Life in the Present: Time and Immortality in the Works of Tolstoy

By Hudspith, Sarah | The Modern Language Review, October 2006 | Go to article overview

Life in the Present: Time and Immortality in the Works of Tolstoy


Hudspith, Sarah, The Modern Language Review


This article examines the importance of time to Tolstoy's belief in immortality. After a brief overview of this belief, which is essentially to live in the present, be mindful of death, and be free from the tyranny of time, some examples of time in the narrative structure of Tolstoy's fiction are given. The study uses three case studies from Tolstoy's late fiction to explore the relationship to one's past and the link between memory and immortality; it concludes that one must remember the past only in order to let it go, be free from time, and experience immortality.

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Tolstoy's concept of immortality was not the traditional Christian one of an individual conscious awakening after death to a new life in the separate realm of paradise. He did not accept the premiss of eternal bliss or torment in the afterlife as a reward or punishment for one's actions in this life. Instead the vision he developed arose logically from his perception of the nature of existence and the meaning of a righteous life. This vision was of a liberation in this life from the tyranny of time and the terror of death: an eternity in the present. It is most succinctly encapsulated in Tolstoy's translation of Mark 13. 33 in The Gospel in Brief (1881), where he interpreted the biblical text thus: 'And so, be not downcast, but always live in the present by the spirit. For the life of the spirit there is no time.' (1) Because of this belief, in the main non-fictional works that detail his religious position, such as On Life (1889), Tolstoy explicitly refrains from trying to imagine or describe the nature of existence after physical death and focuses only on what may be experienced in this life. Time, then, may be seen as a key element in Tolstoy's view of immortality; this has implications, as we shall see, for characters' perceptions of time in his novels, their attitudes to their past, their present, their future and inevitable death. I propose to examine the importance of time to Tolstoy's belief in immortality, firstly by tracing this theme through his views as expounded in his non-fictional essays; this will thereby provide a basis for a literary analysis, where I shall explore the effects of time on some of Tolstoy's fictional characters. Using three case studies, I shall consider what strategies these characters employ to relate to the passage of time in their own lives, at the same time examining the link between memory and immortality. In doing so I also show that there is an underlying coherence and unity not only between Tolstoy's fiction and non-fiction, but also between ostensibly disparate fictional works of the late period of Tolstoy's oeuvre.

Before beginning, a few words need to be said about the spread of the works in question over the course of Tolstoy's career. It is more unproductive than helpful to consider Tolstoy's works as divided into distinct periods, most often categorized as before or after his religious and psychological crisis of the late 1870s. Although it is true that Tolstoy himself rejected nearly all the fiction he produced before this crisis, and afterwards turned much more to the writing of non-fiction, certain underlying themes and concerns can be found throughout his career in both genres, remaining largely constant in essence and changing primarily in depth of focus, or undergoing refinement and elaboration rather than mutation. Recently Liza Knapp has successfully argued in favour of this view, demonstrating that the early works of Tolstoy contain 'the quintessence of the middle and late Tolstoy' and that they show 'the evolution and the unity of Tolstoy's oeuvre'. (2) I also take this approach in the treatment of the works I examine in this article, and their place in the chronology of Tolstoy's writing career does not form a central part of my argument.

So let us begin with an overview of time as a theme in Tolstoy's religious views. Tolstoy's aim was to live in the present, but to maintain an awareness of death that would help one to follow the correct course of life. …

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