Eastern Fable as Hero Tale in Tolstoj's "Confession"

Natalie Smith, University of Texas, Austin

The appropriation of texts is always in some degree ideological. In his Confession written in 1879, shortly after Anna Karenina (1874-76), Tolstoj supplements the story of his own spiritual development with an allegory. This "Eastern fable" is by no means new, however; most likely it first appeared in Old Russian in the early twelfth-century "Tale of Varlaam and Ioasaf," one of the most widespread works of world literature during the Middle Ages. Translated into some thirty languages in more than 140 versions, the tale came to the Slavs through a translation from Greek. In fact, the fables from "Varlaam and Ioasaf" were so popular that some were also included in the Prologue, a great collection of various religious readings for every day, including saints' lives, pious tales, readings from the fathers of the Church, as well as apocryphal material.

It is not surprising that Tolstoj borrowed an early religious fable for his own use; other writers, such as Leskov and Remizov have also been attracted to the Prologue, as well as to other ancient religious texts. What is most interesting is the way in which Tolstoj adapted this fable. This paper examines Tolstoj's adaptations in Confession on three levels: on the first level, lexical and grammatical changes; on the second level, changes in the allegorical meaning of the fable, which is explicated in both texts; and on the third level, changes in the fable's function within the larger text.

The function of these fables in the matrix of the larger texts in both cases is to convince the listener (in Varlaam's version, Ioasaf; in Tolstoj's, the reader directly) of the mutability of life and thus of the need for defense against death's finality. Tolstoj asks, what is the point of life when everything human ends with death? Tolstoj's response is to cast the Eastern fable as a hero tale: the unwilling hero finds himself in a strange land as he approaches the "belly of the beast," which here signifies death and encapsulates conflicts permeating Tolstoj's entire corpus.