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Classic Review: Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy

I am still working my way through Leviathan and still have a stack if philosophy books to read during my Summer of Philosophy. In the meantime I will share a review I originally wrote a couple years ago. If there is any novel that has had a profound influence on my personal philosophy, it is this one….

imageResurrection fits into the literary category of “philosophic novel” along with the novels of George Orwell, Ayn Rand, Albert Camus, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and C.S. Lewis. Some would categorize Tolstoy’s War and Peace as a philosophical novel. I have a special fondness for this kind of novel. Reading philosophy helps me make sense of this confusing world, so it is always worth the effort to read a philosophy book. But the truth is I often find straight philosophy books about as exciting as dryer lint. So if I can read a novel that makes philosophical ideas come alive within the context of a story and achieve a better grasp of them in an entertaining  way, why not?

Although Resurrection is philosophical to the bone, it also has a strong in plot and emotionally complex characters who come alive on the page. The story centers on the spiritual awakening of Prince Dmitri Ivanovitch Nekhludoff, a rich nobleman, aged 30. Nekhludoff slowly comes to the same conclusions about society and truth that Tolstoy believed but the character is not Tolstoy. The author was 50 years old when he came to the realizations that changed the course of his life.

The inciting incident that triggers Nekhludoff’s spiritual awakening is a freakish coincidence. He shows up at court for routine jury duty and discovers that the defendant is the girl he impregnated and abandoned ten years ago when she was a maid in the home of his two aunts.

When he sees Katerina Maslova, now a prostitute, on trial for poisoning one of her clients, Nekhludoff is driven to confront his past and come to terms with the fact that his actions toward this girl set her on the path that led her to the 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 feels compelled to do whatever is in his power to help Maslova. After fighting through a maze of bureaucracy he is able to arrange a face-to-face meeting with the prisoner. However the reunion does go quite as he imagined. Maslova is no longer the sweet vibrant girl he knew. Her 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 he left her. However, she does ask Nekhludoff to see if he can help some of her fellow prisoners.

This sets him 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 a painful examination of his own life, slowly unfold into horrifying vision of the world humans have created. He begins to see that a favored few live in callous luxury on the suffering backs of millions.

Resurrection, with it cast 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 its victims, it avoids the simplistic dichotomy of evil villains versus innocent victims. To be sure, there are evil villains 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 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. 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 internationally famous 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. Resurrection is now the least known of his three long novels. It is not hard to see why. The novel is challenging – about as challenging as the philosophy presented in Matthew 5, the sermon on the mount. It challenges the very foundations on which our civilization is built.  If you are willing to be open to that prospect, you will love this book. I get the idea that some people are a bit put off by it. In any case, the challenge of this book is not in how it is written – it is written with clarity, beauty, and depth – but in what is says. Even I was a quite shaken up by the time I got to the end.

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