It’s difficult for Christians to know exactly what to think about the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy.
Tolstoy was passionate about the Gospel. But he was excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church—because he sought to combine Christianity and rationalism. He was unfailingly generous to the poor, yet “cantankerous” to anyone who crossed him. Both the czarist government and the later Soviet regime tried to censor many of his works. But both acknowledged the greatness of his novels.
It seems Tolstoy has something to simultaneously appeal to and alienate almost everybody.
But there’s one thing on which everyone agrees: Tolstoy is among the greatest novelists of all time. As Ken Boa says on the CD, “Though Tolstoy often adopted extreme positions, he has come to be recognized as a serious thinker, even if his religious and social tracts pale before the brilliance of his novelistic achievement.”
Ken quotes another critic who puts it quite succinctly: “If God wrote a novel, it would be Anna Karenina.”
In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy follows the parallel stories of two very different marriages, examining the difference between those who live only to satisfy their own needs, and those who live for God.
The protagonist of the novel, Anna, could be a prototype for the Hollywood romantic heroine. She breaks the restraints of a loveless marriage and flees with her lover, Vronsky. But in stark contrast to the way many modern Hollywood films play out, freedom from restraint doesn’t lead Anna to happiness. Instead, it sets both her and Vronsky on a path toward nihilism and the desire for death.
At the same time, the character of Levin, who in many ways represents Tolstoy himself, is discovering important truths about life and God by working with the peasants on his estate. Levin pursues and marries a young woman named Kitty, and though their marriage isn’t exciting or dramatic, it leads to greater happiness and satisfaction than Anna’s illicit relationship.
Yet Tolstoy doesn’t make his characters and their situations all black and white. As his wife noted, Anna was meant to be “pitiable but not contemptible.” But both Anna and Levin represent the way that ideas have an enormous impact on real life. As Ken notes, in many ways Anna Karenina is like two other novels about adultery that were published in the same period: The Scarlet Letter and Madame Bovary. All of these captured the tensions and pitfalls of living without the spiritual values that are meant to shape families and societies.
Ken says that “Tolstoy...was deeply concerned with sin or crime, guilt, punishment, and atonement.” Indeed, Tolstoy used Romans 12:19 as his epigraph to Anna Karenina. It’s the verse that says, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.”
It explains much about Tolstoy’s treatment of his characters and his belief that it is impossible for destructive behavior like Anna’s to lead to happiness.
Despite his often wildly unorthodox beliefs, at some deep level Tolstoy grasped certain fundamental truths about God and morality that has helped to make his novels truly timeless and classic.