The Great Novelists: Leo Tolstoy

Imagining the inner lives of other people is a core human capacity. But we don’t automatically or naturally do this very well. We are prey to a range of cognitive biases: without being aware that we are doing so, we might assume that other people are more relaxed and together than we are; or that they are more fragile and easily hurt; or that – in most people – aggression and anger are never far from the surface and likely to be unleashed upon us at the slightest provocation.

Grasping the inner reality of other people is something we have to learn. The 19th-century Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy, was obsessed with trying to portray what was going on in the heads of other people. He was the leading exponent of the ‘psychological’ novel – which doesn’t simply narrate a story but attempts to flesh out ‘what it was like’ for the various characters. It doesn’t only tell us what happened to them, it shows us what it felt like to be them. Tolstoy realised this meant a novel could be more than entertainment: under the alluring guise of making up a story, it could massively speed up our education in human experience. 


Tolstoy at age 20, 1848

Tolstoy was born in 1828 at Yasnaya Polyana, his family’s huge estate, a hundred miles south of Moscow. It was to be his home, on and off, for the rest of his life. His parents died when he was young and he was brought up by relatives. He flopped at university. One lecturer described him as being “unable and unwilling to learn”. He spent a few years gambling and drinking and chasing gypsy women, before signing on as an artillery officer in the Crimean War. 

He got married in his early thirties. His wife Sophia, who came from a sophisticated, high-cultured background, was only eighteen. They had thirteen children, nine of whom survived infancy. Tolstoy was intensely honest and gave his young wife his diary which described his sexual adventures – generally with peasant women. Sophia was deeply upset and hurt. But for many years the marriage was, at least, tolerable and functional. They lived in the country on the estate, they had lots of visitors, Leo wrote his hugely successful books including War and Peace, Anna Karenina, the Death of Ivan Ilych, Family Happiness and What is Art. Tolstoy liked getting up early. He grew a very long beard. He was a fitness fanatic. He had a few hundred serfs on his estate; at first he was obsessed with trying to educate them; then he became convinced that he himself needed to learn from them. 


Sophia and their daughter Alexandra 

As the years passed, appalling tensions developed between Leo and Sophia. He complained that they had “totally opposite ideas of the meaning of existence”. He insisted that even as Sophia  “grew more and more irritable, despotic and uncontrollable” he continued to love her, though he admitted that he had given up trying to express his feelings. “There is no greater tragedy than the tragedy of the marital bed”, he wrote. Finally, when he was past eighty, Tolstoy deserted her and his family. He ran away in the middle of a freezing winter night, caught pneumonia and died at the nearby railway station, where he was waiting for a train. 


In his books, Tolstoy teaches some key lessons:

One: Those in authority need sympathy as well as criticism 

War and Peace tells the story of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812. In one of the key battle scenes, Tolstoy describes how a military commander is surveying the battlefield, receiving reports, sending out couriers, having a quick snack – apparently calm and in control of the entire Russian army. But on closer inspection, the reality is quite different:

No orders were really being given; the general was just trying to pretend that everything the troops were being forced to do and every accidental development was part of his plan. But the convincing, artificial confidence shown by the general meant that his sheer presence was of enormous value. Officers who came up looking desperately worried regained their composure; around him the soldiers were reinvigorated: there was a swagger and new courage in their steps. 


Louis-François, Baron Lejeune, The Battle of Borodino, 1822

Tolstoy feels an unusual sympathy for the people who are supposed to be in charge. They have to absorb the real chaos and fear of the situation. They’re not allowed to panic, or say everything is terrible. Not because they are too stupid to notice or too emotionally repressed to admit it – but because they realise that other people need them to be strong. He’s identifying one of the key elements of maturity: the ability to reduce panic in others.

And he is pointing to a crucial truth about adult life: that most people are more anxious and confused than they seem. It’s incredibly hard for us to take on board that those we look up to might themselves know just what it is like to feel desperate, worried and filled with self-doubt. Our inflated idea of their inner poise means we underestimate ourselves. Confidence doesn’t require profound inward assurance, rather it requires the conviction that you’re not that different from other people and therefore are entitled to have a go. We don’t normally think of empathising with the rich and powerful (or with senior military officers). We don’t think they need – and probably don’t deserve – our kindly, compassionate attention. But the payoff isn’t for them. Tolstoy shows how empathy for them turns out to be good for us.  

