Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

Humanism of Tolstoy’s Characters

Dr. Mulk Raj Anand


It is only a generation or two ago that Tolstoy died, and he already seems like a giant, a figure as great as Shakespeare and Goethe and Hugo and Heine. This may be because his life coincided with vital changes in the history of his country, the abolition of serfdom which he helped to bring about, and the rapid Europeanisation of Russia which, in his later life, he resisted.

But I believe that he towers above many of his contemporaries because he rendered forth the life of his epoch in those wonderful pictures which are scattered over his novels and particularly because he is the author of War and Peace.

Some people may ask on reading these superlatives, what about the great epics of India, the Ramayana and the Mahabhara, or Lady Murasaki’s epic tales of Japanese court life, the Tales of Gengi? Or they may point to Balzac’s Comedie Humaine, or Cervantes’ Don Quixote, to Thomas Hardy’s novels, or even to the novels of Tolstoy’s precursors and contemporaries in Russia, to the Captain’s Daughter by pushkin, to Gogol’s Dead Souls and to Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov.

But no; War and Peace is in quite a different category from the chronicles and epics of the past, however great they may be, for it is cast in the peculiarly modern form of a novel, a form with inherent laws of its own, a form which is a considerable advance on the narratives of older times.

And it stands incomparably head and shoulders above all the high class fiction of the 19th century, because it is the nearest approximation to the true novel, because it is the most ambitious reproduction of events in time, a representation which seeks, through all the aids of illusion, to create a development mirroring the reality of a whole period.

The definition of War and Peace I have attempted, though of the roughest kind, has at least this merit that it distinguishes it as a modern novel from all the chronicles or recitals of previous times. In a novel things take place but in a recital they have taken place.

The novelist tries, as far as possible, to give the words and actions of his characters and re-creates their lives in their own terms, the recitalist substitutes abstract description for the actual action, and uses symbols and signs to define the scene or the state of mind he seeks to reproduce.

The modern novel still oscillates between these two methods. But War and Peace is the advance-guard of the new method, and, by thus putting it in the perspective of the age in which it was written, we judge it from the internal criterions evolved from within the novel from itself.

For, what is the Victorian novel in England or the great novel in Russia attempting to do, if not tending towards a dramatic technique which eschews the story-telling manner of the old recitals (where a moral idea is proved or illustrated), and increasingly to translate life at the time when it is being made?

And where is a novel, even among the novels of the age of the great novel, which either aims to render the drama of life or achieves it so completely almost as if the writer was witnessing this drama, with all its violent clash of thought and emotion in all its subtlest shades and nuances.

Of course, there are other novels as large, quantitatively, as War and Peace; for the 18th and 19th centuries, during which the novel form was developing, was the age of the several-volumed romance, as for instance the Waverly Novels of Scott, the Comedie Humaine of Balzac and the serials of Dickens. But, apart from the fact that none of them is yet wholly free from the old recital element, which of them gives the effect of space in such a compass as does War and Peace?

What a book it is – War and Peace! Vast as Russia, into it enter both the continents, Europe and Asia, with a clash of symbals; across its pages blow the gales and the winds of the steppes, the mountains, the deserts and the valleys; into it flow the rivers, and in between its lines there wells up a strength and a power as though from the hidden springs of the characters; and everything moves and flows, as in an orchestra, the sharp overtones and the slow overtones, all of which suddenly give place to an intense moment, like a flash of lightning illuminating everything or at least releasing us from the necessity to grope in the dark for “something else”; till we are wandering again, from day to day, from decade to decade.

And Tolstoy is the invisible conductor, or like his own idea of God on high, who, having created His universe, looks on like a silent spectator and who is yet the moving spirit behind the internal life of everything though He is really outside all.

To vary the metaphor one may say that the greatest novelist here is at his most objective, a just and impartial arbiter of the destinies of the people whom he informs with the passion of life.

