Tolstoy’s ‘Resurrection’ and the meaning of life

Leo Tolstoy was a strange and tortured soul. Yet it would be hard to find anyone versed in literature today – or even in his own time – who will argue that he was not the greatest novelist whoever lived.

His contemporary, Turgenev said: “He is the greatest of contemporary novelists; Europe does not contain his equal.” Matthew Arnold, the 19th century English poet and cultural critic said that a novel by Tolstoy is not a work of art but a piece of life, such was his power of observation and description of human feeling and human relationships. 

Tolstoy’s life was never what might be described as a model or stable one. However, up until the last two decades or so of his life, he lived tolerably with his family and those around him. From the period in which he produced his greatest creative work, War and Peace (1865–69) and Anna Karenina (1875–77), he was acclaimed and admired by all except those who felt themselves the subject of his sharp social and political criticism.

In the aftermath of the completion of Anna Karenina his mind seemed to begin to unravel. Despair, depression and a fear of death gripped him. He turned to religion but while he grasped a number of the essential truths of Christianity he gradually drifted from orthodoxy. He began to despise the Russian Church which he saw as implicated in the terrible injustices of the time which the entire establishment was inflicting on the ordinary people.

Eventually his paralysing fear and depression lifted and he began to be active again, politically and creatively, but rejected the two great novels as untrue depictions of reality as he saw it.

He then began work on his last great novel Resurrection. In it Tolstoy attempts to expose the injustice of the human institutions of his day.  The novel, moving on two interlinked narrative levels, one a poignant and tragic love story, the other essentially an exploration of the crimes against humanity which he saw around him in Russia and indeed in the wider world. The novel culminates in what he identifies as a new perception of truth — the truth of Christ’s Christianity that “The Kingdom of Heaven is within You.”

In the story, Dmitry Nekhlyudov, an aristocratic selfish egotist, finds himself on a jury where he recognises the defendant, the prostitute Katyusha Maslova, as a girl whom he once had shamelessly seduced. She, as an illegitimate baby, has been rescued from a near-certain death by his two rich maiden aunts and raised by them as a ward/servant on their extensive estate.

The young Dmitry Nekhlyudov, a pure and idealistic student, occasionally visited his aunts’ estate and a deep unspoken friendship developed between the two teenagers. One of the most beautiful and moving passages in the novel, of which some say Tolstoy never did anything more delightfully infectious, is the scene of the Easter Vigil in the village church, where the young hero and heroine, after the traditional Russian greeting “Christ is risen,” exchange kisses:

Everything seemed festive, solemn, bright, and beautiful: the priest in his silver cloth vestments with gold crosses; the deacon, the clerk and chanter in their silver and gold surplices; the amateur choristers in their best clothes, with their well-oiled hair; the merry tunes of the holiday hymns that sounded like dance music; and the continual blessing of the people by the priests, who held candles decorated with flowers, and repeated the cry of “Christ is risen!” “Christ is risen!” All was beautiful; but, above all, Katusha, in her white dress, blue sash, and the red bow on her black head, her eyes beaming with rapture.  

Then, when the ceremony was over, the mingling of the people, rich and poor, outside the church took place and Easter greetings and kisses were exchanged.

While the peasant was kissing Nekhlyudoff and giving him a dark brown egg, the lilac dress of Matrona Pavlovna and the dear black head with the red bow appeared.  

Katusha caught sight of him over the heads of those in front of her, and he saw how her face brightened up.  She had come out with Matrona Pavlovna on to the porch, and stopped there distributing alms to the beggars. 

A beggar with a red scab in place of a nose came up to Katusha. She gave him something, drew nearer him, and, evincing no sign of disgust, but her eyes still shining with joy, kissed him three times. And while she was doing this her eyes met Nekhlyudoff’s with a look as if she were asking, 

“Is this that I am doing right?” 

“Yes, dear, yes, it is right; everything is right, everything is beautiful. I love!”

