What Tolstoy does best is to show people the inner lives of people whom society judges more severely than they deserve. He elicits in the hearts of his readers feelings of kindness and sympathy for characters like Anna Karenina, whom society judges as morally loose, irresponsible, undevoted, shallow, callous, etc.; and likewise for her oft-forgotten, knuckle-cracking husband, Alexei, who is judged on the outside as being overly severe, distant, uncaring, unloving, unlovable, callous, etc. In reality, there is much that is good and beautiful in Anna, and Alexei privately has deep wellsprings of love that he shows neither readily nor outwardly.
As I am drawn into this story every few years, I find that I love them both. I want them to see past their differences and to find joy raising their young boy, Seryozha. But when they don’t, and life gets messy (as it so often does), the degree to which I am unable to forgive them only reveals my failings as a human being to understand the complexities of the human heart. Am I not on safer ground to forgive all, and not to judge?
War and Peace and The Life of Ivan Ilych are likewise filled with characters that are neither all good nor all bad, but rather, like each of us, filled with shades of grey. Solzhenitsyn captured this idea well a century later in Gulag Archipelago:
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? . . . Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains . . . an un-uprooted small corner of evil.
But this is messy. We want things to be neat and tidy in our minds, like a Marie Kondo drawer. It is so much easier to categorize, to see things polarly, to put some people on one of two shelves in our minds, to self-deceivingly sift the particles of truth that serve our own purposes, and then throw out the rest.
What makes Tolstoy great is how he is able to break this way of thinking, and to show us that, despite our shortcomings, each of us is filled with potential for greatness. He says to his readers that, though we may be deeply flawed, we are also capable of deeply profound demonstrations of love and forgiveness for our fellow beings — friends, family, and enemies alike. And, importantly, these demonstrations of love are possible not in spite of our flaws, but because of them. The scoundrel Dolokhov, years after his duel with Pierre, asks his forgiveness. Why do you do this, Tolstoy!? He was so nice and tidy on my scoundrel shelf. Pierre forgives his piteous wife, the princess Helen. But she was such a wench! Really, can’t I just leave her be? Prince Andrei forgives the piteous Anatole Kuragin, the man-whore who stole a life-shattering kiss from Natasha. Natsha forgives the heartless Andrei. I mean, really, it was just a kiss, Andrei. And then, the heroic and ever-gloomy superfluous man of Russian literature, Andrei, forgives Natasha. One finds the same patterns — this shifting line of good and evil and challenges to one’s judgement — in Anna Karenina. Kitty forgives Levin his misdeeds of youth, Karenin begs forgiveness of his piteous wife, Anna. And so on.
Unfortunately, our lives, like theirs, are complicated. From a human relationship standpoint, they’re more like the poor lady whom Marie Kondo went to visit, with a lifetime of boxes full of “stuff,” equal parts treasure and junk, stored floor to ceiling and hanging from the rafters. Fortunately, we can use the Kondo method on our socks; not so much with our relationships. (If one has been convinced otherwise and he finds himself doing the “spark joy” test on his in-laws, I would argue that while it may seem good and right at first, what he is losing may far outweigh what he might possibly be gaining. After all, some of life’s most important lessons — those of humility, forgiveness, and reconciliation — come in no more poignant form than what is found in family relationships. If we “junk” the people closest to us, I would argue, what good is the small measure of peace and calm we might gain from their absence when we have damaged the heart of another and severed a precious relationship in the process? Might we have been of some use in helping another? And in helping others, helped ourselves?)
Tolstoy helps us to see deeper into the troubled hearts of others in this deeply troubled world. And often, the instruments of his instruction are not the social elites, the educated, or the clergy, but rather the simple Russian peasant. They taught Levin the beauty of honest, simple work in the mowing scene. And the peasant Platon taught Pierre in a prison cell how wonderful the taste of a cold potato could be. (And there’s much more to this than a potato. Some of us are given cold potatoes for lives, but each of us has the choice to either scarf it down ungratefully, or to sprinkle some salt on it and to savor each bite. Even the most simple can be the most beautiful . . . But I’m also not blind to the irony that no peasant ever did or will write a War and Peace — that it was, instead, a member of the privileged aristocracy.) What I gain from this is that we need not search in universities for the most important things life has to teach; they can be found right at home. And some of the most profound truths come from the mouths of babes.
Tolstoy’s art, as he discussed in ‘What is Art,’ is not intended merely to impress or to entertain. For Tolstoy, it was important that, in reading his novels, we learn how to be more kind, more moral, more empathetic, more emotionally attuned, more human. For him, art is not superfluous, some side-effect of the few civilizations that have had enough time, after the harvest is done, to dabble in paints or instruments or the pen. Art is intended to educate our hearts, and in its highest form, it can be an offshoot of religion. (Secular humanists like to take all the religiosity out of the great works of art, Tolstoy’s included. But in my opinion, they do so at the peril of keeping the art intact, even at the peril of losing what the great artists intended their works to be.) Tolstoy took his calling as an artist seriously, even spiritually, as very few artists seem to do in today’s materialistic and secular world. He used his characters to help us see in ourselves something greater, the same way religion does.
Solzhenitsyn profoundly said, “I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.” Tolstoy did this with his art.