“If,” says Dimitri Mirsky, the Soviet critic, “there is a dividing line between the old and the modern novel, Tolstoy marks it.” And, I believe, what Mirsky has in mind as Tolstoy’s chief contribution is his perfection of a new dramatic technique as against the old narrative which was still the method of Turgenev and Dostoevsky. And though in his early books, he insists on the point of view, on the motives underlying the words and actions of his characters, in War and Peace he not only lets the characters speak without much intervention, through action, but dramatises the thought content itself by showing the psychological development of his characters.

Thus, he achieves reality on several planes, a reality which is more forceful because it is not completely in the control of the Master, but flows along releasing various chords with a rhythm of its own, an essentially poetic rhythm.

In saying this, I am not unconscious of the formlessness of War and Peace, of the large tracts of very pedestrian and boring passages in the book, especially where Tolstoy gives us chunks of sentimental discursiveness. But as Shakespeare’s long bouts of ranting and jingoistic big-worded pomposity (witness Henry IV and Henry V) so Tolstoy’s lapses into heavy-footed prose are to be judged as part of the whole.

Apart from the powerful and vivid sense of Reality, which is the chief impression one gets from War and Peace and deriving from it, there is throughout the book the extraordinary sense of the humanity of Tolstoy’s characters. They are that. But they are imaginatively recreated so that they become more than themselves, symbols, transparent mediums for the social and biological urges that are working through them.

All the three wonderful households which dominate the book, the Bolkonskys, Besukhovs and Rostovs, with their offshoots, all are individual and all are instinct with the passions that are to destroy them and recreate them through their children in the awkward era through which they are passing.

Pierre, the clumsy but sincere adolescent, grows up almost to be a hero to the new generation after the old Prince Andrei and the old Prince Vasili are gone, and Natasha, whom we have seen pass from childhood to womanhood, with children of her own, projects the life principle of all the older women. Anna, Mikhaylovna, Anna Pavolovna, into the new generation.

But all these and the scores of other characters who come on the stage of Tolstoy’s imagination and act out their impulses do not do so because they are ideas which change, but because they represent social forces whose conflicts of will and aspiration lead them inevitably through greed and anger, and hate and love, to the destinies inevitable to their natures.

In fact, so great is the genius of Tolstoy for entering into the skins of his characters, be they bullies, lovesick maidens, French coquettes, fidgety old men, gossipy old women, butlers, coachmen, generals or kings, that War and Peace becomes a monumental, intricate and encyclopaedic history of Russian society of the early 19th century.

And though Tolstoy’s characters here are more flesh and blood than the opinions they tended to become in his later novels, they nevertheless reveal certain fundamental truths about themselves and the world in which they are involved. For instance, Tolstoy shows through the lives of the aristocracy, which arranges marriages for money and secures sinecures and privileges through influence, which violates honour while upholding the conventions, which is quarrelling for property and prestige, how rotten and moth eaten is that order.

Specially in contrast to the peasant Karateyev, whose simplicity and natural dignity shine through his humble and narrow life. The social climbing of Boris, the gallantry of the superficial young Rostov, who achieves the highest exaltation as he salutes the Czar on parade, the banalities of the women at diplomatic receptions, the colossal egoism of Bonaparte, all the most despicable traits of the bourgeois corrode this set-up. And Tolstoy destroys them in a way that is almost final, so sharp and so subtle is the irony he employs, so pointed his satire.

But what is the meaning of this vast book, people ask. What is the novel really about? What is the story? There I feel like Mr. Fraser when faced with a similar question. “Yes, oh dear, yes, the novel tells a story,” answers one of his spokesmen in a drooping, regretful voice. And that is the only way in which one could answer such a question about War and Peace. For, of course, there it no story here. And all honour to Tolstoy for having abolished the artificial convention of the story. But there are various themes in the book.

Mr. Percy Lubbock thinks that War and Peace shows the struggle between youth and age. As this is the eternal struggle and one which is obviously always being waged, I consider this a rather vague description. Some other critics emphasise that it is a book about the patriotic war of 1812, while others like Miss Vera Britain consider it the “most superb novel ever contributed to world peace”.

