IN THE LIFE AND WORK OF LEV TOLSTOY
By Mirjana N. Radovanov-Mataric, Ph.D.
In his eighty two years of life Tolstoy wrote a gargantuan volume of stories, novels, plays and other pieces, yet lived a full life. He knew, met, and created, a variety of women characters from Cossacks and peasants to the “grand dames” of the Russian high society. His characters are so exuberantly alive and captivating, they live with us as our friends and acquaintances long after we are finished with reading. No matter whether we admire and identify with them, like or dislike them, we never easily forget them, because of their charismatic vitality, their “intoxication with life”, and their life-giving and life-restoring ability.
What was Tolstoy’s perception of women? Did he love or hate them (as some suggest)? Who were the most significant women that had influenced and formed his view?
Count Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy was born on the family estate Yasnaya Polyana, on August 28, 1828, as the son of Count Nikolay Ilyich and Marya, Princess Volkonsky. His mother died when he was less than two years old, his father when he was nine. It is clear, today, the loss of his mother at such an early age and missing her love throughout his entire life impacted his development, scarring him for life while affecting his writing.
As a child Tolstoy was raised by good, faithful servants and his aunt Tatyana-Toinette Ergolsky, his father’s poor cousin living with the Tolstoy’s family. Hopelessly in love with Count Tolstoy, a woman of high moral standards, she turned her feelings for the Count into a platonic love embracing his wife and all his family. After Marya’s death, Count Tolstoy asked Toinette to marry him and be the mother to his children. While she declined the marriage, she lovingly raised his children. Lev Tolstoy remembered her in his Reminiscences for impacting his image of women, teaching him a valuable lesson in spiritual love.
In his childhood Tolstoy eagerly absorbed stories about his mother, creating an idealistic picture of her as a simple, highly intellectual and spiritual woman. He portrayed her as Nikolay’s mother in Childhood. Since Marya was a good mother and wife, the pillar of the household, all Tolstoy’s positive female characters have the same virtues which were appreciated in the Russian society of the time.
Tolstoy shared the common belief of society that woman’s place is in the home. The 19th century, especially in Europe, was the golden age of family life and, consequently, the greatest family novels in the world literature were written during that period. The traditional woman’s role was to preserve the family hearth, be a good companion to her husband, and bear children. For such significant and sacred role woman had to be adequately prepared and trained by the society. The Slavic, Russian society had a long lasting Christian Orthodox tradition in which a woman's role was also that of a seducer and the Satan’s tool in Adam’s and all men’s destruction. Together with the image of a pure hearth-goddess, there existed in the mind of men, and Tolstoy’s, another image of woman: a beautiful, dangerous temptress luring man to his fall through the carnal sin.
In his journal, Tolstoy wrote: “All the women of our Christian world are impure…Oh, how I would like to show to women all the significance of a chaste woman. A chaste woman…will save the world.” He believed that humanity’s major task was to educate a chaste woman, and in his own way he performed the task through his writing.
Even in the pre-Christianity, Slavs worshipped Lada, the sun goddess, representing female beauty and fertility. Tolstoy’s physical nature was that of an earthy pagan: strong and susceptible to eros. To satisfy his carnal needs, like many other gentlemen of the high class, he had a liaison with a peasant woman, Aksinya, the wife of one of his muzhiks. For years he could not resist her erotic power. It filled him with shame and guilt, yet he never legalized his son with her. Aksinya’s personality was later portrayed in Stepanida of The Devil, while Tolstoy’s guilt for the abandoned son was depicted in Anna Karenina.
Some critics (Renato Poggioli) tried to explain the split in Tolstoy's nature and his writing by the early loss of his mother. He substituted her with an ideal moral image that interfered with his natural needs. The double standards of the society, whose product Tolstoy has been, widened that painful split, resulting in numerous great characters that voiced the author’s most intimate but also universally human problems.
All his life Tolstoy was forced to lead a double existence: his mind striving to the high, noble standards of his mother and his aunt Toinette, his flesh - backed up by the bigoted society - pulling him down to the world of attractive, animalistic Aksinya’s.
