Tolstoy’s Resurrection: Man as Individual

Edgar Castillo, California State University, Fresno

In 1936 D.H. Lawrence wrote in the Phoenix: “I have just read, for the first time, Tolstoy’s Resurrection. Tolstoy writhed very hard, on the cross. His Resurrection is the step into the tomb. And the stone was rolled upon him” (737).

Lawrence’s less than favorable comment on Tolstoy’s last major novel reflects the confused and disappointed reaction Resurrection inspired at the time of its publication in 1899 and even today. It was perhaps the most eagerly anticipated work of Tolstoy’s literary career. The hubbub of his first full-length novel in over twenty years and his very public spat with the Orthodox Church and the State stirred an excitement that was not satiated with the work’s publication. Though eagerly read and widely discussed, Resurrection was considered flawed, hopelessly burdened by the weight of Tolstoy’s grand purpose and even grander ego. Most critics interpreted the work in the context of Tolstoy’s notorious new philosophy of art and condemned its didactic purpose as overbearing. Yet, no one could deny the passion and power with which Tolstoy wrote and argued. It was evident that Tolstoy had lost none of his prodigious literary powers.

In Resurrection, Tolstoy forcefully condemns the Church, the Russian penal system, the courts and bureaucracy, the military and prostitution in some of his most memorable prose. Many critics, his wife included, admired the writing while despising the book’s acknowledged purpose. Resurrection is generally thought a lesser work, compared to Tolstoy’s other major accomplishments: War and Peace, for example. This may be true; however, Resurrection’s weighty moralizing, palpable tendentiousness and the extraordinary events surrounding its publication have obscured its other virtues: powerful characters, beautiful and harrowing descriptive passages and, perhaps its true essence, the theme of individualism. This paper will explore Tolstoy’s philosophy of individualism as the vital idea of Resurrection.

The heart of Resurrection is its main character, Nekhlyudov. The arc of the plot follows Nekhlyudov’s spiritual transformation and regeneration from a fallen man to a son of God. The crux of his soul’s journey is Tolstoy’s idea of individualism, central to his religious philosophy. Tolstoy had expressed the notion that the kingdom of God is within the individual previously and he gave the idea its artistic, literary form in Resurrection. It is the individual who must decide what manner of relationship he has with God. The individual is responsible for her own salvation. This concept is the essence of Resurrection and lends the work a universality that transcends the provincial societal criticisms and dogmatic religious pronouncements that most interpretations believe fetter it to failure.