-Learning how to deal with uncertainty. The protagonists of Tolstoy's works have to deal with uncertainty--in life, love, death . . . everything (just like us . . . weird). How the characters decide to deal with uncertainty (whether embracing it or avoiding it) says a lot about their ability to live a fulfilling life.
-Learning how to die. Another major Tolstoyan theme is embracing death--greeting it like an old friend. How a character dies says a lot about how they lived.
-Prosaic vs. Romantic love. This theme is especially in Anna Karenina. Sure, romantic love is nice and is important to relationships . . . but it shouldn't be what your relationship/marriage is built on. Because marriage isn't just about kisses and roses and perfume. It is about who's going to take out the trash and change the diapers and get the bills paid. We can't live in our fantasy worlds of romantic love. We have to go out and actually live.
-Value of self-reflection. Something that progressing Tolstoy characters have is the ability to self-reflect and self-criticize. These characters are then able to develop wisdom and empathy.
-Forgiveness and divine love. Because we all need second chances. There really isn't a statute of limitations on how many second chances we should get/should give others . . . unless we have given up. But we should be genuinely striving. And we should let others genuinely strive/change, too.
-Learning how to live. Tolstoy recommends a life of joy with gratitude and sorrow without resentment.
From War and Peace
“Yes, a new kind of happiness was revealed to me, one of the inalienable rights of man,” he thought to himself. [. . .] “Happiness beyond materialism, beyond all external, material influences, happiness known only to the soul, the happiness of loving! It is within the conception of all men, but it can be fully determined and ordained by God alone. But how did God ordain this law? And what about His Son?" (1020)
"Yes, it’s love, but not the kind of love that loves for a reason, a purpose, a cause, but the kind of love I felt for the first time when I was on my deathbed and I saw my enemy and loved him. I experienced the feeling of love that is the essence of the soul, love that seeks no object. I can feel it now, that blessed feeling. To love your neighbor and your enemy. To love everything, to love God in all His manifestations. You can love someone dear to you with human love, but it takes divine love to love your enemy. [. . .] When you love with human love you can change from love to hatred, but divine love cannot change. Nothing, not even death, can destroy it. It is the essence of the soul. How many people I have hated in the course of my life! And there’s nobody I have loved more and hated more than her.”
And he found a clear mental image of Natasha, though not as he had seen her in the past, with all the charm that had given him such joy. For the first time, he caught an image of her soul. (War and Peace, 1020-1021)
“And out there beyond the forests and fields lay all the shimmering, beckoning distance of infinity. Pierre glanced up at the sky and the play of the stars receding into the depths. ‘And it’s all mine, and it’s all within me, and it all adds up to me!’ thought Pierre. ‘And they caught all that, shut it up in a shed, and boarded it in!’” (War and Peace, 1134)
“Life is everything. Life is God. Everything is in flux and movement, and this movement is God. And while there is life there is pleasure in being conscious of the Godhead. To love life is to love God. The hardest and most blessed thing is to love this life even in suffering, innocent suffering.” (War and Peace, 1184)
“No, nothing is certain, nothing but the nothingness of all that we can understand, and the splendor of something we can’t understand, but know to be infinitely important!” (War and Peace, 313)
“It was clear and frosty. A dark, starlit heaven looked down on the black roofs and the dirty, dusky streets. Only by looking up at the sky could Pierre distance himself from the disgusting squalor of all earthly things as compared with the heights to which his soul had now been taken.” (War and Peace, 663)
“And there in the middle, high about Prechistensky Boulevard, amidst a scattering of stars on every side but catching the eye through its closeness to the earth, its pure white light and the long uplift of its tail, shone the comet, the huge, brilliant comet of 1812, that popular harbinger of untold horrors and the end of the world. But this bright comet with its long, shiny tail held no fears for Pierre. Quite the reverse: Pierre’s eyes glittered with tears of rapture as he gazed up at this radiant star, which must have traced its parabola through infinite space at speeds unimaginable and now suddenly seemed to have picked its spot in the black sky and impaled itself like an arrow piercing the earth, and stuck there, with its strong upthrusting tail and its brilliant display of whiteness amidst the infinity of scintillating stars. This heavenly body seemed perfectly attuned to Pierre’s newly melted heart, as it gathered reassurance and blossomed into new life.” (War and Peace 663)
From Anna Karenina:
“Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” (Epigraph)
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” (1)
“This is the life! How good! This is how I’d like to live!”
