The last complete novel written by Leo Tolstoy, Resurrection is a tale of redemption that clocks just over 500 pages. It was written in 1899, and like many classic novels, covers timeless themes related to what it is to be human. I read Redemption not long after finishing Crime and Punishment (Dostoevsky), but also a portion of The Gulag Archipelago (Solzhenitsyn). I suspect this gives me a bit of a bias when focusing on particular themes. Nevertheless, I truly enjoyed this novel and am very likely to read it again. I put Resurrection on my list because it was Tolstoy. I was not disappointed.
Synopses claim that Resurrection is about a prince, Dmitry Nekhlydov. His actions have led to the downfall of his childhood love, Katerina Maslova. The majority of the novel follows Nekhlydov in his attempt to find repentance. This of course is the driving action of the plot, though I would say the piece is actually about responsibility, fairness, and ethics. In Crime and Punishment, it is presented that it is the nature of society which prescribes what acts are considered criminal. In Resurrection, the reader is asked to consider whom is responsible when crimes are committed. The main example is Maslova herself. Nekhyldov impregnates her. The resources available to her as a maiden are rescinded the moment she is discovered to be pregnant, yet this situation is not by her choice. Resurrection asks: Is Maslova responsible for what becomes of her, or is Nekhlydov?
I enjoyed the way that Tolstoy portrayed the ways that we affect each other. The prince makes his selfish, irresponsible choice and it is Maslova that suffers. Maslova no longer has access to her original support structure, and so must make concessions to adapt in order to survive. She ends up becoming a prostitute. This affects the people around her, which affects the people around them, which in turn affects society. Here is one of my favorite quotes from the entire novel, which may better illustrate this idea of one person creating ripples in the life of another:
“People are like rivers: the water in all of them is the same and everywhere identical, but each river has its narrows and rapids, its broad stretches and gentle currents, sections that are clear or cold, others that are muddy or warm. So it is with people. Each person carries within him the germ of all human qualities, showing some of them one moment, others the next, and sometimes acting right out of character, while always remaining the same.”
This idea that we are rivers is poignant in that we can not change or alter where we have come from. When we make mistakes, these felled branches, boulders, and sudden drops in the way of our waters characterize who we become. There is a sense of finality in that to move forward, we must accept that where we have been is an irremovable aspect to ourselves. I felt that Nekhlydov failed to understand this. His character continually tried to get back to the people he and Katerina were before the rape. Only once their paths divert does he see some other future for himself.
I also thought that Nekhlydov was continually making the error of defining himself by the expectations of others. In the beginning of the novel, he is awaiting a message from his mistress on whether or not she’ll release him from their affair. He wears the clothes he feels is befit a prince, surrounded by the servants and property he thinks is owed his station. He looks down upon others and feels socially justified for his behavior. Even as the novel progresses and he begins to use his position to assist others of lesser fortunes, Nekhlydov continues to make excuses for himself. He advantages his privilege as a noble on several occasions. The prevailing thought is more akin to “I’m a good person if I do good things,” vs. “I should do good things because they are good.” It was my feeling that he never deviated from narcissism. I thought that he wanted less to do for other people than to feel good about himself.
In this way, the path Resurrection takes was a little surprising for me. I anticipated when I was introduced to Nekhlydov that he would reinvent himself by the end of the story. I figured there would be a direct path from the realization of wrongdoing to becoming a better person for this prince. Instead, the peripheral characters better express the core theme. Katerina, or Katusha as the prince refers to her, becomes the heroine. (Herein we see another example of how Nekhlydov is trying to move backwards. He constantly uses Katerina’s diminutive -aka family pet name- insinuating that he has a closer relationship to her adult self than he actually does.) Katerina’s path seems pretty straightforward at first, but then turns into something new and rather inspired. She’s one-of-a-kind insofar as all the classics I’ve read.
This is not to say that following along with Nekhlydov through his efforts is altogether uneventful. One part that was particularly memorable to me was when the prince was trying to explain to the serfs whom worked his properties that he wanted to turn his land over to them. The difficulty they had in conceptualizing this significant change in their fortune expressed just how difficult it is for some of us to see how our lives can be different. Once a particular way of life is established, it can be quite difficult to see other opportunities. How does one break out of normal habit? Are the traditions we keep worth maintaining? Even positive change requires effort and disruption, while some will cling to what they’re used to no matter how painful it is.
Beyond this, the accompanied discussion of how to create equality when disseminating resources was interesting as well. No one person is entirely equal to another when considering physical ability, mental ability, heart, experience, or aptitude. How then do we decide what is fair? Is it possible for a group of people come to a singular agreement? Where does the balance lie between creating possibilities for the weak without inviting corruption among the strong? Though there are clear overtures to godliness and providing for the meek, I felt that it was realistic of Tolstoy to acknowledge that real people are not perfectly charitable.
What I enjoyed best about this novel was whom Katusha became. While continuing to hold relationships with other people, she grew into someone who was wholly herself despite the influences that the actions, thoughts, and motivations of others attempted upon her. I liked how she seemed to find herself.
Usually at this point I make recommendations on who would benefit from this novel, even these 123 years later. I’ll admit I’m not entirely sure how to approach this one. For as much as Nekhlydov thought he’d changed, I didn’t agree. I didn’t expect to see much from Maslova, and then she became my favorite character. I did have to compare what a character was claiming vs. their actual actions. I had to evaluate behaviors and choices (among the possible options) it seemed that any given character actually had. Resurrection took quite a bit of thought and consideration to mull over as I read through, while I doubt I caught all of Tolstoy’s cheekiness on the first read. He was quite the sociologist.
I’d say that if you have any interest in this novel, to give it a try. It does go slow in parts. You will get a feel for Russian culture along the way, through not to the same degree as War and Peace or even Anna Karenina. I think Resurrection is entirely fitting as the last complete novel of a deeply venerated author with decades of studying people and who they think they are.