Like other members of the nobility, he married in his own class (slightly lower), a chaste, reasonably educated and talented Sofia Bers. Russian home life, especially that of the high and middle classes, was based on matriarchate. Tolstoy’s own mother-in-law, Lyubov Bers, was a patronizing, possessive matron, a typical bourgeois, spiritually and intellectually undeveloped. She had no use for Tolstoy’s greatness and was critical of his impracticality and poor abilities as a pater familias and moneymaker. His wife, Sofia, was very much like her mother. Some critics consider her a poor match for a genius, others call her a perfect wife. She enjoyed being a wife and a head of the household, successfully managed Tolstoy's large homes and estate, bore thirteen children and raised eight, hosted a horde of guests from all over the world, while diligently and meticulously copying Tolstoy’s numerous manuscripts. Their early marriage was happy, based upon erotic love. In later years it turned into a constant strife, because of the enormous disparity in their spiritual and intellectual worlds, and because of Tolstoy’s drastic shift toward religion and ascetics. Physically, Sofia’s and Lev’s passionate natures attracted and complemented each other, but intellectually they lived in two separate worlds: she managed the household; he shut himself in his study to write. Bestially jealous and possessive, she secretly read his journal about her, made humiliating scenes, attempted a suicide and manipulated him in every way. Their marriage turned into a nightmare: the most powerful thinker and writer, a giant in physique and talent, Tolstoy was meek and helpless to resist her (just like Pierre Bezukhov in War and Peace and other husbands in his works).
This meekness, a part of Tolstoy’s belief in non-violence, must have been the result of his fair and honest understanding of a woman’s position in a bigoted society. In the Kreutzer Sonata’s Second Supplement, Tolstoy argued that man was the cause of woman’s complex and impossible, combined role of a mistress, mother, and a human being: “She develops into an excellent mistress, a tortured mother and a suffering, nervous, hysterical human being. And the man loves her as a mistress, ignores her as a mother, and hates her nervousness and hysteria which he himself has caused.”
It has been emphasized over and over by critics and scholars that all Tolstoy’s writing is profoundly autobiographical. His childhood, with the most significant women in it, has been portrayed in Childhood; his youthful romance in the Cossacs; his ideas and experiences of romantic love and marriage in Family Happiness, War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and The Kreutzer Sonata.
Organized societies, since the Middle Ages, have fostered the concept of romantic love as an initiation into a family institution. Tolstoy paid his personal tribute to that deeply imbedded myth feeding on the most natural human needs. Those needs Tolstoy simply identified as physical and spiritual. A marriage based on romantic love (erotic hunger, by Tolstoy’s definition), will soon exhaust it, leaving a feeling of emptiness and boredom. Where the marriage is based both on the spiritual and physical compatibility (as in the marriages of Pierre and Natasha in War and Peace, and Kitty and Levin in Anna Karenina), it will successfully serve both individual and social goals of harmony and happiness of the individuals and the society.
When we think of Tolstoy’s greatest heroines, the first that comes to mind is Natasha Rostova. Natasha is Tolstoy’s favorite woman character, portrayed after his wife’s younger sister Tatyana. At the beginning of War and Peace she is a charming, restless Nature’s child in awe with life. Like Anna Karenina, she “has too much of something, which may prevent her from happiness,” as Natasha's mother worries. That “something” is Slavic sensitivity, capability for compassion and suffering, extre-me intensity of feelings and urge to experience life in all its manifestations (“nothing human is alien to me”). She is sensual, intuitive, natural and happy. Her innocence is contrasted with Helen Kuragin’s mature, dark erotic power, the same like in her brother Anatol. Both are the embodiment of emptiness, vanity, and destructive sexuality.
In Natasha’s development, she will be powerfully attracted to them, just like the author to Aksinya. However, strongly grounded to the nature and earth, Natasha intuitively finds her right mate (Pierre Bezukhov, who is, like Levin in Anna Karenina, Tolstoy himself).
