Academic journal article West Virginia University Philological Papers

"An Unjust and Evil Thing": Tolstoy's Condemnation of War in His Early Fiction"

Academic journal article West Virginia University Philological Papers

"An Unjust and Evil Thing": Tolstoy's Condemnation of War in His Early Fiction"

Article excerpt

At the beginning of Leo Tolstoy's "The Raid," the narrator announces, "War always interested me, not war in the sense of manoeuvres devised by great generals ... but the reality of war, the actual killing" (1). That Leo Tolstoy, the author of War and Peace, would invest the narrator of his very first short story about a military engagement with such an interest is, in itself, not surprising. During the writing of his epic masterpiece, Tolstoy accepted war as an inevitable aspect of human existence. Arguably, this is not the same man who a few years later advocated a position of nonresistance to evil, and who in Bethink Yourselves! wrote, "If there is a God, He will not ask me when I die ... whether I retained ... Port Arthur.... He will ask me ... Have I fulfilled His law?" (Milford 245). Nonetheless, as his biographer Aylmer Maude suggests, "Yet his inveterate truthfulness, and his personal knowledge of war, caused him to describe it so exactly that the result is tantamount to a condemnation" (421).

Among the scholars who have attributed to the early Tolstoy an ambivalence about war, E. B. Greenwood asserts that the stories set in the Caucasus, the Sevastopol sketches, and The Cossacks foreshadow much "of the physiognomy of war in the great novel," one feature of which is "the conflict between Tolstoy's recognition of the truth in the epic view that war does have a poetic and heroic side and his acknowledgement of the Christian view that war is evil" (29). In these early works, Tolstoy juxtaposes youthful soldiers as advocates of war against more seasoned soldiers who embrace a moral ethic. Pamela Jepsen notes that while characters like Lukashka in The Cossacks enlist our sympathy in may ways, "Nevertheless, we must return to the author's insistence upon moral values, especially with regard to war, as affirmed not only in the early sketches but in War and Peace, and finally in treatises written as a pacifist" (137). John Hagan expresses a similar viewpoint about Tolstoy's attitude at this early stage in his career, noting that "what is admirable in the Cossacks is inseparable from what is also morally offensive. Their freedom from the moral law is the great source of both their enormous attractiveness (for Olenin and Tolstoy alike) and their radical limitations. Tolstoy feels the pull of an ethic of love and self-sacrifice as fully as he feels the pull of an amoral freedom from such an ethic" (42). Eric de Haard makes the point that Tolstoy's choice of the siege of Sevastopol was not a deliberate attempt to use historic events purposefully since the sketches are not concerned with war on a national level. "Whatever Tolstoj's complex views on war may be, oscillating between attraction and total rejection, it certainly should not be modeled in the form of a coherent story" (90). Greenwood posits that this conflict manifested itself throughout his life, noting that Tolstoy wept at the fall of Port Arthur during the Russo-Japanese war and declared that the defenders of Sevastopol would certainly not have surrendered (29).

Fifty years earlier, in November 1854, Tolstoy was on his way to Sevastopol, having volunteered for service there under the influence of patriotism. In his diary entry of November 2, he describes that sentiment: "The feeling of passionate love for the Fatherland that is arising and flowing from Russia's misfortune will long leave its traces in her" (105). Tolstoy's experiences in Sevastopol, as well as those in the Caucasus, proved pivotal in shaping his attitude about war, and the stories based on those experiences clearly mark the formation of his revolt against the romanticized notion of war as a grand, heroic endeavor. The patriotic fervor he initially felt should not be confused with the profound moral indignation he expresses. As early as January 1853, after having served as a volunteer in the Caucasus, Tolstoy wrote in his diary, "War is such an unjust and evil thing that those who wage it try to stifle their consciences. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.