In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Leo Tolstoy

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

Literary and Critical Theory Leo Tolstoy
Inessa Medzhibovskaya
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 February 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0104


Count Leo Tolstoy (Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy) is one of the greatest writers of all time. Born in Yasnaya Polyana on 9 September 1828 (28 August, Old Style) to Count Tolstoy and Princess Volkonsky, he lived a long, eventful life and became the father of a large family. War and Peace, Anna Karenina, The Cossacks, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, The Kreutzer Sonata, and many other famous texts garnered Tolstoy the admiration of readers well beyond Russia. From as early as the 1880s, the home estate of the author became a beacon for the entire world, as the prophetic force of Tolstoy’s personality compelled him to stand up for justice and promote nonviolence, social and economic equality, and a new type of art. In works of radical nonfiction like A Confession; The Kingdom of God Is Within You, “The Law of Violence and the Law of Love,” and What Is Art? Tolstoy solidified his reputation as much more than a towering literary figure. The tsarist government banned most of these nonliterary writings, heavily censored his artistic works, and arrested or exiled his followers. In 1901, the Russian Orthodox Church issued a determination to excommunicate Tolstoy for his seditious views. Tolstoy was an immediate top nominee for the Nobel Prize in Literature—and later, for the Nobel Peace Prize—yet he outright rejected repeated approaches by members of the prize committee, informing them that the very idea of monetary compensation was unacceptable to him, especially since the tainted lucre from dynamite was the source of the funding. At the age of eighty-two, plagued by disputes in his family and among his disciples about his intention to grant free copyright to the entire corpus of his written works, he resolved to leave home, and he died on 20 November 1910 (7 November, Old Style) during his escape. Hundreds of thousands of works in many languages have been written about Tolstoy over the last 165 years, the first 383-page-long bibliography of literature on him having appeared seven years before his death. For too long, Tolstoy scholars tended to downplay the importance of the author’s thought (his “nonartistic” side) and deny that anything was to be gained in studying his sociopolitical, religious, and philosophical views comprehensively. However, this trend in criticism has steadily declined since the beginning of the new millennium. Today, approaches to the study of Tolstoy go beyond literary studies. He is considered a thinker as much as a writer—the two are inseparable in his work—and Tolstoy has left a strong intellectual imprint on world culture. Eleven decades after his death, his ideas are seen as no less than a measure of the state of the world, not just of its state of culture or of the quality of its civilization, but also of its most vital signs.

General Overviews

The more widely read overviews (not to be confused with Short Introductions) look either at Tolstoy’s entire life or at long periods within it, without neglecting to consider a broader historical perspective. Eikhenbaum 1982a and Eikhenbaum 1982b are the best expressions of a Hegelian evolutionary vision of Tolstoy’s career: considered thus, Tolstoy’s novels, his literary forms and themes of his shorter prose, his realist psychology in drama, and even his departures from literature were historically substantiated. Highlighting that there is no such thing as an “I” in Homer, for Bayley 1988, on the contrary, Tolstoy is not a writer of Homeric epics in prose, and our focus should be neither the novel nor realism but subjectivity. And this signals the value of theory of subjectivity in reading Tolstoy to scholars. Many studies look at Tolstoy’s dualities and at how he worked to reconcile inevitability (or necessity) and freedom, self-consciousness and rationality, the animal and the divine. Greenwood 2014 argues in favor of Tolstoy’s tragic “failure,” and the author concludes that Tolstoy was a prodigal despite his prophesy of unification. For Gustafson 1986, Tolstoy is at his most interesting when acting as both a resident in the human realm and its stranger. Orwin 1993 is unsurpassed in the skill with which it explains Tolstoy’s discovery of “thought” in nature and of the godly love among the people of this world through moral education and lessons of self-sacrifice. Kaufman 2011 argues that at his final destination in art and life, Tolstoy discovered the secret that would heal the world from evil (p. 8). More recent studies do not attempt to negotiate an altercation between Tolstoy the artist and Tolstoy the thinker, insisting that his literary greatness is beside the point, that it does not interfere with their examining of his other great contributions. To these monographs, the study of the meaning of life, among Tolstoy’s other preoccupations, lies within the core of Tolstoy’s intellectual biography, and not at its periphery. Wasiolek 1978 sees in Tolstoy primarily a ruthless destroyer of conventional and personal untruths. “The development of Tolstoy’s work,” the author writes, “may be compared to the peeling off of the leaves of an onion. The onion is the world, and the leaves are the deceptions of civilization” (p. 7). Medzhibovskaya 2008 provides a holistic reading of Tolstoy as a religious thinker, reformer, and artist for whom crises and change were as necessary as the search for meaning and that exerted influences on the spiritual thought of the twentieth century. Weir 2011 finds two distinct forms of Tolstoy’s narrative strategy: authorial absence as a way of retaining control and moral “presence” during paradigmatic shifts when characters undergo conversion.

  • Bayley, John. Tolstoy and the Novel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

    This time-honored scholarly classic about the writer who wrote great novels without “ever becoming a novelist” undertakes its most memorable investigation of the novelistic peculiarities of War and Peace and Anna Karenina. While early chapters focus on Tolstoy’s Russian background and inevitable comparisons with other great novels, the volume includes a fine, if short, interpretation of Tolstoy’s Resurrection and his short fiction in the final chapters.

  • Eikhenbaum, Boris. Tolstoy in the Sixties. Translated by Duffield White. Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis, 1982a.

