Tolstoy’s darkening vision

When comparing War and Peace and Anna Karenina – and it is hard for Tolstoyans not to compare – it becomes clear purely from the internal evidence of these works that, between the writing of these two novels, Tolstoy’s vision had darkened considerably. But it is not easy to identify exactly why we should think so. After all, War and Peace has more than its fair share of darkness, both on a personal and on a wider historical level. And there are passages in Anna Karenina that are luminous with joy. And yet, for reasons not entirely obvious, it is hard to imagine anyone who has read both these novels who fails to perceive a greater darkness in the latter.

An obvious explanation is that War and Peace culminates in marriages, and with the promise of propagation of a new generation; while Anna Karenina culminates in death. But, undoubtedly true though that observation is, it tells us little. The culminating point of a novel – at least, of a novel of such quality as these – is not something random that is tacked on to the end, but is, rather, a consequence of all that has gone before. Why should marriages be an appropriate culminating point of one, while death the appropriate culminating point of the other?

Despite having given this matter some thought, I am not sure I have come across a satisfactory answer. But it seems to me that the answer lies not so much in the course of events depicted, but, rather, in the different conceptions in the two novels of human character. In both, Tolstoy is fascinated by why it is different characters behave, think, and perceive as they do; in both, Tolstoy tries to delve as deeply as he can into these reasons. But whereas in War and Peace the characters’ behaviour and perceptions are always conditioned by reason, in Anna Karenina, they are not.

It’s not so much that we can always understand the reasons behind human behaviour. In trying to establish the chains of causality that make the characters behave as they do, there comes inevitably a point where even Tolstoy concedes that he can go no further. This is not because causality fails to hold: rather, it is because, as Tolstoy argues in the often-skipped second part of the epilogue to War and Peace, the causes underpinning any effect are often seemingly infinite in number, and each infinitely small. It is not that the chains of causality do not exist, but, rather, the human brain is simply not capable either of collecting or of processing the data required to establish these chains. This of course implies that humans can have no freedom of action; Tolstoy, at the end of War and Peace, accepts this. We may have the illusion of freedom, he says, because we are incapable of analysing all the causal factors; but it is an illusion only: in reality, we do not have any freedom.

I can’t help feeling that even as Tolstoy was writing this, he was not satisfied with it. Amongst other things, this would imply that no person can be held morally responsible for anything; and this Tolstoy could not accept. When he started Anna Karenina, only a few years after finishing War and Peace, his ideas about why and how humans perceive and behave as they do had changed considerably. Once again, he tries to delve as deeply as he can into the roots of human action; but now, over and over again, he comes to a point where no explanation of human behaviour is possible. It isn’t that we are not capable of understanding all the causes: it is rather that we find ourselves in a world where, all too frequently, there aren’t any causes to begin with. We are in a world where attempts to explain human behaviour all too frequently run up against the tautology “People act as they do because they do”.

Compare, for instance, the passage in War and Peace where Lise Bolkonskaya dies in childbirth to the passage in Anna Karenina where Anna nearly dies in childbirth. They are both passages of tremendous intensity, and of profound psychological intricacy. But in War and Peace, no matter how complex the psychologies of the characters, they are amenable to rational analysis; in Anna Karenina, they aren’t. Here, the characters behave as they do because they do: it is not that their reasons for doing so are difficult to understand – but, rather, there is no reason, and any attempt to understand the roots of human motivation ends merely in tautology. Human behaviour is not a purely rational thing.

This takes Tolstoy’s fictional world closer to Dostoyevsky’s. Dostoyevsky insisted that all his characters have complete freedom, and as a consequence, all his characters, at all points, act as if utterly unhinged and demented. It is an extreme fictional world, admittedly, and, frankly, not entirely sane: it is not something all readers can respond to. (And even those, like myself, who do respond to it, often find themselves harbouring grave doubts, and feeling deeply uneasy about it all.) But I do find it quite astonishing that the rational author of War and Peace should, within only a few years, come even within touching distance of the insanity of Dostoyevsky’s fictional world.