Natasha’s and Pierre’s happiness, however, strikes the readers as somewhat limited, narrow and selfish, closing them in on themselves, as if Pierre and Natasha were more human in their search than in realization of their happiness. One immediately remembers Tolstoy’s famous opening for Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike, only the unhappy ones are different.” It seems as if both Natasha and Pierre cease to be archetypal heroes in quest, now drowning in the collective, all-embracing contentment of the satiated.
Evaluating his life and work, Tolstoy divided it into four periods. The third, the time of his happy marriage and War and Peace, he characterized as “selfish,” because he was interested in his own family happiness only. The same can be said about Natasha and Pierre, the protagonists of Tolstoy’s ideas. All humans are in search of happiness, and happy people charge the environment with a positive energy, but they do not “expand the limits of life,” as his Anna Karenina and other suffering characters did. Tolstoy, himself, never ceased his quest; he still is one of the greatest teachers of humanity together with his vibrant characters.
Like other excessively alive and erotic women-characters, Anna was selected to show Tolstoy’s beliefs that physical relations “debilitate and exhaust a person, debilitate him (or her) precisely in the most existentially human function, the function of the intellect,” as he stated in “The Church and State.” In this opinion Tolstoy reflects both his time and his class. Eros, if excessive and not sanctified by marriage, is a negative force, Tolstoy teaches. To show this in a novel form, Tolstoy was prompted by seeing a dead body of an adulteress, a governess who had committed suicide. The character of Anna was primarily planned as negative, and the initial A in her name suggested adultery (as in Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter). However, Tolstoy the Christian, wanted the readers to feel compassion, not contempt. Writing Anna Karenina proved to be one of his most difficult tasks, because it dealt with his most intimate thoughts and feelings; because it was a modern, avant-garde novel tackling some profoundly psychological and growing societal issues, including that of women's emancipation. In the process of writing, the strong, life-like, charismatic character of Anna - like that of Milton’s Satan - grew stronger than her creator, acquiring a life of her own, causing a controversy among the readers and the critics, opening issues that even Tolstoy himself may not have fully anticipated.
The character of Natasha is all instinct, at the expense of intellect; Anna is a deeper, more mature and more dangerous woman, the corruption of civilization already in her blood. She is exceedingly vital and sensuous, tragically matched with a weaker, pompous, unlovable husband. Their marriage, like many others, has been arranged per social status, rather than by biological and psychological standards. Physically attracted to Vronsky, Anna finds the fatal object of her romantic drive. Led by a blind erotic passion, she abandons her husband, her social position, her own son. Condemned by the society, and even more strongly and painfully by her own conscience - the Orthodox morality deeply imprinted in her psyche - Anna has no way out except in death.
In Anna Karenina, probably the most intricate of his works, Tolstoy uses repetition and contrast in characters’ typology. So Anna’s and Vronsky’s relationship is contrasted with several marriages, especially that of Kitty (Anna’s opposite) and Levin (Tolstoy). When Levin falls in love with Kitty, he sees in her that “girlish,” “childlike,” “innocent” and pure feminine principle (like in Natasha) that will not threaten to become a rival to the pure memory of his mother. Through the novel, Kitty and Levin have to suffer and mature (just like Natasha and Pierre), in order to become suitable partners and soul-mates, sharing the same ideas, goals and beliefs, crowned with the sacred bond of marriage and parenthood. Kitty’s and Levin’s platonic love, sanctified by marriage, is thus contrasted with Anna’s and Vronsky’s displaced, adulterous passion. Tolstoy is showing: from the society’s point, the former have made the right choice and are blessed with happiness, the latter made a wrong one and are condemned to perish. Here, again, Tolstoy the writer and teacher, in the name of the society, condemns, but as a human, co-sufferer, under-stands.
