In Tolstoy's prolific literary career, it appears that one central concern drove everything he did both in his life and his writing. This concern was the meaning of life. The drive behind the actions of his main characters in both War and Peace and Anna Karenina is the search for meaning in their lives. As part of this search, Tolstoy and his characters also sought to make sense of the occurrences around them. Historically, Tolstoy writes from the perspective of a country in turmoil. His social commentary is then closely intertwined with the more general search for personal fulfillment. The result is the timeless quality of the works that are still enjoyed by a wide readership today. It is this timeless quality of his work, based upon his search for meaning in life, that most prominently begs for Tolstoy's inclusion in today's literary canon. Works investigated with the purpose of substantiating this assertion include War and Peace, Anna Karenina and On Life.
War and Peace
This novel is written at many complex levels, revealing the complexities not only of the political state of Russia, but also of the nature of the human beings within such circumstances. In describing the situation within Russia, there are two distinct levels in the work: war and peace. Each level has its representative character. War is represented by Emperor Aleksandr, while peace is represented by Pierre Bezukhov, the son of a wealthy count.
The characters are however far more than merely representatives of political aspirations. Indeed, this is revealed in Pierre's relationship with his wife, Princess Ellen. The marriage proves to be a mistake, as Ellen's flirtatious behavior brings the relationship to an end. She later divorces Pierre, but is unable to secure the affections of the man she is pursuing. She later dies, which the reader feels is a kind of justice. The emotional suffering caused by his wife's behavior drives Pierre in a number of different directions.
The first of these is the Freemasons. This however does not provide him with the solace he needs, and he turns to the battlefield for a more concrete way of dealing with is emotions. Here is later taken as a prisoner of war. Pierre thus suffers on two levels; both emotionally because of his wife's behavior and physically as a result of the war and his life in prison. The end however is happy for Pierre, as he finds love, peace and contentment with Natasha.
Pierre is but one of the characters in the novel, with whom the reader can identify. The time and place are highly specific, yet the pursuits of the characters, while individual, are also universal. Through Pierre then, Tolstoy depicts the human search for intoxication through love and life (Farrell 11). All of Pierre's experiences are an initial intoxication that eventually becomes disillusion. This is true of Ellen, the Freemasons and the war. It is only when he achieves sufficient growth through these experiences that he can become realistically minded enough to attract a lasting love affair.
Pierre's and the other lives depicted in this novel thus reflect humanity in all its complexity. Some characters are representatives of human paradigms, while others, like Pierre, are developed more fully to represent the human search for meaning. In this way Tolstoy uses his novel as a springboard for his social and philosophical comments.
The novel is also remarkable because of the honesty with which these ideas are depicted. Even in the chambers of the aristocrats the reader is made aware of the humanity revealed in every situation and ever word of dialog. It is not hard to understand then why Tolstoy was loved so widely by all social circles (Bernardo). His work was accessible because his central theme was the search for meaning that connects all human beings.
The reader is moved to agreement, and perhaps to smiling knowingly when reading the first lines of this novel: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." (Tolstoy 15).
This is how Tolstoy begins another series of intoxications and disillusions in order to find the meaning of life through the lives of his characters in Anna Karenina. Like Pierre, Anna lives in a Russia torn by social upheaval. She also is disillusioned by her established relationship. The disillusionment sends her on a search for alternative intoxication by means of her adulterous relationship with Count Vronsky. She abandons not only her husband, but also the son she loves dearly in favor of this new intoxication. When this however sours, Anna is so disillusioned that she commits suicide.
At the end of the novel it is the agnostic Levin that finds a non-destructive, milder form of intoxication that is more lasting than passion: what Farrell (11) refers to as "moral" intoxication. He finds fulfillment in spirituality.
In this way the novel can be seen as a continuation of War and Peace in terms of mental and spiritual development. The earlier novel ends with the fulfillment that may be found in happy family life. Anna Karenina depicts a fulfillment beyond what human aspiration may give. Anna's husband, Alexis Karenin for example finds himself without recourse when his he cannot act on the basis of his role within society (Farrell 11). When his intoxication is replaced by disillusion, he becomes a shadow of his former self. Similarly Vronsky finds himself without a coping mechanism when confronted with the birth of his son and Anna's near demise. The failure of these established sets of principles is emphasized with the success of Levin's spiritual fulfillment. In this novel the meaning of life is thus established as the pursuit not only of familial happiness, which fails often, but also the pursuit of a deeper spirituality.
This work is the culmination of the search for life depicted in War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Tolstoy here makes absolutely clear his findings about the state of humanity, as well as his personal journey towards finding the meaning of life. The conclusion is that the meaning of life can be found only in service of others.
The brilliance of the work lies in its logic and its clarity. A very complex subject has been broken down into simple but profound terms. The image of a miller who becomes entranced with the mechanics of his mill is used to show how, in focusing on the wrong things result in a misconception of life itself (Tolstoy 2).
Tolstoy further emphasizes the importance of thinking for oneself rather than slavishly following the doctrines of others. Only by thinking with one's own mind (Tolstoy 24) can one arrive at a meaning for one's own life. This search for meaning is seen by Tolstoy to be the natural accompaniment for an intelligent mind. It is because human beings possess inquisitive minds that they are aware of their own mortality, and therefore they search for meaning.
Tolstoy touches on many subjects in his search. The work thus depicts love, death and religion as paths towards the conclusion of both the search for meaning, and of life itself. The things that Tolstoy thinks about are still central human concerns in society today. What he terms "scribes" and "Pharisees" for example are those at the head of states and churches who wish to control human thinking. Those who are intelligent however do not let themselves believe without thinking carefully.
The only possible limitation to the timeless quality of Tolstoy's work could be seen as the fact that he describes historical events that were current during his time of writing. This limitation is however overcome by the very universal quality of humanity in his novels. Also, the stormy times during Russian history are interesting enough to engage…