And it is this, I think – this picture of humans as precariously placed, driven as they are by forces susceptible neither to reason nor to understanding – that imparts to Anna Karenina so profound a sense of darkness, and, indeed, of terror.

Dostoyevsky himself, despite the resentment and envy with which he viewed Tolstoy’s literary reputation, described Anna Karenina as “a perfect work of art”; and one can only imagine how much pain it must have cost Dostoyevsky to concede this. But perhaps it is not surprising that Dostoyevsky should have reacted in such a way to this novel, which comes closer to the ethos of his own masterpieces than is generally, I think, accepted.

23 responses to this post.

  1. Thanks. This made me want to reread Anna … And actually consider reading W&P.


    • Hello Peter – I always want to re-read Anna Karenina! And the other one as well…

      SOmetimes, when I pick up a book I haven’t yet read and wwhich I may or may not like, I wonder if i wouldn’t be better off instead getting to know a few books well that are precious to me, rather than know a lot of books only slightly…


  2. A good piece, and I appreciated the distinction between the views of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Do you think it’s fair to say that, for now, Dostoevsky’s view of human nature has a more absolute grip on modern fiction?


    • Hello Miguel, I honestly don’t know: I don’t think I have read any fiction at all that is even remotely like Dostoyevsky’s! I too have heard it claimed that Dostoyevsky was the first to explore the “modern consciousness” (whatever that is!) but I can’t honestly say I understand this.

      I have tried to respond to some of the points raised by yourself and by Tom in the long comment below.

      Cheers for now,


  3. Miguel, how would one go about making that case? It seems impossible. Modern fiction is so big.

    But then I am not sure how Himadri could really make the case for his claims here, either. W&P is all about reason, while all Dostoevsky characters have complete freedom? How could we demonstrate this?

    I suggest a close look at Levin’s brothers as a good place to start when positioning Tolstoy against Dostoevsky.


    • Hm, I’m reminded of something Borges once wrote, that after the Russians nothing was impossible for characters, we could expect anything from them; I think he means that they pushed the limits of what was considered normal, they made abnormal behaviour the new normal, and I think we can pinpoint this to Doestoevsky better than Tolstoy; just think of the Underground Man – I think he’s more of a modern character than anyone from War and Peace.


  4. You are usefully narrowing the issue. There is certainly an important strain of Dostoevskian characterization in a number of later literary traditions.

    Still, the “modern character” can be many things. There are lots of strains.

    Had Borges not read Don Quixote and Shakespeare?


  5. At the OUP blog, Michael Katz works through an interesting Dostoevsky / Tolstoy comparison that is relevant to Himadri’s argument, the quite different way the two authors treat death.


    • May I start by apologising for having posted what I know is a speculative and, for that reason, contentious post, and not having been around to argue it out.

      Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky are such towering figures, both dealing with the most important of themes in novels so startlingly different both in their perspectives and in their aesthetics, that it is difficult not to compare the two. But before we get on to Dostoyevsky – who remains, despite the fascination he exerts, puzzling – I was trying to figure out the differences between Tolstoy’s two major novels. For there clearly are differences: Anna Karenina projects a sense of terror that War and Peace, even at its darkest, doesn’t. But exactly where this difference lies is hard to put one’s finger on.