Two: We need to learn from unexpected people

We’re often reluctant to learn lessons if they come in a guise we don’t particularly like. If someone seems unimpressive (the wrong accent, clothes, manner) we tend to find it extremely easy to assume that what they say is probably pretty irrelevant. 

Quite late on in War and Peace, the central character, Pierre (a lightly edited self-portrait of Tolstoy himself) has the crazy idea of assassinating Napoleon. He’s arrested long before he gets near the Emperor and thrown in prison – along with a fat, dim-witted – and very smelly – peasant called Platon: someone about as far removed from Pierre in status and background as it is possible to be. 


Leonid Pasternak's 1893 illustration to War and Peace

Pierre is starving and Platon offers him a baked potato, adding a pinch of salt taken from a filthy rag: “real treat they is, you try em like that.”

Platon is not only kind. He’s robust; he is free of rancour; he is serene. Despite the hardships of his life, he is appreciative of small things; he’s good at looking after himself: he can mend shoes, sew buttons. Up until then, Pierre has always been impressed by intellect and by plans for reforming society from top to bottom. He badly needs a dose of patience, simplicity and acceptance; and Platon is the one who can help him. 

An Arrant Knave (Arrested person), 1873. Artist: Perov, Vasili Grigoryevich (1834-1882)

Vasili Grigoryevich, An Arrant Knave, 1873

Pierre only gets to know Platon by chance; by the sheer contingency of landing in the same prison cell. Tolstoy wants to lessen the role of luck in life. He is asking us to radically revise our response to certain people we are tempted to overlook and dismiss. Tolstoy is not claiming every simple minded person is wonderful. He’s making the more nuanced, more tricky, point. Some of the people who have most to offer us don’t fit the template of our expectation. 

Tolstoy is very keen on extending our empathy to those who we (without perhaps being explicit about it) we regard as below us. He doesn’t pity Platon for his simple life. He instead gets very interested in what it might be like to be him – and directs our attention to the easily-missed value and worth of his existence. Downwards empathy isn’t just about guilt and feeling sorry for people. It’s got a bigger, more personal, purpose. If you can truly feel that it’s possible to live a full and good life without having many of the things you have then you are reducing the level of anxiety in your life. You are recognising that you yourself could survive, and flourish, with less. Empathy gives us a more accurate picture of our needs. 

Three: Charity starts with imagination

One of the key episodes in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina occurs when Levin – the hero – hears that his elder brother, Nikolai, is dying. Nikolai has led a dissipated life, moved in radical circles far from the aristocratic milieu into which he was born, and exhausted his inheritance – partly by supporting unsuccessful philanthropic projects. He is an alcoholic and lives with a former prostitute. Although the brothers have quarrelled – and the fault seems to lie squarely on the side of Nikolai – Levin decides to go and visit his brother. At first he is horrified that his young wife, Kitty, wishes to accompany him: “The mere idea of his wife, Kitty, in the same room with a common wench set him shuddering with repulsion and horror.”

In the end, however, Kitty does accompany her husband. The situation in which they find his brother is appalling. “In the dirty little room, the painted dado round the walls filthy with spittle, the atmosphere evil smelling and stifling, lay a body covered with a quilt.” His brother’s body is horrifically emaciated; the only signs of life are his twitching mouth and a severe, reproachful look in his glittering eyes. Nikolai is not a sympathetic character. Earlier we have seen him treating his companion, Masha, with casual cruelty. 

Anna Karenina -

Paul Frenzeny, Levin and Kitty on the Ice

Kitty becomes marvellously active, refusing to be put off. She introduces cleanliness, order, calm; she cleans Nikolai’s bedsores and tries to soothe his grotesque body. But Kitty’s charity is not merely active – it’s not just that she actively improves the dying man’s condition so that he can retain some dignity, it’s rather that she refuses to limit her attention to the external features of the situation. It is as if she sees past his surface character – his severity, envy, bad temper and general degradation – and sees him as deserving kindness, consideration, cleanliness and comfort. It is not that she doesn’t notice the off-putting features, but these are not what her attention is focused upon. She sees past them to a decent, unlucky, unhappy man – and she acts in response to that. The charity, therefore, is as much present in her way of seeing him as it is in her material efforts. Here, love is moved not by excellence but by weakness and need. 

