Leo Tolstoy: Biography, Works & Quotes

Instructor: Debbie Notari
Leo Tolstoy was without a doubt one of the world's greatest writers. His novels, such as 'War and Peace' and 'Anna Karenina,' brought him fame, not only in Russia, but in the world at large. In this lesson, we will look at the life of Leo Tolstoy and observe how he developed as writer.


Tolstoy's Childhood

Leo Tolstoy was born on September 9th, 1828, in Russia's Tula Province. His family was very well off, his mother being a princess and his father, a count. Tragically, Tolstoy's mother died when he was only two, and he lost his father when he was only nine years old. He and his three brothers were passed from relative to relative, but he remembers his childhood as being happy, nonetheless.

Growing Up

Although Tolstoy tried to become a lawyer, he was more interested in the party life at that time and dropped out of school. He then attempted to be a farmer, but lacked the commitment that difficult job requires. During this time he began journal writing, which paved the way for his future success. His brother convinced him to join the army, and Tolstoy kept writing all throughout his enlistment, even during the Crimean War.

First Works

Tolstoy's first works, entitled Childhood and Boyhood, were autobiographical. He later wrote The Cossacks, which he published after he was no longer a soldier. Another set of books, the Sevastopol Tales, delved into the thoughts and feelings of soldiers, and stood out as an early example of stream of consciousness writing. 'Stream of consciousness' writing literally allows the reader to get inside of the head of a character. When a writer uses 'stream of consciousness,' we see the character's fleeting thoughts and images. It is a natural, informal way a person might think.

Early Fame

By this point, Tolstoy was already famous in Russia, but he was proud. He decided to call himself an 'anarchist' and move to France. Tolstoy didn't want to be lumped in with any one intellectual group or another. He was a nonconformist. Still caught up in a wild lifestyle, Tolstoy lost his money to gambling and had to return to Russia. There he published Youth, the third in the trilogy that began with Childhood.

Tolstoy's Personal Life

In 1862, Tolstoy married Sofya Andreyevna Bers. Sofya, the daughter of a doctor, was 16 years younger than Tolstoy. At first, they seemed very happy. The couple had 13 children, but three died. It was during the first ten years of their marriage that Tolstoy wrote his finest works, including War and Peace, which was published in 1865. A few more chapters were added before it was finally finished in 1869.

Tolstoy as a Writer

Following the success of War and Peace, Anna Karenina was published in sections from 1873-1877. The novels are historical fiction, and Tolstoy based many of his characters on people he knew and on actual biographical events.

For instance, in Anna Karenina, a young woman commits suicide by jumping in front of a train. This really happened to a spurned mistress in Tolstoy's time. The novel itself was based on the lengthy war between Russia and Turkey.

Spiritual Crisis

After he finished writing Anna Karenina, Tolstoy experienced a spiritual emptiness. He felt so much despair that he said, 'My life came to a standstill... the truth was that life is meaningless. And it was then that I, a man favored by fortune, hid a cord from myself lest I should hang myself...and I ceased to go out shooting with a gun lest I should be tempted by so easy a way of ending my life.'

Although Tolstoy sought fulfillment through the Russian Orthodox Church, he saw corruption there. As a result, he formulated a belief system of his own, as it were, based on Christian and other religious morals, but not acknowledging the main tenets of the Christian faith, such as the deity and resurrection of Christ. He called God the 'infinite,' and sought to perfect himself through good works and non-materialistic living. He wrote about his beliefs in Confession.

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