They came down the steps of the porch, and he came up to them.  He did not mean to give them the Easter kiss, but only to be nearer to her. Matrona Pavlovna bowed her head, and said with a smile, 

“Christ is risen!” and her tone implied, “To-day we are all equal.” She wiped her mouth with her handkerchief rolled into a ball and stretched her lips towards him.  

“He is, indeed,” answered Nekhlyudoff, kissing her. Then he looked at Katusha; she blushed, and drew nearer. 

“Christ is risen, Dmitri Ivanovitch.”  

“He is risen, indeed,” answered Nekhlyudoff, and they kissed twice, then paused as if considering whether a third kiss were necessary, and, having decided that it was, kissed a third time and smiled.  

“You are going to the priests?” asked Nekhlyudoff.

“No, we shall sit out here a bit, Dmitri Ivanovitch,” said Katusha with effort, as if she had accomplished some joyous task, and, her whole chest heaving with a deep sigh, she looked straight in his face with a look of devotion, virgin purity, and love, in her very slightly squinting eyes.

But then Nekhlyudoff, now an army officer, succumbing to the brutal practices of military life proceeded to pester and finally seduce Katusha – and then abandon her. She became pregnant and was rejected by his aunts. Her descent to misery then moves relentlessly through an all-too familiar sequence of events, ending up with a false charge of murder and theft. She is falsely convicted after judges and jury bungle the verdict. She is sentenced to four years hard labour in Siberia.

Before the sentence is passed, he reveals his identity to her, promises to fight for a reversal of the verdict and asks her to marry him. A long struggle then begins between them, he trying to redeem himself and she, often with no little – but  understandable – cruelty resisting his appeals for forgiveness. She retorts at one point:

“Once you got your pleasure from me, and now you want to get your salvation from me”, she tells him. She refuses to marry him. When the novel ends, after her long march in chains to Siberia, on which he accompanies her, they both achieve a spiritual peace through a mutual spirit of selfless sacrifice. 

Gary Saul Morson, one of the most penetrating literary critics of our time specialising in Russian literature has noted how many readers of Tolstoy have stressed his ability to observe the smallest changes of consciousness and to record the slightest movements of the body. What another novelist would describe as a single act of consciousness, Tolstoy he says, convincingly breaks down into a series of infinitesimally small steps. All of this is evident in the Katusha-Nekhlyudoff narrative in Resurrection

It is on the level of this narrative that Resurrection is a masterpiece. It is on the level of the description of Nekhlyudov’s struggle for justice that the novel falters. In his battles he takes on multiple causes to fight against the system, describing in lurid detail the grossness of the establishment he is fighting against and the cruelty they casually inflict on thousands of innocent people. It is a worthy pursuit but borders on turning the novel into a polemic.

But in the final pages, Nekhlyudoff reaches the moment of wisdom by reading a New Testament accepted casually from an evangelical Englishman, and the novel again flourishes.

This flowed from the whole of the teaching, and was most strongly and clearly illustrated in the parable of the vineyard. 

The husbandman imagined that the vineyard in which they were sent to work for their master was their own, that all that was in was made for them, and that their business was to enjoy life in this vineyard, forgetting the Master and killing all those who reminded them of his existence. “Are we not doing the same,” Nekhlyudoff thought, “when we imagine ourselves to be masters of our lives, and that life is given us for enjoyment? This evidently is an incongruity. We were sent here by someone’s will and for some reason. And we have concluded that we live only for our own joy, and of course we feel unhappy as labourers do when not fulfilling their Master’s orders. The Master’s will is expressed in these commandments. If men will only fulfil these laws, the Kingdom of Heaven will be established on earth, and men will receive the greatest good that they can attain to.

“‘Seek ye first the Kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.’  “And so here it is, the business of my life. Scarcely have I finished one and another has commenced.” And a perfectly new life dawned that night for Nekhlyudoff, not because he had entered into new conditions of life, but because everything he did after that night had a new and quite different significance than before. How this new period of his life will end time alone will prove.