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SL11: Topics in Nineteenth-Century Slavonic Literature and Culture: Tolstoy

This paper is available for academic year 2023-24.

This paper gives students the opportunity to delve deeply into the life and writings of one of Russia’s greatest and most prolific writers, Lev Tolstoy (1828-1910). He not only changed the shape of Russian and world literature, but also impacted political and social movements across the globe. With Russia currently at war, war will be a central theme.

The bulk of the paper will focus on Voina i mir (1865-69), which in its scope and ambitions challenged all the reigning ideas of its time about how history is recorded, how novels are written, and about the individual’s place in the world. Tolstoy’s life was vast; he grew up in a serf-owning gentry family shortly after the Decemberist Revolt and died just years before the Bolshevik Revolution.  During that time, he thought and wrote about all the burning questions of his day, so while this paper has a single-author focus, it also gives us the chance to consider most aspects of nineteenth-century Russian literature and culture. 

A full year devoted to Tolstoy will enable students to trace the evolution of his thought and writing from his early war stories and experiments in narration, through Voina i mir, to the late novellas and non-fiction where he boldly proclaimed his new worldview arrived at after spiritual conversion. It will also offer the space to consider Tolstoy’s legacy through different lenses, from a feminist approach to his writing on women, to a postcolonial examination of his writings about the Caucasus, to an ecocritical examination of his views on nature. For Tolstoy, all the big questions of life—how must I live? what must I do? what is the purpose of science and art? what is religion? how should society be structured?—were open and pressing.  Engaging with Tolstoy on his own terms means wrestling with these burning questions anew.


Set Text: Voina i mir
The heart of the paper is seven weeks devoted to Tolstoy’s masterpiece, Voina i mir.  One week will be spent on exploring Tolstoy’s aims for the work and his writings about the text, so that we can best appreciate what he was trying to accomplish. We will then work our way slowly through the text, considering how it fits in Tolstoy’s evolving thought about war, death, love, and nation, while also exploring its place in his evolving ideas about what literature is and should do.

Note: Students in Part I are not required to read the entire text in Russian.  Selected passages will be assigned that give a good representative sampling of Tolstoy’s style and techniques. Students in Part II are encouraged to read as much as they can in the original, but will also be given recommendations about which portions to focus on in Russian.

Topic 1. Early writings (pre-1860)
The first four weeks of Michaelmas will be devoted to Tolstoy’s life and writings pre-Voina i mir.  We will study both the biography and the early writings and will consider the links between the two.  This topic, which includes Tolstoy’s first war writing, will provide crucial background for approaching Voina i mir.

Topic 2. Late writings (1880-1910)
The final five weeks of Lent term will focus on Tolstoy’s post-Voina i mir writings.  We will begin with his spiritual crisis and Ispoved', and then consider his shifting views about art, sex, death, and faith.  And finally, we will return to war with the posthumously published Hadji Murad.

Note: Anna Karenina is not covered because it is included in SL4.

See course handbook for full details.

Preparatory reading: 

Students are urged to read Voina i mir over the summer (or Year Abroad).

The following reading list serves as an introduction to the subject.
•    Bartlett, Rosamund. Tolstoy: A Russian Life. London: Profile Books, 2010.
•    Berman, Anna A. (Editor). Tolstoy in Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022.
•    Gustafson, Richard. Leo Tolstoy Resident and Stranger: A Study in Fiction and Theology. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986.
•    Love, Jeff. Tolstoy: A Guide for the Perplexed. London: Continuum, 2008.
•    Morson, Gary Saul. Hidden in Plain View: Narrative and Creative Potentials in ‘War and Peace’. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987.
•    Orwin, Donna Tussing (Editor). The Cambridge Companion to Tolstoy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
•    Wasiolek, Edward. Tolstoy’s Major Fiction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

Teaching and learning: 

This course is open to Slavonic students in both Part IB and Part II. It consists of twenty faculty contact hours (eight in Michaelmas and eight in Lent); four hours of seminar (in Easter); and normally ten supervisions over the course of the year (four in Michaelmas, four in Lent, and two in Easter).

See course handbook for full details.

For the SL.11 Moodle site, please see here. The password can be collected from the paper coordinator.


Students for Part IB 

A 5-hour online timed exam. The exam consists of four sections: A, B, C, and D. Section A is comprised of commentary passages and essay prompts about the set text, Voina i mir. Section B is comprised of essay prompts about Topic 1, Tolstoy’s pre-1860 writings. Section C is comprised of essay prompts about Topic 2, Tolstoy’s post-1879 writings. Section D is comprised of essay prompts that can be responded to using Voina i mir in combination with any other works by Tolstoy. 

Candidates answer three questions: either one or two from Section A (if two, one must be a commentary and one an essay question), one question from section B, and/or one question from section C.  If you choose to answer only one question in Section A, you may answer one question from section D in place of a question from B or C. For each answer, you should write no more than 1,300 words. 

Students for Part II 

Students will write a coursework essay in the break before Easter Term based on prompts about the set text (the equivalent of Section A of the exam for Part IB students).  In Easter Term there will be a 3-hour online timed exam. During the timed exam students will answer two questions on the topics (the equivalent of Sections B and C for the Part IB students). For each answer, you should write no more than 1,500 words. 

Candidates for this paper may not draw substantially on material from their dissertations or material which they have used or intend to use in another scheduled paper.  Candidates may not draw substantially on the same material in more than one question on the same paper.

Course Contacts: 
Dr Anna Berman

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