“Resurrection” by Leo Tolstoy – Book Review

Tolstoy’s very readable tale of Prince Dmitry Ivanich Nekhlyudov, a man humbled by the results of his past sins and attempting to right wrongs and redeem himself, is a timeless criticism of human attempts at civilization and self-rule. In the process of the story, Tolstoy skewers high society, the church, the government, the military, the courts, lawyers, land-owners, revolutionaries, the prison system, and anything else he passes on the way. But he also reveals his life-view of Christian anarchy, the idea that man should follow the teaching of Christ despite any contravening man-made institutions, forms, and influences.

The vessel for this criticism is a story about Nekhlyudov, a child of privilege who falls to the temptations of his society. He seduces a peasant girl on his aunts’ farm and never looks back. He recognizes her years later as he sits on a jury trying her for murder. He finds out that he had left the girl pregnant, and that she has eventually become a prostitute. This shakes him so deeply that he decides to reform and do what is right. He slips a few times, but does not fall, in his resolve to do right by the girl. He eventually follows her to Siberia, intending to live at least close to her throughout her sentence. I won’t give away any more of the plot than that.

There were many great quotes from the book. Believe it or not, I did exclude some of them from the list below:

On Prisons
“Terrible were the brutalized jailers, whose occupation is to torment their brothers, and who were certain that they were fulfilling an important and useful duty.”

“[The prisoners] were deprived of the chief motives that induce weak people to live good lives—regard for public opinion, a sense of shame, and the consciousness of human dignity.”

“The only explanation of what was being done was that it aimed at the prevention of crime, at inspiring awe, at correcting offenders, and at dealing out to them ‘lawful justice’ as the books said. But in reality, nothing in the least resembling these results came to pass. Instead of vice being put to a stop, it only spread farther; instead of being frightened, the criminals were encouraged (many a tramp returned to prison of his own free will); instead of correction, every kind of vice was systematically instilled; while the desire for vengeance, far from being weakened by the measures of the government, was instilled into the people, to whom it was not natural.”

“[T]he only certain means of salvation from the terrible evil from which men are suffering is that they should always acknowledge themselves to be guilty before God, and therefore unable to punish or reform others. . . .”

“Vicious men were trying to reform other vicious men, and thought they could do it by mechanical means.”

On High Society
“[S]he thought more of him that anybody else and therefore evidently understood him. This understanding of him, that is, the recognition of his superior worth, was a proof to Nekhlyudov of her good sense and correct judgment.”

“Nekhlyudov . . . felt with his whole being a loathing for the society in which he had lived till then: that society which so carefully hides the sufferings borne by millions to assure ease and pleasure to a small minority, that the people comprising it do not and cannot see these sufferings nor the cruelty and wickedness of their own lives.”

“’But they suffer. You are a Christian and believe in the Gospel teaching and yet you are so pitiless.’
’That has nothing to do with it. The Gospels are the Gospels, but what is disgusting remains disgusting.’”

“It was clear that everything considered important and good was insignificant and repulsive, and that all this glamour and luxury hid the old well-known crimes, which not only remained unpunished but were adorned with all the splendor men can devise.”

“The law . . . is only an instrument for upholding the existing order of things to the advantage of [the ruling] class.”

On Law
“[T]hese people acknowledge as law what is not law, and do not acknowledge as law at all, the eternal, immutable law written by God in the hearts of men.”

On the Carnal Man vs. the Spiritual Man
“[A]ll this terrible change had come about because he had ceased to believe himself and had taken to believing others. This he had done because it was too difficult to live believing one’s self: believing one’s self, one had to decide every question, not in favor of one’s animal I, which is always seeking for easy gratification, but in almost every case against it. Believing others, there was nothing to decide; everything had been decided already, and always in favor of the animal I and against the spiritual. Nor was this all. Believing in his own self, he was always exposing himself to the censure of those around him; believing others, he had their approval.”

“All men live and act partly according to their own, partly according to other people’s ideas. The extent to which they do the one or the other is one of the chief things that differentiate men.”