Judith Armstrong explains the magnitude and success of Anna’s character with the fact that Tolstoy himself is “replicated” not only in the character of Levin, but even more “deeply, implicitly, and possibly unconsciously, in his heroine, Anna.” The ambivalence of Anna’s nature and personality is the same ambivalence Tolstoy carried in himself; the conflict in Anna is the same Tolstoy could not resolve. Torn between sexuality and spirituality - strongly endowed by both - the product of his time and class, Tolstoy could not resolve his conflict, just as Anna could not resolve hers. Finding no way out, Anna turned to death. Finding no way out, Tolstoy turned his suffering into writing. At the end of his life, old and tired of constant strife, in a state of mind similar to Anna’s, he left his home to die at a small railway station at Astapovo.
If it were not for Tolstoy’s conflict and suffering, for his search for truth and resolution of those existential, universal human problems, we would not have had such great works as Anna Karenina, War and Peace, Father Sergey, Kreutzer Sonata and others. Being a great artist, Tolstoy believed in his mission of a teacher as well.
Although labeled as conservative, Tolstoy was a great philosopher and educator. In Anna Karenina he dealt with the problems of a female psyche, as well as with the growing problems of woman’s emancipation: free love, adultery, divorce, contraception, freedom of choice. Even though Anna is not an emancipated woman, she is not a passive follower of her man either. She is not a sex object, but a subject, the hero of the novel, actively seeking the right to create her own destiny, expanding the boundaries of the socially accepted female behavior. In the sex game, she is the stronger, braver partner, ready to enter the unknown and to pay for it. That is why characters like Kitty and Natasha may look like the end of a line, Anna as a new beginning, a step further in the liberation of the Russian (or any other) woman.
A lover of truth in service of enlightenment, Tolstoy helped the issue of women’s liberation through his heroine Anna, who - like heroes of the Ancient Greek tragedies, like Hamlet and other noble examples - offered her life as a sacrifice for those that will come hereafter, with the same human problem, expecting the humanity to be ready for a more humane approach and a possible solution. That is the role of great heroes in everyday life around us, as well as those in great literature, art, mythology and religion - the teachers of humanity at their best.
The Russia of Tolstoy’s time already had a number of educated women, influenced by the European ideas of feminism, voiced in the revolutionary Chernishevsky’s book What Is To Be Done? Tolstoy did not believe in the emancipation of women, if that meant losing contact with nature and woman’s biological and emotional role. He was an ardent proponent of education, both for men and women, based on the laws of nature and directed toward a happier, harmonious living of an individual within the frames of society and the universe as a whole. Although a wealthy landowner, Tolstoy chose to live a simple life like his peasants: he chopped wood to prepare his simple oatmeal kasha. He despised and openly criticized those Russian intellectuals, who lost contact with nature and real life, spent their time in barren abstract disputes, turning their backs to the acute needs of the people.
Tolstoy’s portrait of a liberated, educated woman of that kind is given in Katarina Dudkina of The Infected family. The portrait is a caricature, one of those “cardboard” characters that do not inspire sympathy. Like Joseph Campbell, Tolstoy knew that imperfection in humans is loveable, perfection is boring. Dudkina is not perfect. She only thinks she is. With her attitude of self-satisfaction and vanity, she is dry, artificial, not feminine enough to sense when a man is not interested in her but in a younger, more attractive and natural, as well as richer woman. We feel compassion for Anna Karenina, but not for Dudkina, because she is incapable of suffering. Instead of her heart, her ego will suffer disappointment when she finds out the truth. Even then, she will not learn anything from the experience, shielded by her enormous vanity.
Moving from his prime years to maturity, Tolstoy turned to radical Christianity and ascetics, renouncing physical pleasures and luxuries as vanity and selfishness. The denouncement included all of his previous writing, except for the one with the moral message. During that time his married life was a constant strife and conflict. The split between his spirituality and sexuality became unbearable. Apart from the marital duties, Sofia felt out of Tolstoy’s life and reacted with petty, humiliating schemes and techniques to control and destroy that part in him that eluded her (she even threatened suicide if he went to Stockholm for his Nobel Prize. He never did). Committed to the philosophy of acceptance and non-violence, Tolstoy did not openly resist her, but could not change either.