“Who’s stopping you?” said Levin, smiling. (162)
“You can’t understand it. For you men, who are free and can choose, it’s always clear whom you love. But a young girl in a state of expectation, with that feminine, maidenly modesty, a girl who sees you men from afar, who takes everything on trust—a girl may and does sometimes feel that she doesn’t know who she loves or what to say. [. . .] Her heart speaks, but consider: you men have your eye on a girl, you visit the house, you make friends, you watch, you wait to see if you’re going to find what you love, and then, once you’re convinced of your love, you propose.”
“Well, it’s not quite like that.”
“Never mind, you propose when your love has ripened or when the scale tips towards one of your two choices. But a girl isn’t asked. She’s expected to choose for herself, but she can’t choose and only answers yes or no.” (270)
“He looked at the sky, hoping to find there the shell he had admired, which had embodied for him the whole train of thoughts and feelings of the past night. There was no longer anything resembling a shell in the sky. There, in the inaccessible heights, a mysterious change had already been accomplished. No trace of the shell was left, but spread over half the sky was a smooth carpet of ever diminishing fleecy clouds. The sky had turned blue and radiant, and with the same tenderness, yet also with the same inaccessibility, it returned his questioning look.
“No,” he said to himself, “however good that life of simplicity and labor may be, I cannot go back to it. I love her.” (277-8)
“She could neither think nor desire anything outside her life with this man; but this new life had not begun yet, and she could not even picture it clearly to herself. There was nothing but expectation—the fear and joy of the new and unknown. And now the expectation, and the unknowness, and remorse at the renouncing of her former life – all this was about to end, and the new was to begin. This new could not help being frightening; but, frightening or not, it had already been accomplished six weeks earlier in her soul; now was merely the sanctifying of what had long ago been performed’ (453)
“I’ll tell you,” Levin said, smiling, “In my heart I can’t find any feeling of regret for my freedom!” (444)
“Levin felt more and more that all his thoughts about marriage, all his dreams of how he would arrange his life, were mere childishness, and that it was something he had not understood before, and now understood still less, though it was being accomplished over him; spasms were rising higher and higher in his breast, and disobedient tears were coming to his eyes” (454).
“He knew and felt only that what was being accomplished was similar to what had been accomplished a year ago in a hotel in a provincial capital, on the deathbed of his brother Nikolai. But that had been grief and this was joy. But that grief and this joy were equally outside all ordinary circumstances of life were like holes in this ordinary life, through which something higher showed. And just as painful, as tormenting in its coming, was what was now being accomplished; and just as inconceivably, in contemplating this higher thing, the soul rose to such heights as it had never known before, where reason was no longer able to overtake it.” (713).
“It was already quite dark, and in the south, where he was looking, there were no clouds. The clouds stood on the opposite side. From there came flashes of lightning and the roll of distant thunder. Levin listened to the drops monotonously dripping from the lindens in the garden and looked at the familiar triangle of stars and the branching Milky Way passing though it. At each flash of lightning not only the Milky Way but the bright stars also disappeared, but as soon as the lighting died out they reappeared in the same places, as if thrown by some unerring hand.
“Well, what is it that disturbs me?” Levin said to himself, feeling beforehand that the resolution of his doubts, though he did not know it yet, was already prepared in his soul” (815)
“This new feeling hasn’t changed me, hasn’t made me happy or suddenly enlightened, as I dreamed – just like the feeling for my son. Nor was there any surprise. And faith or not faith – I don’t know what it is – but this feeling has entered into me just as imperceptibly through suffering and has firmly lodged itself in my soul.
“I’ll get angry in the same way with the coachman Ivan, argue in the same way, speak my mind inappropriately, there will be the same wall between my soul's holy of holies and other people, even my wife, I’ll accuse her in the same way of my own fear and then regret it, I’ll fail in the same way to understand with my reason why I pray, and yet I will pray—but my life now, my whole life, regardless of all that may happen to me, every minute of it, is not only not meaningless, as it was before, but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which it is in my power to put into it!” (817)
Life is meant to be lived with joy and purpose. And we are meant to take the dark threads and bright threads of this tapestry of life and use our experiences to help lift others.
A life of joy with gratitude and sorrow without resentment.
Living a life to be proud of.
"If life could write itself, it would write like Tolstoy." --Virginia Woolf