- Tolstoy’s Art and Thought, 1847–1880
In the opening words of the introduction, “this book is an attempt to reconstruct the ideas that led Tolstoy to write the masterpieces of his youth and middle age” (p. 3). Covering the first three decades of Tolstoy’s creative life, it focuses first on his “initial vision” in the 1850s, principally derived from Rousseau’s belief in the superiority of natural morality over the artificial values created by so-called civilization. Then, by way of an analysis of The Cossacks (1863), it seeks to show how Tolstoy came to see that “natural morality was not enough” (p. 96). So, in War and Peace, he tried to depict a world in which human beings were at one with nature, where everything, even war, was natural and part of God’s purpose, so that there was no dichotomy between what is natural and what is civilized. The key word for War and Peace is thus sopriaganie—“linkage.”
By the 1870s, when Tolstoy was writing Anna Karenina, he no longer saw God as directly involved in human affairs. Now God was “farther away, but higher and more indubitable” (from a letter to the poet Fet). From this shift in thinking is derived the “drama” of Anna Karenina, as distinct from the “epic” oneness of War and Peace. Whereas in the latter work Tolstoy wanted to see all aspects of life, human or otherwise, in harmony, in Anna Karenina, partly under the baleful influence of Schopenhauer, he came to depict an essential disharmony in life, which he and Levin sought vainly to resolve. Having reached this impasse, Tolstoy abandoned fiction as a medium for his ideas and turned to direct expression of them in essays, tracts, and the like.
In writing her book Orwin set herself the virtually impossible task of presenting Tolstoy’s work “as he may have understood it himself” (p. 5). She succeeds in this as well as may be reasonably expected, largely through a detailed analysis of the relevant works of fiction and by drawing on Tolstoy’s correspondence with, for example, N. N. Strakhov. This type of approach is a risky one, since it inevitably treats the fictional texts principally as vehicles for philosophy, when clearly they are much more than that. It is to her credit that, in spite of this, Orwin generally succeeds in her task, although her bias is evident in the bold statement that without “moral law,” Anna Karenina would be Dallas (p. 207)! The other risk is that of treating the fictional texts as though they are somehow separate from Tolstoy the human being, as opposed to Tolstoy the thinker. In her conclusion Orwin refers belatedly and almost incidentally to Tolstoy’s marriage, his family and his growing older. But these factors were surely more crucial for the development of his ideas than she seems to have allowed for; the optimism of War and Peace reflecting the harmony of the early years of his marriage and the darker notes of Anna [End Page 166] Karenina indicating growing disillusion as the relationship between him and his wife lost its early bloom and Tolstoy approached his fifties.
Deserving of fuller treatment too were the currents of thought in Russian intellectual circles in the 1860s and 70s which formed an essential background for Tolstoy’s ideas. These too are accorded only quite brief mention. In fact, the commentary on the fictional works, impressive in its depth, tends to be almost too detailed, in places verging on the repetitious. The book could have been more satisfactory if the detailed textual commentary had been more concise and the broader considerations given more extensive analysis. But Orwin’s decision to use a comparatively narrow focus was clearly deliberate and, if we accept its limitations, we can still recognize the importance of her book for Tolstoy studies.