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.
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. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 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, 4 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. 5 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.
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.
(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)