Book Review: Tolstoy’s Resurrection

The Story.

In Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy, Prince Dmitri Nekhludov starts off as a sweet, thoughtful young man. On a visit to his two aunts, he meets a girl named Katerina Maslova (also called Katusha), whom they had taken in from a neglectful mother. She’s often referred to as their half-ward, half servant. They fall in love with all the sweetness of a teenage romance.

Nekhludov goes on to join the military, which changes him for the worse. He becomes more self-indulgent and picks up bad habits, which his companions and even his mother see as normal and encourage. The next time he goes to visit his aunts, his sweet, innocent love for Katusha has become lust, and he takes advantage of her. He gives her money and leaves for his military career with not much thought.

Years later, Nekhludov is engaged to one woman while secretly having an affair with a married woman. He’s called for jury duty and is stunned to find that the defendant is Katusha, now a prostitute who is accused of poisoning a client. His conscience is awakened to the truth he began her downfall, and he vows to help her all he can. The more he becomes acquainted with the prison system, the more injustices he learns of, the more dissatisfied he becomes with his own life. Yet finding the answers, not only for his own heart but for the wrongs of society, is not an easy feat.

Tolstoy’s beliefs

In talking with one of my sons once about a particular social/political issue, I commented that everyone agreed it was a serious problem, but no one agreed about the best solution for it. Tolstoy does a masterful job of calling attention to some of society’s worst problems, but his philosophies, to me, were a little off, especially in light of having heard he was a Christian. Here I am going beyond reviewing to processing some of these things for my own thinking.

This was Tolstoy’s last book. He had renounced novel-writing but wrote this last story to raise money for a religious sect wanting to immigrate to Canada. Some years earlier he had a crisis of faith, wrestling with the meaning of life. Many sources call this his conversion, but I am uncertain exactly what he converted to. Some of his beliefs seem to be moral and Biblically based. But in a scene where Nekhludov is listening to a preacher talk about salvation through Christ’s blood, Nekhludov leaves, “disgusted.” Tolstoy seems to take the passage “The kingdom of God is within you” to mean that, rather than a person needing to be born again, rather than being dead in trespasses and sins, he just needs the spiritual part of himself to be awakened or fanned into flame to have victory over the “animal” part of him (he has written other books about his beliefs in more detail, which I have not read: I’m just going by what he has Nekhludov undergoing here).

There were many Christian truths and principles in the book that I agreed with, but I found other beliefs in the book a little wonky:

  • He felt that public praying was a sin, but the passage about praying in secret in one’s closet was not an indication that one should never pray in front of other people or lead a group in prayer. Jesus did, Stephen did, others did in the gospels and Acts. The context of praying in secret has to do with praying for “show” so others will see and hear count us as spiritual, and that’s what was declared wrong.
  • He posits that no one has a right to judge (in a legal sense) or punish anyone. But Romans 13 tells us:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.

  • He felt it was wrong to be a landowner because no one can own the earth. True, “The earth is the Lord‘s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1). But owning land and leaving it as an inheritance for one’s children is not condemned in the Bible. In fact, one of God’s big promises to Israel was a tract of land, and they went through a detailed process of dividing it up between the tribes. The Biblical concept is that of stewardship, recognizing that God is the actual owner of all we have and we’re accountable to Him with whatever we “own” in a legal sense.
  • He indicated the kingdom of God can be established on Earth by obeying the teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. Well, life would certainly be better and a lot more like heaven if people did, but we won’t establish the Kingdom of heaven here that way: Jesus will establish His own kingdom when He returns.
  • When Nekhludov classifies in his own mind five different types of prisoners, he seems to believe they are all there because of bad or misunderstood circumstances. While that’s certainly true in some cases, he doesn’t seem to acknowledge that any of them are there because they had a sin nature and chose wrong just because they wanted to or took pleasure in it.
  • He doesn’t go so far as to say it is a sin to be rich, but he does blame class differences for many of society’s ills. It’s true that class differences do cause many problems. But the answer isn’t to even everyone out into the same circumstances. Only one person in the Bible was told to sell all he had and follow Christ. Timothy as a pastor is instructed to teach the rich, in 1 Timothy 6:

17 As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. 18 They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, 19 thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.

But the rich are not the only ones called to be generous. The Macedonians gave out of their poverty. The widow gave two mites. We all have something to give; we’re all better off than someone.

Plus even in this story, Nekhludov is able to go places, do things for people, see prisoners, etc., sometimes because of his stature as an aristocrat, sometimes because of bribes. The rich have not only wealth, but position and influence that they can use to help people.

