Something for those of you who love the nineteenth century Russian novelists. After reading David Hart’s Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (and Christ), an academic friend wrote me that he did not find Hart’s argument completely convincing. Hart had written, for example, that
among the very few novelists who have succeeded at keeping all the forces of the novel in balance—the great and the small, the epic and the homely, the architectonic and the decorative—Tolstoy is unsurpassed. Dostoevsky, on the other hand, is brilliant wherever extreme effects are called for, but almost hopeless at creating a substantial world around the delightful clamor of his characters’ voices, or at creating a credible psychological personality behind any of those voices.
My friend added his own ideas on the difference between the two writers:
Doesn’t Dostoevsky’s narrative method recurrently compel us to follow Christ’s commandment “Judge not”? It hit me some years ago that this is a key to his writing. Again and again we may think we’ve got a character, and then we have to adjust our view.
To take a case of judging a character too “positively” first — although judging too severely is the more common thing: Take saintly, virginal Alyosha; but he becomes upset about the “odor of decay” after his elder dies, and, so far as he is concerned at least, comes very near fornicating with Grushenka (I take it if she’d encouraged him, they’d likely have got rid of Rakitin and jumped in the sack). It’s not even simple “healthy appetite” for an attractive girl here, but resentment against God. We readers are caught: we thought we could assess Alyosha rightly, but we were wrong.
Of course, numerous examples could be offered of characters we are apt to censure, who then surprise us with turns to decency, self-denial, etc. We may think at first that Grushenka’s probably a slut, but she sympathizes far more with Alyosha than Rakitin does, when she learns what he’s just gone through. And so on.
In other words, Dostoevsky constantly makes us deal with the limitedness and error-proneness of our judgments about people, and helps us to see we cannot judge another’s heart. I think he believes this truth almost more than any writer whom I know. He wants us to learn that we should never write someone off; there is still hope of grace through God’s Word and Holy Spirit in their lives. It is as if Dostoevsky wants to say, “Ah — but wait, stay tuned! He who stands, he should take heed lest he fall!” — but especially, “The one who fell, who can tell but the Lord will raise him up?”
In general, though I love Tolstoy, he does not have that hope. But on at least one occasion in Anna Karenina he was awe-inspiring too in this matter of judgment. I mean Karenin. We think what an unattractive man he is, and, perhaps think how sad it is that he, who perhaps could never really believe a beautiful woman like Anna could have loved him, has feared love. Yet there’s that scene at Anna’s bedside in which Karenin forgives her and Vronsky. Wow! We thought we could judge this man’s heart, and then this happens.
I do think a key to Tolstoy, though, can be summed up thus: he usually says, “Yes. This happened. And then?” No author surpasses Tolstoy’s ability to convey that we live in time, and even a “converted” Karenin must get out of bed and put on his shoes every morning; and there is the force of habit, of custom, of his surroundings . . . Tolstoy does not spare us: ”And then?”
His most hopeful story may be “Master and Man.” We begin by thinking the landowner is the master and his servant is the man. But the master is the slave of his passion for wealth and of his own imagination, while the man is master of himself and can turn down the vodka he wants but has vowed not to taste.
And then we get that wonderful ending in which the master becomes the man, the servant, in a new way, when, while they are caught in the countryside in a blizzard, he suddenly sees the other man, and serves his freezing servant and keeps him warm, at the cost of his own life. Many readers will have judged the “master” and not expected this abrupt change.