“Resurrection” by Leo Tolstoy

Resurrection

The last major novel by Tolstoy. According to Wikipedia, Vladimir Nabakov heaped superlatives upon “Anna Karenina”, but questioned the reputation of “War and Peace”, and sharply criticized “Resurrection” and “The Kreutzer Sonata”. My opinion is the exact opposite.

To me, this is a more mature and riveting work than “Anna Karenina”, because it contains deeper spiritual and social insights, the upshot of the author’s personal struggles and growth in the intervening years. In “Anna Karenina”, we witness the despair and destruction of the main character, in “Resurrection”, the tender hope and revival of two souls.

As Levin is a self-portrait of Tolstoy in “Anna Karenina”, so is Prince Nekhlyudov, the hero of this book. Called to jury duty in the criminal court, Nekhlyudov recognized the defendant as the innocent Katusha whom he had loved but also seduced many years ago. He recalled his tender first love for Katusha, and his later betrayal and misuse of her. The reality of his subsequent life forced itself upon him, “a stupid, empty, valueless, frivolous life”. He decided to redeem himself and save her or at least try his best to relieve her misery.

Tolstoy painted a condemning portrait of the Russian society, specifically the prison system and the government service, which he blamed for oppressing and depraving the human spirit. He changed my perceptions of the Holocaust, Abu Ghraib, and even happenings in our daily life. How otherwise normal, kind human beings can commit horrible crimes against others, and how insensitive and cruel we can be when “following orders” and “doing our job”.

In sharp contrast, the relationship and interactions between Nekhlyudov and Katusha become the more lively and riveting, like plants growing in the desert. There is the whole gamut of emotion, joy, devotion, pity, contempt, anger, forgiveness and love. That is what I as a reader can relate to and it’s also why I care about their fate to the very end.

Rationalization of a Sinful Life

“Everybody, in order to be able to act, has to consider his occupation important and good. … People whom fate and their sin-mistakes have placed in a certain position, however false that position may be, form a view of life in general which makes their position seem good and admissible. In order to keep up their view of life, these people instinctively keep to the circle of those people who share their views of life and their own place in it. This surprises us, where the persons concerned are thieves, bragging about their dexterity, prostitutes vaunting their depravity, or murderers boasting of their cruelty. This surprises us only because the circle, the atmosphere in which these people live, is limited, and we are outside it. But can we not observe the same phenomenon when the rich boast of their wealth, i.e., robbery; the commanders in the army pride themselves on victories, i.e., murder; and those in high places vaunt their power, i.e., violence? We do not see the perversion in the views of life held by these people, only because the circle formed by them is more extensive, and we ourselves are moving inside of it.”

Systematic Depravation of Men

“If a psychological problem were set to find means of making men of our time–Christian, humane, simple, kind people–perform the most horrible crimes without feeling guilty, …It is only necessary that … they should be fully convinced that there is a kind of business, called government service, which allows men to treat other men as things without having human brotherly relations with them; and that they should be so linked together by this government service that the responsibility for the results of their deeds should not fall on any one of them individually. Without these conditions, the terrible acts I witnessed today would be impossible in our times. It all lies in the fact that men think there are circumstances when one may deal with human beings without love. But there are no such circumstances.”

Qualities of Men

“One of the most widespread superstitions is that every man has his own special, definite qualities; that a man is kind, cruel, wise, stupid, energetic, apathetic, etc. … And this is untrue. Men are like rivers: the water is the same in each, and alike in all; but every river is narrow here, is more rapid there, here slower, there broader, now clear, now cold, now dull, now warm. It is the same with men. Every man carries in himself the germs of every human quality, and sometimes one manifests itself, sometimes another, and the man often becomes unlike himself, while still remaining the same man.”

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