      My suggestion above that the difference lies in causality, or the lack of it, was a tentative one. This is not intended as a cop-out: sadly, presenting ideas in a post gives an appearance of a finality that is very much at odds with my own uncertainty. But throughout my reading of Anna Karenina last year, I found myself unable to trace the reasons characters’ thoughts and actions. Why do Anna, Karenin and Vronsky seem to enter that heightened plane of consciousness when Anna is dangerously ill? Why does Vronsky suddenly feel such shame that he feels impelled to attempt suicide? Why does Anna long for her son, and yet not care for her infant daughter? Why does the dry-as-dust Karenin break spontaneously into a smile at the sight of his wife’s illegitimate daughter? Why is Anna so insanely jealous of Vronsky? (And its comic counterpart – why is Levin jealous of Kitty when he is so fully assured that Kitty is and will remain faithful to him?) And so on. I cannot think of a single action of the characters in War and Peace where one cannot trace back the reasons – at least, up to a significant point; but there is so much in Anna Karenina that seems to defy this sort of analysis. I think this is about as close as I can get to “demonstrating” my hypothesis. I remain, as ever, open to other possible explanations as to why it is that Anna Karenina seems so much darker than War and Peace

      On Dostoyevsky, it was really during my last reading of Demons that it struck me that I could not, at any point, predict the characters’ actions given what I knew of them. I mentioned this in a post I wrote at the time, and, if I may quote myself from it, this is what I had said:

      [Dostoyevsky] believed people had absolute freedom, and that were he to plan things out, he would be depriving his characters of that freedom. There is no predetermination in Dostoyevsky’s world: right till the very moment that a character does something, there is a possibility that the character may have done something else, or not have done anything at all. So, for instance, Shatov strikes Stavrogin in public, but there is no sense of inevitability about it: even as Shatov is walking up towards Stavrogin, he himself is not sure of what it is he will do. In the event, he delivers a blow; but equally well, he may not have done. And similarly, when Stavrogin receives the blow, there is no inevitability about his reaction: he may have hit back; he may even have killed Shatov on the spot; instead, he accepts the blow, and does nothing. In neither the action nor in the reaction is there any sense of inevitability: everything is inevitable only when it has already happened, and not before – not even a split second before.

      I cannot think of anything further removed from War and Peace, in which Tolstoy seems obsessed in tracing back chains of causality as far back as they could possibly go – and where, indeed, Tolstoy ends up denying that anyone can have freedom of will.

      But in Anna Karenina, things seem to me different. However, I think it was mistaken on my part in drawing a parallel here with Dostoyevsky, as the terror projected in Anna Karenina seems entirely different from that found in Dostoyevsky’s novels. For, despite the apparent lack of causality in so many of the characters’ actions, the characters seem to behave as they do because they cannot do otherwise. Once again freedom seems denied them. But whereas in War and Peace, it is denied them because they are caught up in an endless chain of causes and effects, here, the reasons are inscrutable: these characters are driven with a sort of inevitability by forces that they not only do not understand, but which are beyond understanding. But this lack of freedom of teh characters is very un-Dostoyevskian.

      I am not sure to what extent either Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky have influenced characterisation in subsequent novels. Dostoyevsky does seem to me in many ways sui generis: I cannot think of any other writer I have read who is remotely similar. I suspect, though, that there is no psychological insight in either Tolstoy or in Dostoyevsky that Homer or Shakespeare had not been aware of. But this is something that I am only beginning to think about, and my thoughts are somewhat inchoate right now.

      Thanks, by the way Tom, for that link to Michael Katz’ article. It’s an interesting point – that there are so many murders and suicides in Dostoyevsky, but so few natural deaths. I’m not sure, though, what this signifies.

      Tolstoy seemed obsessed with the actual process of death itself: time after time, he would depict what is going on inside a character’s consciousness right up to the moment of death itself: in his novels, death finalises, yes, but I don’t know that it elucidates anything, and I’m not sure what Michael Katz means by that.

      I’m sorry this is so hurried and so ill thought-out. I’ll return to this later, but would welcome any further ideas in the meantime.


  6. In Tolstoy, death is an ordinary part of the world, however psychologically fraught it is. Thus all the deaths from disease or in battle.

    Dostoevsky’s absolutely free characters die by choice – or by somebody else’s choice. Anna’a suicide – maybe even Vronsky’s choice at the end – are Dostoevskian moves. Levin, by contrast, decides to remain in a Tolstoy novel.