    Originally published in 1930 as Lev Tolstoi. Shestidesiatye gody. In the first two parts of this sequel to Lev Tolstoi, Piatidesiatye Gody (“Tolstoy in the Fifties” [Leningrad: Priboĭ, 1928]) (which has still not been translated into English), Eikhenbaum shows us a Tolstoy caught between various literary schools: that of art for art’s sake, of the democratic men of letters, of the Slavophiles, and of German theories of pedagogical populism and Tolstoy caught between his pedagogical initiatives and literature. The concluding two parts of Eikhenbaum’s book (Part 3 and Part 4) are preoccupied with explaining the historical background and sources for War and Peace.

  • Eikhenbaum, Boris. Tolstoy in the Seventies. Translated by Albert Kaspin. Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis, 1982b.

    This work was written in 1930 as Lev Tolstoi. Semidesiatye Gody, but published only after Eikhenbaum’s death in 1960. Tolstoy’s work on the Azbuka (ABC Book) and Russian reading books set the stage for his rebirth of interest in prose through a complex strategy of “simplification,” including the abandonment of the novel from the times of Peter the Great, while the deepening acquaintance with Schopenhauer and the problem of free will, along with his reading of John Stuart Mill’s “The Subjection of Women,” were formative for Anna Karenina, on which Eikhenbaum focuses four chapters of influential analysis, describing the book as the product of “gloomy seclusion” (p. 148) that precipitated Tolstoy’s “crisis” in the 1880s.

  • Greenwood, E. B. Tolstoy: The Comprehensive Vision. New York: Routledge, 2014.

    Originally published in 1975 (New York: St. Martin’s). The sixteen chapters that make up this book proceed in the chronological order of Tolstoy’s creations. Each chapter offers an intense interrogation of Tolstoy’s truth and his relation to historicity, death, war, Christian ethics, and the problem of the West, among others. It is a watershed study that attempts to do justice to Tolstoy’s thought. Greenwood concludes that “Tolstoy’s comprehensive vision bears within itself an acknowledgment of its own incompleteness” (p. 102).

  • Gustafson, Richard F. Leo Tolstoy: Resident and Stranger; A Study in Fiction and Theology. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781400860272

    This celebrated study of Tolstoy’s fiction and diaries in relation to Russian Orthodox theology is organized thematically rather than chronologically. Gustafson locates points of “affective memory” in the breakthrough visions and auto-psychological realizations of Tolstoy’s characters and of Tolstoy himself, which aim at achieving the “recollective consciousness” of goodness. By learning the “ways to love” and “ways to know” one overcomes estrangement from the brotherhood of humanity to achieve full-time “residence” within life.

  • Kaufman, Andrew D. Understanding Tolstoy. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2011.

    Kaufman’s personable approach is driven by an earnest quest to understand Tolstoy’s art and worldview as well as to show Tolstoy’s contemporary relevance. The book is premised on the idea that, by engaging in conversation between major criticism and the reader, we can collectively rethink Tolstoy’s fiction. Kaufman discusses Tolstoy’s longer novels as well as his shorter works, including, for example, The Sevastopol Stories, The Cossacks, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, and Hadji-Murat.

  • Medzhibovskaya, Inessa. Tolstoy and the Religious Culture of His Time: A Biography of a Long Conversion, 1845–1887. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2008.

    This intellectual biography of Tolstoy investigates the impetuses, crises, and dialectics of his spiritual evolution as well as its orienting metaphors: metanoia, Kairos, hamartia, teleological striving, and the Bible as Bildungsroman. It discusses Tolstoy’s fiction and nonfiction; his spiritual, confessional, and philosophical writings; and conversations he had on faith and philosophy with contemporaries and predecessors, including historical figures such as Socrates, Augustine, Pascal, Rousseau, Gogol, Chaadaev, and the great German thinkers of the nineteenth century.

  • Orwin, Donna Tussing. Tolstoy’s Art and Thought, 1847–1880. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

    This authoritative study, whose twenty-fifth anniversary was recently honored in 2018, investigates Tolstoy’s realism before 1880, specifically his desire to develop the writing of “objective poetry” in prose. Subjective poetry has one subject: the inner self; the objective sphere, meanwhile, has an infinity of subjects. In learning to see the whole world beyond the I, in addition to the influence of Rousseau on Tolstoy in this work, Orwin also analyzes the influence of Homer, Schopenhauer, and Pascal.

  • Wasiolek, Edward. Tolstoy’s Major Fiction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

    The nine chapters that constitute this timeless classic focus on disentangling Tolstoy’s characters and their interrelations, exploring, in turn, Childhood and “Three Deaths,” “Polikushka” and Family Happiness, The Cossacks, War and Peace, Anna Karenina, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, “Master and Man,” and Resurrection. Wasiolek concludes by emphasizing Tolstoy’s optimism, claiming that “there are no irredeemable sins in [Tolstoy’s] world” (p. 200).

  • Weir, Justin. Leo Tolstoy and the Alibi of Narrative. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.

    This major study explores Tolstoy’s narrative strategies in authoring and legitimizing “true fictions” (p. ii). It covers Tolstoy’s three long novels and The Realm of Darkness, Tolstoy’s great drama. The book also offers novel interpretations of some of Tolstoy’s shorter fiction, including The Sevastopol Stories and military tales, Childhood, Boyhood, Youth; The Cossacks; The Kreutzer Sonata; and The Death of Ivan Ilyich.

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