I am inclined to believe that its chief value is in exemplifying a new attitude to war. Certainly it is the first great human document about war. In the Homeric legends, or in the old epics of India, wars were waged by Gods or by men who were demi-gods, and they mostly expressed the will and aspiration of early societies for cohesion both for internal and external action.

But when a number of tribes got together and formed military democracies, the character of war changed, because men waged it to protect the newly-emerging nations against the greed of the neighbouring states. The barbarian monarchs, who later chose to consolidate their power through pillage and to live on the labour of slaves, created a new conflict, however, which was to change the basis of war further, making it both a revolution and a war. Then war became activity.

Now, Tolstoy posed a great moral question which people had been disinclined to ask hitherto in Europe. “Isn’t this bloodshed, this enormous sacrifice of human life, a crime against humanity?” he seems to say.

He does not answer this question, but when he makes a young soldier walk into battle puffed up with the pride of the salute he is offering to his officer and completely oblivious to death which is immediately in store for him. Tolstoy already shows the slant of his vision. Also, the realism of Tolstoy’s description of Austerlitz goes even beyond compassion to an attitude of pacifist humanism, and is in direct contrast to the mood and tempo of such a positive poem as Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade. “Is it worthwhile noticing trifles?” Prince Bagration is made to say when a cannibal falls into the Russian lines, wounding, killing and scattering men. And, elsewhere, Tolstoy insinuates this with a monotony only relieved by the wide variety of his other hints and gestures.

But it would be false to say that Tolstoy in War and Peace had already taken up an uncompromisingly pacifist stand–though he did so later; for, if he regards war here as a crime against humanity, he also seems to consider it the punishment of a crime. And, though the battle of Borodino of 1812 is one of many crises in this book, it is, in a way, the central theme on which everything hinges, as Kutuzov, the victorious general, is also, in a way, the central character.

He shows the role of men converging on the battlefield; he measures the time, the space, and the peculiar conditions of a hundred and thirty years ago in all their horror and grimness, even though a battle then only lasted a day or a few hours, on a frost which lacked the length and depth of the Borodinos of 1941.

And although the armies clashed only on a meagre two and a half miles as against the contemporary mammoth forces spread out on fifty or eighty miles, the parallel cannot, of course, be stretched beyond that, for the pattern of society behind the front was then different, even though Tolstoy’s portrait of Napoleon is almost like the Soviet cartoonists’ drawings of Hitler.

But besides these two questions, is war a crime against humanity or the punishment of a crime, there is a third question: who will win the war, the unconscious, ill-informed Ivan Ivanovitch and his 120,000 brother soldiers of Russia or the aristocracy engaged in the death grips of a battle within itself, and against the inferiors? Who is the great person, the real force of history–Platon Karatayev–or that “puppet of circumstances” Napoleon?

Tolstoy’s War and Peace may, therefore, also be said to have ushered in the era of the common man in literature, however much he interpreted the “group soul” or the community as against the individual in his subsequent discourses.

Such are some of the questions which War and Peace poses for us. And though it raises more questions than it answers, it does what only a very great novel can do; it describes certain tendencies and plunges us, who tend to close our eyes and ears, into abysses below the facile and ephemeral generalisations of daily life, intensifying our perception of worldly events and releasing us, liberating us, to a sense of all that lies buried within us, and to a compassionate understanding of everything outside us.

But, of course, War and Peace is a great deal more than even that. If not the eternal drama, which some would like to call it (because there is nothing eternal), it is a vast documentary epic which those zephyrs of history, the men and women of Russia in the early 19th century live and move and have their being. I have already compared it to an orchestra; may I call it the symphony of Moscow, 1800-1912?
–Courtesy, Soviet Review

Let's grow together!

I humbly request your help to keep doing what I do best: provide the world with unbiased sources, definitions and images. Your donation direclty influences the quality and quantity of knowledge, wisdom and spiritual insight the world is exposed to.

Let's make the world a better place together!

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: