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Tolstoy’s Resurrection


By Robert Coles | June 1987
Frederick Sontag is Denison Professor of Philosophy at Pomona College in Claremont, California. His numerous books include The Future of Theology: A Philosophical Basis for Contemporary Protestant Theology and, most recently, The Elements of Philosophy.

Among the hilltop beatitudes Jesus gave us, the one that clouds the distinction between transgressors and those who do the law’s work has always attracted the interest of people who know the universality of sin and the irony, if not hypocrisy, that a person risks when he condemns others. Still, societies necessarily have laws; and too, there are degrees of sin. Obviously, for instance, the murderous thoughts we have toward others do not amount to the actual taking of someone’s life – and it is such an actuality with which the law has to come to terms. Nevertheless, He warned us: “Judge not lest ye be judged,” and so doing, wanted to give us much pause.

Certainly Tolstoy paid heed to that warning in Resurrection, his last full-length novel, published in 1900, when he was 72, with a decade of living left to him. The kernel of the story is as “simple” as that of any of the world’s great pieces of fiction – an unsurprising irony around which all sorts of narrative sequences can be arranged: a count, named Nekhlyudov, called to jury duty, finds himself obliged to decide the guilt or innocence of a defendant, the prostitute Maslova, who years earlier had been a servant in his family’s home, and whom he had seduced and gotten pregnant. She stands falsely accused of the murder of one of her customers. Not that the author is interested in savoring such a legal set of circumstances in order to remind us that “guilt” is everywhere and “justice” at best a necessary but inadequate approximation. The count, we learn, is an ostensibly privileged man who has high ideals, noble thoughts, artistic aspirations, and reformist passions, but is a victim of a crime altogether different from the kind ascribed to Maslova: a tenaciously unwitting egoism which has locked him into a melancholy solitary confinement.

Much has been made by critics of the autobiographical aspects of this novel – Nekhlyudov as Tolstoy; his wife, too, regarded such to be the case. Rather obviously, however, Nekhlyudov did not write novels, especially one as vigorously self-satirizing as Resurrection is, in part, of Tolstoy (a side of him, at least), and one satirizing well-to-do dilettantes and their supposedly earnest causes, interests, activities, which follow one another relentlessly.

If, then, we see Tolstoy in the essentially vain and shallow count of the early chapters, whose moral journey is the central motif of Resurrection, we had best think of this novel as a confessional one – thereby emphasizing the qualities that made Tolstoy the Tolstoy we admire so much, not only as a wonderfully knowing observer of life, but as a fearlessly probing self-observer who had the keenest eye out for his own serious flaws of character. At the very beginning of Resurrection he quotes from the well-known passage in Matthew: “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” This is a warning in the same moral vein as the one mentioned at the start of this essay, and it is a warning not at all overlooked by the Russian novelist count we have all come to know so well, because he did, indeed, focus long and hard on that “beam” Matthew remembers hearing the Teacher mention.

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