"Infected Families": Belonging, Estrangement, and the Fiction of Lev Tolstoj

Anne Hruska, University of Missouri

A particularly important problem in Tolstoj's literary works is that of where the borders of the family are to be drawn, of who is to be allowed to belong to the family and who is to be excluded from it. In particular, Tolstoj constantly returned to the question of how--or whether--the aristocratic man could belong to the family. Aristocratic women and peasants of both genders are automatic family members for Tolstoj, unless they behave badly. Others, such as raznochincy, nihilists, and prostitutes, are automatic exiles from the domestic realm. But the aristocratic man's position in relationship to family happiness is trickier.

In this paper I will examine the relationship in Tolstoj's works between the aristocratic man who often seems, on the surface, to be safe within the loving confines of the family--and the raznochinec, nihilist and prostitute, who are, or ought to be, outside the family. Tolstoj often sets up an outsider alter-ego, who embodies the isolation that haunts his aristocratic hero in more muted form.

I will begin by discussing the unpublished 1863 anti-nihilist play, The Infected Family. Venerovskij, the nihilist villain, is abandoned by his wife at the end of the play; it is made clear that the traditional family needs to be shielded from infection by such unloveable monsters. And yet, the outcast Venerovskij bears an uncanny similarity to Tolstoj the family man, right after his marriage to Sof'ja Andreevna. I will show how Venerovskij embodied some of Tolstoj's doubts about his own suitability for family life. I will also look at the mirroring of the family man and the outsider in Anna Karenina and in Resurrection, showing both how this tendency remained constant throughout Tolstoj's literary career, and also how it reflected his changing thinking on the nature and the morality of family happiness.