    Death perhaps elucidates life in the classical sense, that you cannot say someone is happy until you know how he died. I wonder if I can find the relevant Herodotus quote. I doubt it. That is Bakhtin’s argument, by the way, not Katz’s.


    • Yes, of course, it’s Bakhtin’s argument rather than that of Katz.

      There’s a lot more to think about in all this. I have barely begun to scratch the surface. Oh well – material for later posts, I suppose!


  7. Euripides has that statement in The Trojan Women: call no man happy until he is dead. Or woman, in this case. Was he just using a common expression of the time?


  8. Such is my understanding. Herodotus, Histories, Bk I, Ch 32:

    “but before he comes to his end it is well to hold back and not to call him yet happy but only fortunate”

    Solon is speaking to Croesus, so Herodotus is pushing the expression way back before his own time. Who know, though.


  9. Haha. Compare “Anna Karenina” and “Resurrection”.


    • I don’t understand your point, I’m afraid.


      • Sorry, that was my thought when reading the sentence “When comparing War and Peace and Anna Karenina – and it is hard for Tolstoyans not to compare – it becomes clear purely from the internal evidence of these works that, between the writing of these two novels, Tolstoy’s vision had darkened considerably.”
        I think his vision had darkened even more as he went from “Anna Karenina” to “Resurrection”.

      • Ah – I see what you mean.

        I think Tolstoy’s vision changed radically after Anna Karenina. Or, rather, certain things that had been bubbling under the surface came out into the open. Soon after Anna Karenina, Tolstoy published the remarkable polemic A Confession, which echoes many of the issues that Levin in Anna Karenina had been grappling with. And after A Confession, Tolstoy’s writings (Hadji Murat excepted) became overtly didactic.

        It’s been some time since I last read Resurrection. It is the most openly didactic of Tolstoy’s novels: indeed, it seems to be a sermon in fiction. I do not mean this in a denigratory sense: it is a magnificent sermon, and seems to bore into one’s very soul. There is about the narrative voice a fury that wasn’t present either in War and Peace or in Anna Karenina.

        I’m not sure that the tone necessarily became darker, as such: Anna Karenina is not surpassed in terms of tragic intensity. What did happen, though, is that the narrative voice is more passionately involved, more angry, and more didactic – in a way that perhaps offends some modern sensibilities. But not mine. Resurrection may be a sermon in fictional form, but it is a supremely great sermon.

      • I mean darker in the sense that, it seems to me, at that point Tolstoy saw people in terms of class and no longer cared about the individual. The characters in “Resurrection” are generally divided into 2 groups, one of poor, unprivileged, oppressed, imprisoned, but innocent, honest people, the other of rich, powerful, idle, frivolous, shallow, hypocritical people. In them, I don’t find all the light and shade, all the complexities and contradictions of human beings as in the characters of “Anna Karenina”. One may, of course, argue that there’s some hope in the way Nekhlyudov changes and tries to correct his past mistakes. And “Anna Karenina” is certainly tragic. But that’s how I feel, his vision of the world and of human beings seems darker to me, more negative.
        Though you do have a point. As a sermon, it’s great. I’ve published on my blog some wonderful passages from this book.
        Anyway, sorry for the late reply. There’s been a lot going on lately.

      • I’m often quite slow at replying myself – so don’t worry about it! 🙂

        “Resurrection” seems a very different kind of work from either “War and Peace” or “Anna Karenina”. As you say, the characters are much simplified: the extraordinary depth of characterisation one finds in the earlier novels simply isn’t here. But I love the searing passion in the narrative voice.

        I’m afraid I’ve really been tied up of late, and still am – but I’ll definitely find some time over the weekend to look through your blog.

        All the best for now,

      • I actually have a blog on blogspot, not wordpress, so you can’t go directly from here and whilst I don’t mind you looking through my blog, I don’t really like to leave the URL here.
        Still, it may be interesting to talk, so my email address is, if you’re interested 😀

      • Sorry – I hadn’t realised yours wasn’t a public blog.

      • 😀

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