Format & Requirements
Texts & Resources
In 1851, a drop-out from the university, Tolstoy volunteered to serve
his country in the Caucasian wars, bent on "destroying the predatory
and turbulent Asiatics," as he put it in a letter. Later he studied
Russia's engagement in the early 19th-century Napoleonic wars intensely,
and gradually he gained fame for his polemics against imperialist wars
and violence in general. But perhaps his greatest claim to fame came from
his pacifist doctrine of non-resistance to evil, which has inspired people
from Gandhi to Martin Luther King. Tolstoy's stint in the South launched
him as a writer fiction. The Napoleonic wars yielded War and Peace,
and while he was most adamantly preaching pacifism, he wrote Hadji
Murad, his last literary work, in which he returned to the Caucasian
wars of his youth.
Our course will focus on War and Peace and conclude with Hadji
Murad. Over 1000 pages long, War and Peace has been labeled
"not a novel" (Tolstoy), "real Russia" (Ivan Turgenev),
a "large loose baggy monster" (Henry James), and it provided
sustenance for numerous readers during the WW II 900-day siege of Leningrad
(Lidia Ginzburg). We will form our own opinion based on a thorough reading
of the entire text, contemporary contextual material (Tolstoy's letters,
critical reactions), critical analyses of the novel (formalist, semiotic,
Bakhtinian, feminist, psychoanalytical, poststructural, postcolonial),
as well as interpretations in other media (Bondarchuk's film, Prokofiev's
opera, comic strips).
Hadji Murad is the only Russian work Harold Bloom included in
his Western Canon as "my personal touchstone for the sublime of prose
fiction, to me the best story in the world." We will look at it through
the lens of the theories we studied and in the context of the current
We will learn about the historical context of each novel, and ponder such
"deep questions," such as the individual in relation to history,
free will, family values, nobility versus peasantry, love, and death.
These different approaches and questions will familiarize us with different
ways of analyzing literary texts.
Writing will be a major part of the course, and though the professor and
writing assistant can't promise to turn each student into a Tolstoy, his
writing of Hadji Murad especially will inspire our own writing:
Tolstoy spent over a decade writing it, he whittled it down from twice
the size of War and Peace to some 100 pages, and editing took
significantly more effort than plot construction.