“The tempter that had been speaking to him in the night again raised his voice, trying to lead him out of the realm of his inner life into the realm of his outer life, away from the question of what he should do, to the question of what the consequences would be and what would be practical.”

“In Nekhlyudov, as in every man, there were two beings; one the spiritual, seeking only that kind of happiness for himself which tends towards the happiness of all; the other, the animal man, seeking only his own happiness, and ready to sacrifice to it the happiness of the rest of the world.”

On Man’s Stewardship for his Fellowman
“It was simple because he was thinking now, not of what would be the results for him, but only of what he ought to do. And, strange to say, what he ought to do for himself he could not decide, but what he ought to do for others he knew indubitably.”

“The earth cannot be anyone’s property; it cannot be bought or sold anymore than water, air, or sunshine. All have an equal right to the advantages it gives to men.”

“If once we admit—be it only for an hour or in some exceptional case—that anything can be more important that a feeling of love for our fellows, then there is no crime which we may not commit with easy minds, free from feelings of guilt.”

On the Military
“Military life in general depraves men. It places them in conditions of complete idleness, that is, absence of all rational and useful work; frees them from their common human duties, which it replaces by merely conventional duties to the honor of the regiment, the uniform, the flag; and while giving them on the one hand absolute power over other men, also puts them into conditions of servile obedience to those of higher ranks than themselves.”

“[The General] had received [the Order of the White Cross], which he greatly prized, while serving in the Caucasus, because a number of Russian peasants, with cropped hair, dressed in uniforms and armed with guns and bayonets, had killed at his command more than a thousand men who were defending their liberty, their homes, and their families.”

“These regulations had inevitably to be fulfilled, and hence it was absolutely useless to think of the consequences of that fulfillment. The old General did not even allow himself to think of such things, counting it his patriotic duty as a soldier not to think of them for fear of becoming weak in the execution of the obligations that seemed to him so very important.”

On Society Generally
“[T]he opinion of the [jury] foreman began to gain ground, chiefly because all the jurymen were getting tired, and preferred to take up the view that would bring them sooner to a decision and thus liberate them.”

“People whom fate and their sin-mistakes have placed in a certain position, however false that position may be, form a view of life in general which makes their position seem good and admissible. In order to keep up their view of life, these people instinctively keep to the circle of those who share their views of life and of their own place in it.”

“It was clear that she considered herself a heroine ready to lay down her life for the success of her cause; yet she could hardly have explained what that cause was, or in what its success consisted.”

“[A]ll sorts of violence, cruelty, and inhumanity, are not only tolerated but even sanctioned by Government when it suits its purpose.”

5 Comments

Mike W. says:

I can’t encourage everyone strongly enough to read this book. It is as honest and forthright as they come and will make everyone who reads it reconsider all there assumptions about everything.

I’ve tried to start Anna Karenina twice before (prior to reading Resurrection) and I’ve started it again…it now makes sense. Both Karenina and “War and Peace” express the same ideas as “Resurrection”, but more subtly. I guess Tolstoy got tired of people “not getting it” and decided to just hit them between the eyes with “Resurrection”.

Cathy Richardson says:

Great book!. Thank you for lending it to me. I love Tolstoy.

sandhya anand says:

This book inspired me so much that I found how to follow God. This is the one book which inspired me so much next to the Bible. The characters are still vivid and live in all times even to this day. But the real beauty is the ray of goodness that is so beautifully presented in the novel. Awesome and must read for all.

Danas says:

Love this book! It is second book after Bible!

Lori Riewaldt says:

I am not a huge fan of Tolstoy, rather, I wasn’t until I read this.
This story pulls you in from the very first chapter and doesn’t let go. Even after you have finished, you will find your mind drawn back to scenes and statements. This was Tolstoy’s last work. For me, it was his best. Not on the grand scale of War and Peace, and that was part of the draw. Much simpler and, in many ways, deeper than other stories. The fewer voices made for more a concentrated look at the relationships and the torment of the souls. Being able to digest this piece, gave me the inspiration to try War and Peace, again. With new eyes and new attitude.

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