Resurrection, the last of Tolstoy's major novels, tells the story of a nobleman's attempt to redeem himself for the suffering his yourthful philandering caused a peasant girl. Tolstoy's vision of redemption achieved through loving forgiveness, and his condemnation of violence dominate the novel. An intimate, psychological tale of guilt, anger, and forgiveness, Resurrection is at the same time a panoramic description of social life in Russia at the end of the nineteenth century, reflecting Tolstoy's outrage at the social injustices of the world in which he lived.
Nekhlyudov realizes that he have ruined Katusha - that he himself have lived a selfish, materialistic life - he embarks on an extreme mission to better himself. This path toward redemption is fascinating. How he tries to help Katusha now in prison - and helps other prisoners, how he denounces his life among the elitist, upperclass society, how he give away his fortune and land, how he travels to isolated parts of Russia and meets the poor, the outcast, the criminals - following in the footsteps of Katusha, whom he have promised to marry.
We also follow Katushas road toward redemption - a prostitute she has lost all self-worth and is brought back to life again in prison-life and through the kind hand of Nekhlyodov.
I liked the first two-thirds of this novel a lot. Then the novel descends into an exploration of many of Tolstoy's religious and political ideas - they are weaved into the story - but somehow the story is pushed aside to give way for Tolstoy's own views of the church, the poor, the establishment, the criminals etc.
Nonetheless I'm glad I read it. I found so much to ponder upon in Prince Nekhlyodov "self-improvement" mission - much rang very true and beautiful.
Nekhlyudov's position in society and his family's influence gains him entrance to the upper echelons of the government and judiciary that serves the Tsarist regime. he becomes frustrated and then angry with the self serving people with whom he meets in their official capacity; he follows due process but even with the best lawyers he is unable to squash the conviction and sentence of hard labour in Siberia, he therefore plans to follow Katusha to Siberia and marry her, if necessary, in an effort to offer her his protection. When he finally gains access to the prison he finds that Katusha is no longer the innocent girl he seduced and she sees him initially as a nuisance then a meal ticket as he struggles to gain her trust. Part one of the novel takes us through the workings of the judiciary system and Tolstoy's acute observations pins the corruption and mal practice squarely on the shoulders of those who serve within it. We witness the lifestyle of the rich as Nekhlyudov becomes increasingly uncomfortable in their presence, because his eyes are opened by their complacency and misuse of power. When he gains entry to the prisons themselves we witness the appalling conditions under which the prisoners are held, but human spirit manages to survive. We see the same thing when Nekhlyudov visits his estates and attempts to free the peasants by giving them rights to the land. They are immured in the system and they resent any change, rather like some of the prisoners.
In this first half of the book; Tolstoy's writing and observations are full of interest and he bring the scenes he depicts to life, while at the same time doing a hatchet job on the church, on evangelism, on the legal system, corruption in high places and the landowning elite. However I find the character and actions of Nekhlyudov more problematic, I am not entirely convinced by his conversion to the lot of the poor and underprivileged and he comes across more of a sponge or even a cypher, soaking up everything around him, I feel his isolation and increasing discomfort, but am surprised at his resolution which seems a little out of character. This changes in the second and third parts of the novel which portrays the prisoners enforced journey to Siberia. The novel seems to breathe once the prisoners are led out of their fetid prison with Nekhyludov following as best he can; it is a sort of exodus and as horrific as the journey is and the conditions of the halting stations are, on the three thousand mile journey, there is less pessimism and more time for Nekhyludov to come to terms with his guilt and for Tolstoy to convince his readers. The relationship with Katusha deepens and broadens and the concentration on the plight of the political and criminal prisoners gives the novel a storyline and coherence that contrasts with the machinations of the first part which takes place in the claustrophobic city. This is an epic novel and it needs the vastness of the Russia landscape in which to work it's magic.
Tolstoy's [Resurrection] is a ringing indictment of Alexander III's Russia. It is also the story of one man's and probably one woman's redemption from a life led for purely selfish reasons. Along the way it eschews the benefits of socialism. but is profoundly pessimistic that such a system could work because human nature would always work against it. Hope of salvation is for individuals to come to understand in their own terms the words of Christ at the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel according to St Mathew. The journey for Nekhyludov ends with him finding peace and liberation:
"And it happened to Nekhlyudov as it often happens to people living a spiritual life. The thought that at first had appeared so strange so paradoxical, laughable even, ever more frequently finding confirmation in life, suddenly appeared to him as the simplest incontrovertible truth......................The answer that he had been unable to find was the same that Christ gave to Peter: to forgive everyone always, forgive an endless number of times, because there was no man living who was guiltless and therefore able to punish or reform."
Some readers of [Resurrection] have found it too preachy, but I think this is missing the point. Tolstoy is concerned with setting out the wrongs of his world and the role that people play in it, but his message is that it is up to the individual to find their own redemption, however they can. Resurrection is a word that immediately evokes a religious connotation and it is no accident that Tolstoy should choose it as a title for his novel, however it is only in the final few pages that this is made explicit.
[Resurrection] is not a quick read but then it is nowhere near the length of [War and Peace]. The writing is superb throughout and if the first part was a little slow to get going by the time the prisoners started their trek to Siberia and Tolstoy embarked on one of his grand set pieces then I was hooked. This is a classic and I am sure it would benefit from a re-read, but as I found it uneven this time round, a four star read.
This experience has a strong effect on Dmitri. He feels at fault both for Katusha’s life circumstances and the sentence. He is also disillusioned by the court system, and shocked at the plight of the lower classes. Dmitri intercedes on Katusha’s behalf, working on legal appeals to reduce her sentence. He also believes he should marry her to improve her lifestyle (never mind whether Katusha wants this …). He puts his affairs in order and prepares to accompany Katusha to Siberia, while also advocating for other prisoners who have been unjustly convicted.
Published in 1899, Resurrection was Leo Tolstoy’s last novel, and through Dmitri he describes a dramatic shift in his own views on social issues of the day. As a treatise, it was probably quite effective. As a novel, I found it lacking in both plot and pacing. Dmitri saw himself as noble, but was actually weak and cowardly. Katusha is the stronger person, and I wish she had figured even more prominently in the novel. The ending is downright preachy, as Dmitri has a kind of “born again” experience and finds new purpose in life. Meh.
He advocated for the poor and while I don't particularly agree with all of the fundamentalist views he increasingly took (e.g. chastity, refraining from alochol, socialism, non-resistance to evil by force), his aim was to improve himself and ultimately mankind through his writing.
Unfortunately I think the combination of essentially preaching through his works and his advancing age negatively impacted the quality and artistry of his writing; at 70 as he was authoring "Resurrection" (20+ years after Anna Karenina), I believe he was past his prime.
There are still flashes of brilliance here (including the very first paragraph of the first chapter), and it is still Tolstoy after all, but I think "Resurrection" is probably a book only a Tolstoy fanatic would love.