves, if the power for genuine and lasting change is within, then why did God need to come from heaven to earth in Jesus Christ to do a necessary work for humanity’s behalf? A biographer of Tolstoy expressed that he had a:

“fundamental theological inability to understand the Incarnation. His religion was ultimately a thing of law rather than of grace, a scheme for human betterment rather than a vision of God penetrating a fallen world” (A.N. Wilson, quoted in Yancey’s “Be Ye Perfect, More or Less: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and the impossible Sermon on the Mount”).

Although Tolstoy might not dive deep enough into the Christian gospel as a means for restoration, he is right in his assessment of the dehumanizing effects of a heart that is not oriented on God. Tolstoy is not the only Russian author who is able to capture the realities of human experience. Dostoevsky, who thought Anna Karenina was a perfect piece of art, goes even deeper into the realm of human depravity and comes out with miraculous new creations of the self in Crime and Punishment. More on Dostoevsky next week!


About Daniel Ray
My wife and I live in Waxhaw, NC. Currently, I am a Sales Manager for a flooring company in Charlotte and also a distance student at UNCG. When I have time I like to hear live music, play golf, run, read good books, hike and ride my mountain bike. My wife and I are sinners saved by grace, trying to walk it out in grace.

One Response to Tolstoy & Dostoevsky: On Genuine and Lasting Change (1 of 2)

  1. Pingback: Tolstoy & Dostoevsky: On Genuine and Lasting Change (2 of 2) « NewSelf

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