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Amber Paulen

Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy


In Anthony Briggs’ Introduction he suggests that Crime and Punishment might have served as an excellent alternative title to Tolstoy’s book. Sure, I see his point. Too bad the title was already taken. Yet from Nekhyludov’s punishment to Raskolnikov’s is the expanse between two definitions: in Resurrection there is a different kind of punishment.

Resurrection is about transformation, in Tolstoy’s words, a resurrection. In fact there are two: Nekhyludov and Maslova. When these two first met they were young, Maslova worked for his aunties whom he visited. Nekhyludov was a burgeoning military man and she, a pretty peasant. He seduced her then left her pregnant with 100 roubles. Years later he sees her again, Nekhyludov serves on the jury at her murder trial. As he sits listening to the judges, prosecution and defense, Nekhyludov becomes struck by the wrong he had done. It was his fault that Maslova had became a prostitute.

Almost overnight Nekhyludov began to see his life in High Society completely differently. He began to ask, why are there rich and why are there poor? He had done nothing to acquire riches yet he was extremely wealthy. He visited the prisons. He worked hard for Maslova’s pardon. On his visits Nekhyludov met many other prisoners locked up for various reasons, some of them tragically innocent, for whose release he applied to the various high officials. Ironically, it was only his title of Prince and his nice clothes which convinced these callous bureaucrats to even consider listening to his pleas.

… and it struck him with remarkable clarity that all these people had been picked up, locked away or sent into exile certainly not for contravening justice or breaking the law of the land but only for impeding officials and rich people in the enjoyment of the wealth they were collecting from the people.

Why is it OK for thousands of people sitting cozy in offices, official people patrolling the street and those behind the scenes merely pushing buttons, to kill as many as they want and to even kill them legally? Why when the poor man does the same, out of social frustration or perhaps in a fit of intoxication, he is sent packing to Siberia? And what do these prisoners gain in prison, in exile, on the long march to freezing Siberia:

[they] come to accept with every fiber of their being that, to judge by what is being inflicted on them, all moral laws of respect and sympathy for others purveyed by church authorities and moral teachers have been suspended in practice, and therefore don’t have to be obeyed.

And that is extremely important. Getting stuck in prison is hardly a matter of getting caught, even innocents get caught, but staying out is a matter of being on top of the corrupted system, a system that practices that which it is trying to resolve. This was certainly not a problem peculiar to 19th Century Russia. American prisons are overflowing; the States is one of the biggest proponents of war in the world. Top authority looks like one big killing machine. So much for expecting others to learn some human sympathy. There is no little bit of hypocrisy; there is only hypocritical all the way.

In the midst of Nekhyludov’s sudden humanitarianism is the tragic story of him and Maslova. For Maslova he was willing to follow into Siberia, to give up his land and salary, to change his life if it could make up for the difficulties he caused. Maslova didn’t want any of it; in the beginning she just wanted to use him for his connections and his money. Yet slowly, ever slowly, by Nekhyludov’s insistent pressure she begins to change. Not that she admits her love for him (we never really know if she loves him) but instead of trying desperately to forget a painful past, she begins to live anew from a point forward.

Not that prison didn’t change her, locked up despite her innocence, sentenced to four years hard labor in Siberia, but first she has to walk there. Thankfully, somehow Nekhyludov arranged for her to stay with the politicals, where life wasn’t so hard and one could always be sure of interesting conversation. It is with these prisoners that Maslova really begins to change. We can be sure she won’t go back to prostitution.

Similar to Levin at the end of Anna Karenina, Nekhyludov goes through a religious transformation. Written in Tolstoy’s more fanatical years, we must see that the Gospels were all he could turn to. (Not forgetting those brilliant and scathing chapters against organized church.) In sight of all the horrors of prison witnessed, the Bible lends a most peaceful text. What to do when you get slapped across the face by your enemy? Turn the other cheek. It is not exactly a comforting proposition, but in lieu of Nekhyludov’s experiences such a turn of mind appears inevitable.

Among Nekhyludov’s final convictions is that we have not been put on earth for our own gratification. “Surely, if we have been sent here it must be at someone’s behest and for a purpose.” Which is plausible for me, in idea, but not in practice. I think this must have been one of Tolstoy’s own solutions, his way of making some kind of peace with his place in the world. But Tolstoy did not have peace at the end; he died a frightful and lonely death at a small town train station. I am not saying we should live for our complete satiation outside moral law, but that to gain great empathy and sympathy, we must first be able to smile upon ourselves. As always, Henry Miller provides the words:

… I tell you it doesn’t matter a damn whether the world is going to the dogs of not; it doesn’t matter whether the world is right or wrong, good or bad. It is — and that suffices. — Henry Miller, Third or Fourth Day of Spring

In a way, this book did not end for me: the suggestion Tolstoy put forward is not enough. I agree that we have a purpose—not one purpose, but each an individual purpose—I do not agree in sacrificing one’s life for the idealistic good of others. (I call these types of people Life Soldiers for various reasons.) To preach the New Testament is not enough, it never has been, and anyway who is going to listen? We must each arrive at our own solution on our own, which is what Nekhyludov did.

Despite the ending, Tolstoy’s novel flourishes in brave, truthful insights. Every minor character was masterfully sketched in his or her place, creating a vast panorama of a book that is relatively short. Resurrection has as much validity now as it did then. If anything, I strongly recommend it to anyone whose job it is to push papers, papers which represent people.

It is almost as if these institutions had been specially invented to create the highest degree of corruption and evil, unattainable by any other means, with the specific aim of disseminating the corruption and evil over the whole of society on as wide a front as possible.

Yeah, it certainly seems like it sometimes. If we all began to see as Nekhyludov began to see, it would be a less painful world indeed.


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