My thoughts.

Tolstoy’s best writing in this book comes when he’s telling how Nekhludov and Maslova each arrived at their current position, and in his “showing, not telling” how so many authorities, especially the day of Maslova’s trial, were thinking about everything but being agents of justice and the lives they were affecting (the judge hoping things went fast so he could keep a tryst with a woman, the lawyer polishing what he planned to say so as to look and sound at his best advantage, etc.) If The Death of Ivan Ilyich was the anatomy of dying, this book is the anatomy of either a conversion (of sorts – I think that’s what Tolstoy meant it to be, as well as a diatribe of what was wrong in society), or at least an awakened conscience. And just as with Ivan Ilyich, there are perfect little true-to-life nuances, such as Nekhludov at first “with a sense of self-admiration…admiring his own remorse” until he eventually was “filled with horror” over what he had done. There are piquant bits of irony in places, such as one prison office being decorated with “a large image of Christ, as is usual in places where they torture people.”

In this day when people abhor “preachiness,” I would have thought that few people would like this book, but the vast majority of articles and reviews I have scanned regard it favorably. Maybe that’s because many of the issues Tolstoy brings up we still deal with today.

I thought the story itself started out wonderfully but got bogged down in the latter chapters. Part of that was probably on purpose, as Katusha’s case goes through appeals, roadblocks, and setbacks. I’m sure people in such a situation feel bogged down during the process. But part of it was Nekhludov’s conversations with people, especially the political prisoners, and internal musings. I’m all for internal musings and a certain amount of philosophizing in a book, and it’s natural that in a story of this type, the main character is going to be wrestling within himself a lot. And I think the philosophizing was Tolstoy’s main point of the book rather than the story itself, but the story didn’t flow as well in the second half. I felt the ending of the story itself wasn’t adequately resolved, and felt that Nekhludov’s conclusions were right in some places but off in others.

But I do very much agree with Tolstoy that we’re responsible for how we treat people and that much in society is still flawed. I didn’t always agree with the actions and philosophies he espoused, but this book did get me thinking about some of these issues more than I had before, and that’s a good thing.

I listened to the audiobook wonderfully narrated by Neville Jason and read the introductory material and several passages in this Kindle version.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)


8 thoughts on “Book Review: Tolstoy’s Resurrection

  1. I had no idea Tolstoy had written this book. I am familiar with his more famous works. I love your complete and total review. I’m not sure I will take this book on but it was so interesting to hear your take. Have a lovely day!

  2. I read this maybe 8 or 9 years ago and agree with you a great deal. Tolstoy’s unorthodox version of Christianity means many of his conclusions/solutions to the problems he raises are suspect (in his nonfiction book The Kingdom of God is Within You, he repudiates the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed as he considers the cross anathema. Instead, he clings to a very literal interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount and considers that the whole of Christianity.) Also, like many authors trying a little too hard to make a point and not sure they’re succeeding with the story itself, he crams the last half full of philosophizing instead of keeping the story at the center.

    I enjoyed reading your review and remembering when I read this book myself 🙂

  3. Just echoing the two previous comments – his Christian views were unorthodox, from what I’ve read, although I have to admit I haven’t read anything by him yet! I also hadn’t heard of this book. Thanks for the thoughtful review, Barbara.

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  7. Yeah, I’ve been thinking about by Lev Tolstoi. If one goes back to Hawthorne’s I think one is a bit closer to Nekhludov and Maslova cf, Dimmesdale & Prynne. But mostly, we Americans are quite differently positioned than the folks in Tolstoi’s Mother Russia.

    Several years back I started with the , (Solzhenytsyn’s) – story about structure of Soviet Society – in contrast to America. In a way, we Americans, could be compared to the Europeans who began expanding eastward out into Siberia at the time we were moving westward in North America. And I’ve talked to contemporaries who were part of the Russian eastward movement – in my own generation – and found them (individually) quite conversant with my “fringe” American life and Americans west of the Mississippi and along the northern and southern borders. A lot of us Americans have moved around since the 2nd World War is all I mean.

