Review of Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy

Review of Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy
After being quite taken with Leo Tolstoy’s A Confession, his memoir of spiritual crisis and awakening, I was eager to read Resurrection, Tolstoy’s final novel, published with great fanfare in 1899. Yet to say I was “eager to read” seems somehow inaccurate – a sort of a trivialization of what I felt – and yet “I desired to read” or “longed to read” do not really work either. Maybe French has a better way to describe the deep feeling that you need to read something as a result of reading something else, but I have been unable to find the right words for it in English. For now I will just say I felt strongly I needed to read Resurrection and looked forward to the experience with something like a joyful anticipation. Here is the review I wrote for Goodreads….

ResurrectionResurrection by Leo Tolstoy

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Resurrection fits into the literary category of “the philosophical novel” along with the novels of George Orwell, Ayn Rand, Albert Camus, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and C.S. Lewis. Some would categorize Tolstoy’s own War and Peace as a philosophical novel as well. A philosophical novel is one in which the author’s philosophy is the dominant element of the book as opposed to a novel in which character or the plot are the focus. Its purpose is to elucidate and illustrate a philosophic vision rather than to entertain, enchant, or edify the mind with its artistic genius or innovation. It is my personal favorite kind of novel, even when I don’t necessarily agree with the philosophy it puts forth. I like philosophy because it helps me make sense of this confusing world, so I will, on occasion, make the effort to read a philosophy book; however to be honest I usually find straight philosophy books about as exciting as dryer lint, so if I can read a novel that makes a philosophy come alive within the context of a story and achieve a better grasp of the philosopher’s thinking in a pleasurable way, why in the world not do so?

Although Resurrection is philosophical to the bone, it is also strong in plot and peopled with characters that are emotionally complex and beautifully portrayed. The story centers on the dramatic spiritual awakening of Prince Dmitri Ivanovitch Nekhludoff, a rich young nobleman and member of the landed gentry. Although it is true that Nekhludoff slowly comes to the same conclusions about society and truth that Tolstoy came to believe, the character is not the author. Tolstoy was nearing 50 when he came to the realizations and beliefs that changed the course of his life while Nekhludoff is perhaps 30 when a freakish coincidence triggers his spiritual awakening: he shows up to serve on a jury and finds that the defendant is Katerina Maslova , the girl he impregnated and abandoned ten years ago when she was a maid in the home of his two aunts.

When he sees his former lover, now a prostitute, on trial for poisoning a client, Nekhludoff is driven to re-examine his past and come to terms with the fact that his actions toward this girl set her on the path that led her to her current state of affairs. Although most of the jury members as well as the judge believe that Maslova has been framed for the crime and is in fact innocent, she is convicted due to a technicality in the wording of the verdict and sentenced to four years hard labor in Siberia.

Nekhludoff, who is considering marriage to the daughter of a wealthy family, knows he could walk away and not look back, but he finds he is compelled to seek to meet with Maslova and resolves to do whatever is in his power to help her. After fighting through a maze of bureaucracy and bureaucrats he is able to arrange a face-to-face meeting with the prisoner, but the reunion does play out quite as he imagined. Maslova’s hard life has made her hard and cynical and she does not wish to be reminded by his presence of either the innocent girl she once was or the intense pain she experienced when Nekhludoff left her. However, she does ask him to see if he can help some of her fellow prisoners.

This sets Nekhludoff on a journey of discovery about the Russian prison system, with its corruption, injustices, maddening inconsistencies, miserable victims and callous beneficiaries – the government officials and lawyers who profit from its legal churnings. These discoveries, mixed with an examination of his own life, extend to a horrifying vision of the world of humans in general, with its favored few living in luxury on the suffering backs of millions.

Resurrection, with it cast of hundreds of thousands is sweeping in scope and yet as intimate as one man’s breaking heart and troubled mind. Although the novel is about the evils of a predatory system and the victims of that system, it avoids the simplistic dichotomy of evil villains versus innocent victims. To be sure, there are evil villains here as well as innocent victims, but these are only the two ends of fully realized spectrum of morality. Nearly all the characters are presented with some sympathy as real human beings doing what they must do to live and feed their families within the world as they find it. Most people, rich, poor, or in between, do whatever is easiest, least risky, and most beneficial for themselves. So we meet sympathetic prison wardens, bureaucrats willing to bend the rules for money, favors, or out of sheer good will, brutal prison guards who later regret their actions, and men with lofty morals slowly corrupted by the demands of their profession. Among the prisoners there are the purest of saints and the vilest of sinners and every type of in between.

Tolstoy was famous all over the world when this book was published. It was eagerly anticipated, quickly translated into several languages, and was an instant international bestseller. However, it seems that enthusiasm soon waned and Resurrection is now the least known of his three long novels. It is not hard to see why. The novel is great but the philosophy is challenging – about as challenging as that presented in Matthew 5, the sermon on the mount. If you are in a state of mind that can be receptive to that philosophy you will love this book. I get the idea though, that some people are a bit put off by it. In any case, this is challenging book and the challenge is not in how it is written – it is written with clarity, beauty, and depth – but in what is says about our world.

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