Book Review: Resurrection, by Leo Tolstoy

Resurrection, published in 1899, was Tolstoy’s last novel and the cause of his being excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church. It’s powerful and depressing and thought-provoking in the extreme. Resurrection fully embodies Tolstoy’s method of writing  after his religious awakening; the prose is simple and direct and the story teaches a moral lesson in a direct (and in this case, very heavy-handed) manner.

The story involves a young Russian aristocrat who deflowers and then abandons a simple peasant girl, which begins her descent into a life of truly horrific misery. A decade later, their paths cross again in a most unexpected manner when she is put on trial for murder and he winds up on the jury. The bulk of the novel describes in agonizing detail the horrors of the Russian prison system, the inhuman oppression — physical, mental, and economic — of peasants and political opponents by the upper class and governmental machine, and the hypocrisy of organized Christianity and the Orthodox Church in particular.

Tolstoy the novelist is certainly in top form. The story, as a story, has all the elements of great fiction: vivid characters, action, good, evil, unexpected twists and turns, etc. More than anything, Tolstoy’s ability to probe the depths of the human psyche and describe what makes people tick is truly astounding. Here is but one example:

“Maslennikov was in a state of the highest excitement brought about by the attention bestowed on him by an important person. You might have thought that Maslennikov, who had served in a Guards’ regiment close to the royal family, would have got used to having dealings with the royal family, but apparently repetition redoubles vulgarity, and any attention bestowed on him in this area induced in Maslennikov the kind of ecstasy enjoyed by an affectionate poodle when it is stroked, patted or scratched behind the ears by its master. It wags its tail, cowers down, wriggles about, puts its ears back and runs round in circles like a mad thing. Maslennikov was ready to do all that.”

Throughout the novel we are introduced to two hundred or more characters, from the highest of the socially high to the lowest of the socially low. Almost without exception, the highest of the socially high are morally bankrupt; the lowest of socially low are either noble, or if corrupted, are in this state because they are victims of an oppressive social machine that exists solely to preserve and protect the interests of the socially high.

And it is here where Tolstoy the moralist runs into problems — problems with the Russian Church because he paints its liturgy and theology in the worst possible light, and problems with his moral and economic theories, which are overly broad, overly simple, and utterly impractical.

An example of Tolstoy’s either-or, black-and-white, all-or-nothing attitude:

“This explanation of everything that was taking place seemed so clear and straightforward to Nekhlyudov, but the very simplicity and straightforwardness of it all made him reluctant to accept it. Surely such a complex phenomenon like this couldn’t have such a simple and terrible explanation; surely it wasn’t possible that all the talk about justice, goodness, law, religion, God and all the rest came to no more than empty words making the grossest self-interest and cruelty.”

But this is indeed the case in the Tolstoy universe. The solution to all the moral problems of mankind boils down to the rejection of everything except following one’s own light, the light that God has written on our souls. If we could all just do this one simple thing, injustice and cruelty would vanish into thin air. But how do I recognize God’s writing on my soul? How do I distinguish it from the sound of my own voice? How do I understand and interpret God’s voice as it applies to the hundred and one decisions I must make over the course of each day? The formation of our religious spirit cannot be created in a vacuum. does not appear in full form at birth, and I suspect, never stops changing or growing or withering.  On the contrary, our experiences, cultural heritage, religious instruction, schooling,  mental talents and capacities, situation in life, all enter into what it an ongoing process of discerning God’s will and nurturing our religious spirit.

It’s a labor-intensive, messy and unpredictable business, the formation of a morally good soul and society.

Somewhere or other a much more realistic moralist, G. K. Chesterton, described Tolstoy’s philosophy as being very appealing and sensible, just not for human beings. I could not find that quote, but Chesterton described Tolstoy elsewhere with fine insight:

“Tolstoy was a good man who taught thoroughly bad morals. Human history has been full of these men; in fact, they are responsible for a great bulk of the calamities of human history. The Roman Stoics were good men, but when they taught that each man must be sufficient to himself, they taught a false morality, which did infinite harm. … And Tolstoy was a good man, though he was a typical aristocrat; and lessons can really be drawn for all of us from his sincerity, his self-control, his consistency in mental pursuit. But the last fact is still that he preached a false morality. He did preach, and preach explicitly, courageously, and with a quite honourable clearness, that if you see a man flogging a woman to death you must not hit him. I would much sooner let a leper come near a little boy than a man who preached such a thing.” (Chesterton, The Character of Tolstoy, The Illustrated London News, 12-17-1910)”

And this:

“The truth is that Tolstoy, with his immense genius, with his colossal faith, with his vast fearlessness and vast knowledge of life, is deficient in one faculty and one faculty alone. He is not a mystic: and therefore he has a tendency to go mad. Men talk of the extravagances and frenzies that have been produced by mysticism: they are a mere drop in the bucket. In the main, and from the beginning of time, mysticism has kept men sane. The thing that has driven them mad was logic. It is significant that, with all that has been said about the excitability of poets, only one English poet ever went mad, and he went mad from a logical system of theology. He was Cowper, and his poetry retarded his insanity for many years. So poetry, in which Tolstoy is deficient, has always been a tonic and sanative thing. The only thing that has kept the race of men from the mad extremes of the convent and the pirate-gallery, the night-club and the lethal chamber, has been mysticism – the belief that logic is misleading, and that things are not what they seem.” (Chesterton, Leo Tolstoy, 1903)

Tolstoy, here and everywhere else in his later writings, strips down Christianity to the Sermon on the Mount, removing or arbitrarily discounting everything else revealed and taught in Sacred Scripture and replacing it with his own rigid and relentlessly logical views. So good at identifying and describing human and societal weaknesses and immorality, he really offers no practical, plausible, or implementable alternative to what is for so many a truly tragic state of affairs. This makes Resurrection a rather depressing and frustrating read.

Nevertheless, the novel should be read because the perspective and truth it offers more than make up for its shortcomings. Tolstoy’s moral and theological beliefs may be overly simplistic, rational, and uncompromising, but today’s have certainly become overly complex, disorganized, and undisciplined. Tolstoy’s hatred of government and elites may be extreme, but today’s worship of these groups is equally so. At least Tolstoy sees the problems we are now so quick to ignore. Perhaps a jolt from Tolstoy is just what we need to pull ourselves back from an abyss into which we are heading.