Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Shocking Feminism of Leon Tolstoy

Thirteen more posts to go! So here is my best shot at throwing out one that has been kicking around in my brain for months now.

Last summer, I got myself on kind of a Tolstoy kick. I had been fairly sure I just didn't like Russian literature based on Dead Souls and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which are both kind of dour and dreary books, but I picked up Anna Karenina just to see what it was and ended up being pretty thoroughly surprised.

I was even more surprised by War and Peace. Again, I just kind of picked it up to see what it was. The end of Anna Karenina starts to get sort of political in regards to the Russians fighting with the Serbians against the Turks, and I thought that was one of the most interesting parts. I'd always assumed that War and Peace would be a very male book, kind of along the lines of the Iliad maybe, and had never had any interest in it...but reading just a little bit about how Tolstoy approaches war made me rethink.

Did you know that War and Peace is largely about the marriage prospects of a 14 year old girl? There are chapters where you feel like you could just as well be reading Jane Austen. I guess I've already revealed that I didn't know much about the background or context of the book, and I don't now, but I think it's interesting that a work that has always seemed like the gold standard of serious literature to me has a plot that couldn't be screened in a modern day movie theater as anything but a chick flick. What does that say about the evolution of gender attitudes over the last century? What does that say about our current stereotypes of what men should be interested in?

The other interesting part is the type of female heroine Tolstoy writes. Tolstoy is a very political writer. His books get extremely preachy at times, and in almost everything he has an agenda. Many aspects of his agenda in regards to women is fairly conservative; he has strong options about birth control, and abortion, and a woman's place in general. However, I think it is fairly striking the extent to which he doesn't use foils to define his heroines. In Jane Austen's books the heroines are intelligent and independent...but they are in direct contrast to those other women who are frivolous and petty. Tolstoy manages to make his heroines both extraordinary and completely ordinary...his version of the most amazing woman in the world is still incredibly foolish sometimes, petty and jealous at others, and I think even gets dumpy and fat in the end. I guess that's not classic feminism, but I think it deserves consideration.

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