Friday, August 5, 2011

The Wanderers

The collection of Tolstoy’s short fiction, The Devil and Other Stories, contains some of his finest work.  Take but one example, the story "Father Sergy".  Tolstoy takes the story of one man, and his spiritual quest, and makes it a type of microcosm for the entire human encounter with the divine, and by extension, humanity.

In Father Sergy’s quest, from dashing young officer to Russian Orthodox monk and priest, Tolstoy shows both the benefits and limits of organized religion. Of course, human nature meddles in his efforts as well.  His difficulty overcoming pride, and especially lust, dogs him into his sixties. As a famous hermit with the power to heal, he succumbs to the charms of a sick woman.  Dogged by his sin, he then becomes an unknown wanderer, moving from place to place, begging for food, having no possessions.

It is obvious that Tolstoy had great sympathy for this type of religious life, as many of his characters who struggle with religious questions end up as wanderers.  Positive characters with pearls of wisdom to deliver are usually wanderers as well.  No doubt he saw in this life a recapitulation of the life of Jesus and his early followers.

In his fiction, all these ideas interact with one another creating a lively and varied account of all that people are capable of; Tolstoy is not to be messed with.  In terms of literature, he is one of the big boys, and every writer should read him, and then read him again.

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