Tolstoy’s collected works fill ninety volumes, and they include novels, novellas, short stories, plays, essays, poetry, and thousands of pages of diaries and personal letters. In everything he wrote Tolstoy strove to expose falsehood, celebrate human goodness, and inspire people to “love life in all its innumerable, inexhaustible manifestations.”
His novels War and Peace (1863-69) and Anna Karenina (1873-77) are considered among the greatest creations of world literature. War and Peace immortalizes the quiet heroism and spiritual strength of the Russian people in the years leading up to and including Russia’s wars with Napoleon from 1805 to 1812. In approximately 1,500 pages, Tolstoy moves back and forth between private lives and public spectacles, ballrooms and battles, marriages and massacres. No character is too small and no subject too large for this epic masterpiece. War and Peace inspired the American writer and critic Henry James to call Tolstoy “a reflector as vast as a natural lake; a monster harnessed to his great subject—all of human life!”
While War and Peace is a grand, free-flowing celebration of life, Anna Karenina is more like a taut string ready to snap. It is a novel less about life’s infinite possibilities than about the difficult choices people must make in a society that has lost its spiritual moorings. Set in the decade following the Great Reforms of Alexander II, Anna Karenina reflects Tolstoy’s personal struggles with faith and his deep mistrust of modern “progress.” The novel is built on the contrast between two couples—one doomed, the other blessed—and their efforts to find happiness and meaning in a cold world consumed by falsehood, hypocrisy, and materialism.
If Anna Karenina describes man’s search for meaning in a morally confused society, then Resurrection (1899) depicts the individual’s difficult journey back to spiritual health in a world that already has fallen. In his most ideological novel, Tolstoy brilliantly combines stinging social commentary with astounding psychological realism.
Tolstoy’s final novel-masterpiece, Hadji Murád (1904), tells the story of Russia’s imperial expansion into the Caucasus and colonization of Chechnya—a subject as topical today as in Tolstoy’s time. But the work transcends social commentary to become a supreme artistic meditation on the eternal human struggle between the forces of good and those of violence. Hadji Murád stirs readers through powerful understatement, lifelike description, and by arousing sympathy for the Chechen freedom-fighter, Hadji Murád, whose innate goodness and personal heroism are juxtaposed against the spiritual bankruptcy of Russian imperial society. The entire work beautifully synthesizes Tolstoy’s belief in the superiority of untutored nature over social artifice—a major theme of the early novel The Cossacks (1863), The Sevastopol Stories (1855-56), and the short story “Three Deaths” (1858).
Like everything else Tolstoy wrote, Hadji Murád reveals the writer’s profound faith in the human spirit and his unwavering commitment to the hero he cherished above all: Truth.