Call him a spiritual anarchist, a philosophical thinker or a social reformer, Russian novelist and short story writer Leo Tolstoy is one of the literary giants of modern times. Often characterised by his extreme moralistic and ascetic world view, Tolstoy's works remain gems of modern world literature.
On his 186th birthday, Hindustan Times revisits some of his best loved works.
One of the best examples of realistic fiction, Anna Karenina is the tragic story of a married aristocrat from Russian elite of the post 1850s era. Anna comes to her brother's home to help mend his womanizing ways and save his broken home. Instead, she gets sucked into a hopeless affair with a bachelor in town, Vronsky. Madly in love and with a promise of marriage if she leaves her husband, Anna and Vronsky run away to Italy. But things fall apart and the couple returns to Russia. Life gets tough for Anna as she must bear the brunt of her decision. She is shunned by society while Vronsky goes on socializing and is pretty much accepted back.
The story is a scathing criticism of the politics, gender, religion, morality and social taboos.
War and Peace
Tolstoy, hailing from an old aristocratic family of Russia, had particular interest in studying and critiquing the social structure of his times. The story of War and Peace, unfolding between 1805 and 1812, is essentially the story of five aristocratic families before the French invasion of Russia by Napoleon. A veteran of Crimean War, Tolstoy did not approve of narration of history. The plot and the interactions between the five families form the crux of the novel. The novel is remarkable for its epic scale.
War and Peace and Anna Karenina would go a long way in giving fruition to what Tolstoy was to become, a spiritual anarchist and a pacifist.
The Kingdom of God is Within You
A non-fiction treatise on the nature of man's relationship with religion and state, this book was banned in his native country. The book was to propound his belief as a Christian anarchist who believed that state as an organization was, by its very character, against the will of people. In his critique of the state, he saw the Russian Orthodox Church being hand in gloves. His ideal was for man to return to the idea of Christianity as enshrined in Bible's Sermon on the Mount.
This book has a profound influence on many modern thinkers such as Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr among others.
Short stories by Tolstoy
As an ace storyteller, all of Tolstoy's works have social engineering and injustices ingrained in feudal societies as its core. His moral worldview gets reflected in all his works. Here are a few examples. How much land does a man need? is the story of man with insatiable lust for land. Ironically, he ends up forfeiting all.
Little Girls Wiser Than Men is a parable on forgiveness and eulogizes the wisdom of children. A harmless fight between two little girls ends up in the entire village coming to blows. Only as the elders feud, the girls have patched up and move on. As classic underdog tale, The Candle is the story of cruelty and death of Michael Simeonovitch, whose excessive cruelty towards his peasants and serfs makes him the hateful figure. The story unfolds in the years prior to the reign of Alexander II which saw the liberation of many millions of serfs in 1862.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich
The story of the death of a highly placed judge in pre revolution Russia, the book is relevant as a study of Tolstoy's influence in matters of religion and philosophy.
The book was written shortly after his conversion of Christian anarchism and in many ways, is a treatise of death.