Balancing Sympathies in Tolstoj's Resurrection

Anne Caswell Klein, Princeton University

This paper will examine the construction of sympathetic relationships in Tolstoj's Resurrection. Sympathy functions on multiple levels in literature: novels provide and test examples of sympathetic relationships not only between characters, but between narrator and characters and between reader and text. Building on the ideas of M. M. Baxtin and Martha Nussbaum, I suggest that novelistic perception--the radically individual sort of seeing and understanding that novels may both provide and require--is fundamental for sympathy.

The course of most of Resurrection suggests a model of moral redemption that depends on Nexljudov learning to sympathize. I will consider Nexljudov's attempts to understand Maslova and to develop sympathy with her and with others, examining early clues that his efforts may be flawed, especially in comparison with those characters who seem to sympathize more naturally. Ultimately, though, the novel does not follow a typical path in which the hero adequately learns to sympathize: by its close Resurrection has turned away from relationships in which sympathy might flourish. The novel thus undermines readerly expectations and what I am calling "rhetorical" sympathy (a sympathy the narrator cultivates to bring the reader into the worldview and expectations of the text). The narrator has built a rhetorical trajectory of social reformation and growth that is broken not only by Nexljudov's turn inward, but also by the novel's turn to a single perspective.

I will concentrate on the last chapters of Resurrection, which are particularly marked by a narrative clamping down--taking complexity and narrowing it into a single certain vision. The contraction is especially noticeable given the ambivalences that have opened in the novel just before its denouement. This final collapse is, according to Tolstoj's late ideology, a triumph; it is a triumph even if the reader can feel no sympathy because s/he has no inner access to a character, and even if sympathy between characters--or at least sympathy from Nexljudov toward other characters--has been obliterated (I am calling this sympathy between characters "thematic" sympathy). The ultimate rhetorical shape of Resurrection undercuts its initial arc, and suggests that for true reformation, the individual must learn utterly alone, and all personal ties must be severed. To make clear what resurrection entails, Tolstoj sacrifices sympathy between characters. However, this is not the only sort of sympathy that is abandoned: even the reader's sympathy may be irrelevant, as the recipe for redemption pushes beyond the bounds of the novelistic genre, and into a realm in which sympathy is unnecessary.

The failure of sympathies here is an essential part of Tolstoj's plan. Sympathy itself is surrendered to the withdrawal (the "uxod"), and at least in this case the withdrawal seems to generate no need for any human other. It is this solitude that Tolstoj finds admirable. The proper leave-taking is neither "goodbye" (proshchajte) nor Maslova's "forgive me" (prostite), but, as Ivan Il'ich says, "let me by/get out of my way" (propusti). Resurrection ends at this solitary moment, so we have no narrative model of how this novelistic world would be sustained without sympathy. This abrupt ending may lead us to ask whether the particularity and perception fundamental to sympathy may also be fundamental to the narrative project and to the success of the genre of the novel? Tolstoj's mature philosophy may be incompatible with novels because it is incompatible with sympathy.