    The British colonial folks – who have lived their lives – talking about whaling trips, and , the historical sites of Boston, New Haven, Portsmouth, or Pittsfield – these folks were legally part of a Christian nation (Britain) and under a state church arrangement. (I don’t care to discuss – why state church christianity is a good thing – or why state church christianity is a bad thing. Richard Niebuhr elevated that conversation above where most conversations take place – especially among the (what in Holland they call the “churchly”); my view of the “churchly” in America is that for the most part they enjoy the fruits of the “Gilded Age” and live a shallow disconnect with most everything else about Western Christianity – having succumbed to secularist standards of advertising. “Crux nostra sola theologia” – (Martin Luther) – our only Theology is the Theology of the Cross – is unknown to many of the most stalwart of what Martin Marty once referred to as “The Old Dominion Churches”. Nice folks; pretty provincial in American ways.

    Church “Slavonic” is not a parallel with Western use of Latin in Churches – which we used in America up until approximately 1965 – when the Vatican Council authorized modern language translations of it’s main public service – the Mass. Ok, that doesn’t really have an easy parallel with Russian Orthodoxy. It was (Tolstoi’s version of Christianity; Tolstoi was “in” the for them “Reformation” – both political and religious – political, anyway…) was horribly suppressed during the entire Stalinist period – and the good, comparable Christian Teaching in the late Czarist period – is incomprehensible to the faithful of the First, Second and (mebbe?) Third “Awakenings” in America.

    The Religion of New England was in its time an Anglo-Saxon “Vatican II” trying to correct the endemic evils of a state-managed Church. I don’t think Catholicism, Anglicanism, State Lutheran or Reformed Churches work very well – in many regards, but when the “Reformers” – I mean the passionate Puritans who ran away from Holland and England to establish “A true City on a Hill” – did so with the correct (if the magisterial Churches ever had anything to offer?) – “Glass of Vision” in the Historic Creeds of the Fourth Century, Russia was doing the same thing that we Americans had done for us in Europe from 1520ff. Our “state religion” – which I think we had in a sense – the New England Establishments – mostly by the over-emphasis on “Sola Scriptura” (the question of “Which Scripture” is never much wrestled with among its votaries). Epistemologically, one may think one can place the Bible in the center of one’s person, but there are serious problems with that approach.

    Me, I recently studied the US Military Service Hymnal which contains elements of Judaism, Islam, Catholic, Protestant, etc. prayers from all the above, etc., to be applied to ministers in the VA or the Chaplains in the Armed Services. I have to take Communion to Death Row in one of our State prisons. And I thought about that yesterday as I was attempting to bring Communion (I think it’s fine if they do their own Service, – just my opinion) – I don’t think the state has an opinion on that or which of the many kinds of Churches are sanctioned by the religious corporations acts of the various states?. The “dogmatic certitudes” (and we have to have one – we all have one – even in the Bible there is not a “right and only right one” (one could probably argue for a wrong, a little wrong, a lot wrong and mostly wrong by “raiding the Bible” – if one had a lot of time?) somewhere around, I Cor. 11:23 ff is a good place to start – the “Last Supper” narratives in the Bible – or go to Notre Dame, Harvard, Yale, Collegeville or St. Meinrad – or a solid denominational graduate school – you can deal with most of the versions people on Death Row have. Anyway, It is not “uniform” – Stoddard, Edwards, Mather – or Finney – Billy Graham Institute in Wheaton or a lot of other places – or the massive Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal, the smaller Disciples, Churches of God, Pentecostal, Holiness, – every group allowable in the US (First Amendment provides a much broader application of religious belief – than most Americans entertain – we don’t have an Imperial History as they do in Italy, Romania, Germany, France, Spain, and England at one point – we don’t have the fluidity-and-orthodoxy struggle at the center of the histories of the Scandinavian Christians. So, we have a different picture. Our First Amendment, – and at the risk of being disrespectful to the Holy See – I believe our American management of religion could teach the Roman Curia lessons it doesn’t wish to hear – same said for Canterbury, Upsala, Roskilde, Russia, Ukrania, Greece, etc.

    Having said all this: It’s ok for American Christians in the tradition of the awakenings, the Baptist, Congregationalist, Anglican-Presbyterian, Lutherans – but the Russian religious scene – when I hear my fellow Americans discussing Orthodox religion – clearly having no understanding of the conciliar movements of societies thousands of years older than ours, with little to no understanding of the psychological and sociological and anthropological meanings of what being Born Again, Revived, might mean beyond America – with a (precious, no doubt, valid association with their level of individual spirituality) – making what they genuinely believe the final – “the Word is the last resort” – barely grasping the “husks” (Tolstoi) of what religiosity means, out side of their local Church, well, – the good news is (it is Good News, and it is Gospel” – and it possibly would have spoken to me when I was a child – but it strikes me as a rather truncated witness to glory of the Holy Trinity. Respectfully, in Christ, Dave

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