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Leo Tolstoy

Influence on World Literature
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by Diana Vergara

             Leo Tolstoy has been acclaimed not only for the influence of his writing on later literature, but for the themes recurrent in his novels and essays. Known for writing stories in which the individuals learn to speak out for themselves in strict society, “The most significant part of Tolstoy’s legacy may be his defense of the individual personality and conscience in a world where these are under attack.” (Leo Tolstoy, Encarta) For example, in the story The Death of Ivan Illych, Illych learns that to be truly happy in life one must not worry about material things; but about love, joy and being true to oneself and good to others.

            This view on life, shown through his writing inspired not only authors but great world figures such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Gandhi used Tolstoy’s idea of “passive resistance,” (Encarta) to win Indian Independence from British sovereignty.

            Tolstoy however influenced most other world authors by his realistic writing style, the way in which he wrote everything exactly as it happened in real life. If he was writing a scene on a family having breakfast, he would write it extremely detailed and descriptive; not only writing on their emotions but specifically, their actions and how those actions contributed to their conscious and subconscious emotions.

            It was this that gained Tolstoy the acclaim, “Tolstoy’s work is not art, but a piece of life,” as put by famed literary critic Matthew Arnold. Russian writer Isaak Babel, known for writing extremely descriptive but violent short stories on the Russian Civil War said of Tolstoy’s writing, “if the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy.” Babel wrote so realistic that his bloody stories actually gave him a bad reputation with and constant clashes with the authorities.

            Ironically, James Joyce said of Tolstoy, “He is never dull, never stupid, never tired, never pedantic, never theatrical.” This was ironic because James Joyce was often criticized for his work being too strange and too dull to read. While most authors who appreciated Tolstoy’s work took from that into their own writing, James Joyce apparently chose only to admire his work.

            The infamously harsh critic, Russian Vladimir Nabokov, named Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina “The supreme masterpiece of nineteenth century literature,” (Phillips & Funke). Anna Karenina is most famous for it’s shocking themes such as “Marital infidelity (and by a woman),” (A Tolstoy Timeline). There is also the theme of the value of farming. The theme of marital infidelity was shocking because in the 1800’s, this was unheard of, or at least taboo in Russian society, all the more shocking by the fact that it was a woman having the affair. The value of farming is seen because in the book, farming was an escape, it was the only of having true happiness; by not relying on material wealth, but on wealth brought about by one’s own hands.

            As one can see, Tolstoy’s influence has reached people of all generations. Not only has he influenced famed world authors, but figures as well, including Mahatma Gandhi. His daring ability to be realistic and honest when others weren’t; and saying the truth, that being in the social popular loop was not always the best route differentiated Tolstoy from his Russian contemporaries. His themes and writing styles influenced younger writers who would soon become greats of their own. All these factors attributed to making Tolstoy one of the most influential authors of world literature.