Saturday, October 15, 2011

Tolstoy - truth or bias?

Tolstoy was born in one of the best-known families of the Russian Nobility. However, his views in "War and Peace" are so different from what I would have expected from a rich nobleman that I had to ask myself : what makes Tolstoy so different? What triggered this shift in his opinion and made him disagree with the regular aristocrat Russian ?
Well, on the one hand, Tolstoy's life was not typical. His parents died when he was young and he was brought up by his relatives. Still, according to some sources, there are two possible events which can be considered reasons for his nearly contemptuous view about society. Tolstoy was always concerned with people's needs, so,when encountering a crowd of homeless people in a Moscow market, he decided he wanted to help them. He considered that simply giving each a small amount of money would not help, so he went up to his friends from the upper classes of society and told them about the situation. The vast majority refused to donate any sum for this truly noble cause, thus denying their "noblemen" statute[1]. The other event that might have influenced Tolstoy to view society and the state as artificial happened during one of his visits to France, when he witnessed a public execution in Paris.[2].
However, as an intellectual man, a "thinker", just like Pierre and Andrew, his reasons for despising society might also be connected to the trivial concerns and topics of discussion of the people surrounding him.
 Leo Tolstoy  believed that when writing realism is the essential ingredient for that piece of writing to be good. So, when he describes the balls, the war scenes and when he criticizes the society with such harshness, he is doing his best to replicate the atmosphere of the era he was living in. But what if he is a bit biased? What if the rank he had and was so uncomfortable with made him be harsher then he should have been with some of the characters and the events described?


  1. This is certainly very interesting. I agree with you, that his life affected his views on the Russian nobility but I think his concern with realism makes him less likely to be bias. Because Tolstoy's novel has so many characters, he is able to paint what I think is probably a realistic view of nobility. He doesn't seem to think all of it is bad and several of his characters are nice and good people, such as Natasha or Andrew. Still, his criticisms of the nobility are clear. I think it is interesting that the nobility read War and Peace when it was so harsh on their lifestyle.

  2. Jordan, I believe that your last point is really interesting. I have never questioned why the nobility liked Tolstoy. Maybe most of them identified themselves with the good-natured characters, instead of realizing they were more of a Prince Vasili than a Prince Andrew. It is very likely for them to have a good opinion of themselves and not to understand Tolstoy's hints to frivolity and superficiality (they are somewhat similar to Helene).