The dark, pessimistic period of his last years resulted in three stories that further analyze male-female erotic relations: The Kreutzer sonata (1889), The Devil (1889), and Father Sergey (1889-1897).The first is a personal confession of a man who murdered his wife out of jealousy. The murdered wife is symbolically Sonya Tolstoy; the dark, murderous jealousy is Tolstoy’s, at the time of Sonya's infatuation with the family friend, pianist Taneev.
In this story Tolstoy, like Dostoevsky, deals with murder, studying the intricate interconnection between sex-violence - suicide. In both cases, as Ruth Benson points out, the killing is an escape from an intolerable erotic scene. Both sex and violence are impersonal, and Tolstoy condemns both men and women for the perversity and degradation of the act.
The Devil deals with the sexual infatuation of a gentleman with his serf Stepanida. Although “happily” married, Irtenev cannot control his passion, and finally shoots himself to death to find an exit from the erotic hell. The Tolstoy-Irtenev and Aksinya-Stepanida relationship is obvious.
Father Sergey is a story of an officer and a gentleman at the pinnacle of his career. Disappointed with his fiancée’s affair with the Tzar, he abandons the worldly life and his career, and goes to the country to live as a hermit. In his fasting and meditation, he fights the devil of his sexuality. An attractive divorcee, Makovkina, presents the temptation in a physical form. In a torment to control his lust, Sergey cuts his finger off (a phallus symbol and a redeeming sacrifice). Makovkina, shattered, leaves to join a convent; Sergey acquires fame as a saint and a miracle worker. He, who renounced worldly fame, accepts the spiritual one, thus practicing the sin of vanity. When a young feeble-minded girl is brought to him to heal, he rapes her. In guilt and panic, he leaves his cell and travels on foot for miles to see Pashenka, an archetypal pious woman-servant, popular in the life of the Russian folk, probably a portrait of Tolstoy’s “nyanya” - servant who raised him after his mother’s death. After talking to Pashenka, Sergey learns the simple wisdom of serving others. He goes to Siberia for the rest of his life, enlightened by the new wisdom.
In all three stories the main female characters are openly archetypal sexual women, using their charm and sexuality not for natural purposes of procreation but for corruption and destruction. Through Pozdnyshev in The Kreutzer Sonata, Tolstoy argues: “If love is spiritual communion, then that spiritual communion should find expression in words, in conversation…There was nothing of the kind…nothing to talk about…Spiritual affinity! Identity of ideals! In that case, why go to bed together?”
Parallel with the negative heroines, Tolstoy still portrays, at least in a brief sketch, his ideal women, in Liza, Irtenyev’s wife and in the old Pashenka. Till the end of his life Tolstoy could not blend those two images into one. For him, women stayed either angels or devils. But, during his last period, he did not blame women only for the corruption and sin, did not see them as the Satan’s tool. He blamed men as women’s teachers for “infecting” them with their own sexuality. In his pessimistic picture of the most intimate human instincts, Tolstoy is sensing the problems of a modern society. In this way he is our contemporary. Corrupted by civilization modern men and women, the ones that lose contact with nature, stay isolated even in the most intimate human contact, that of sexual union. Not only do they stay isolated, but in the extreme cases one partner may turn to a blind, violent act of murder.
What, then, is Tolstoy’s message?
It is all in his writing and can be summarized as follows: an individual is happy when harmony is maintained. The harmony is gained through living close to nature, as a part of it, understanding and following nature’s laws. In relations with others, an individual should exercise acceptance and non-violence, love for everybody and everything in the Universe. Marriage and intimacy should be based on both physical (biological) and spiritual compatibility, in order to result in a natural harmony and happiness. Tolstoy’s answer to the growing problems of a civilized society is in education and enlightenment.
And what is the woman's role in it? Tolstoy’s answer is: The crucial role of birth, sustaining life, and the education of the new generation as given by nature to women. Women are men's mothers, sisters, wives and companions through life, life of an individual and life of the mankind.
That also answers how much Tolstoy appreciated women.