Four: There are two very different ideas of love  

In Family Happiness Tolstoy takes us through the early years of a fairly unremarkable marriage. A middle-aged man, Sergey, and a younger woman, Masha, meet in the country; the story is related in her voice. He is an old family friend who has managed the financial affairs of the young woman and her sister since the deaths of their parents. Gradually, hardly noticing what is happening, she falls in love with him. Tolstoy’s artistry is never more finely displayed than when he conveys, with such apparent artlessness, the small steps by which such a great change is accomplished in Masha’s inner life. One evening she is playing the piano:

He sat behind me, where I could not see him; but everywhere – in the half darkness of the room, in every sound, in myself – I felt his presence. Every look, every movement of his, though I could not see them, found an echo in my heart.

He is just as much in love with her and this mutual rapture continues after they marry. “He alone existed on earth for me and I considered him the best and most faultless man in the world; so that I could not live for anything else in the world other than for him.” Tolstoy beautifully depicts the happy details of their life together – their laughter-filled breakfasts, their evenings of music, their intimate midnight suppers. Gradually we hear notes of conflict and disillusion. After two months of married life, in spite of his company, she starts to feel lonely, bored and irritated by some of his mannerisms – especially the way he gets cold and logical whenever she gets upset. 

Anna Karenina -

Paul Frenzeny, The quarrel between Anna and her husband

Their mounting frustration with one another, the many moments of misunderstanding and failures of communication, lead to a complete breakdown in their relationship. They continue to live together, but pursue separate lives. They have two children, but this does not bring them closer. At one point, they happen to revisit the place where their romance had started. On seeing again the things which had so enchanted her when she was first in love, Masha finds herself reflecting on the passage of time: 

Where were those visions now? All that I had hardly dared to hope when I was a girl had come to pass. My vague confused dreams had become a reality, and the reality had become an oppressive, difficult and joyless life. All remained the same at the old house – the garden through the window, the grass, the path, the very same bench above the dell, the same song of the nightingale by the pond, the same lilacs in full bloom, the same moon shining about the house; and yet in everything such a terrible, inconceivable change! Such coldness in all that might have been near and dear! … Am I the same woman, but without love or the desire for love, with no longing for work and no content within myself?

It is in these reflections that she feels most vividly what she has been feeling in a vague way for a long time – that her old love and self are dead. Masha feels she is responsible for the end of their love; and she also blames her husband. They destroyed it together. 

The family of Russian author Leo Tolstoy, late 19th or early 20th century. Artist: Scherer Nabholz & Co

Tolstoy with his family

In a desperate attempt to set things right she puts these thoughts to her husband. But he suggests a different way of looking at what has happened, seeing it as inevitable, even as benign. The old love had to die in order to make way for something else, so no one is to blame, no one has anything to be sorry for in this change. And the change had to be difficult because it is necessary to come to terms (he says) with one’s own longings and to burn them up by pursuing them. “All of us must have personal experience of all the nonsense of life in order to get back to life itself; the evidence of other people is no good.”

“Suddenly I realised clearly and calmly that the past feeling, like the past time itself, was gone beyond recall, and that – were it even possible – it would be painful and uncomfortable to bring it back.”

She has grown up. 

“That day ended the romance of our marriage; the old feeling became a precious, irrecoverable remembrance; but a new feeling of love for my children and the father of my children laid the foundation of a new life and a quite different happiness; and that life and happiness have lasted to the present time.”


When he was about seventy, Tolstoy pulled together his thinking about being a writer in a long essay, What is art? He is completely opposed to the idea of “art for art’s sake.” He proposes that art has a great mission: “In the evolution of knowledge – mistaken and unnecessary beliefs are forced out and supplanted by truer and more necessary knowledge. So too in the evolution of feelings, which takes place by means of art. Lower feelings – less kind and less needed for the good of humanity – are forced out and replaced by kinder feelings which better serve us individually and collectively. This is the purpose of art.”

Novels need to be entertaining, or we won’t bother to read them. But, they can aspire to be something else as well: key helps on our own stumbling path to maturity.