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Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy is widely regarded as one of the greatest of all novelists, particularly noted for his masterpieces War and Peace and Anna Karenina; in their scope, breadth and realistic depiction of Russian life, the two books stand at the peak of realistic fiction. As a moral philosopher he was notable for his ideas on nonviolent resistance through his work The Kingdom of God is Within You, which in turn influenced such twentieth-century figures as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.


What is Art?

What is Art?

What Is Art? (1897) is a nonfictional essay by Leo Tolstoy in which he argues against numerous aesthetic theories which define art in terms of the good, truth, and especially beauty. In Tolstoy’s opinion, art at the time was corrupt and decadent, and artists had been misled.

What is Art? develops the aesthetical theories that bloomed at the end of the eighteenth century and during the nineteenth century, thus criticizing the realistic position (held since Plato that regarded imitative position as the highest value) and the shallow, existing link between art and pleasure. Tolstoy addition to previously existing theories that stressed the emotional importance pivots on the value of communication-as-infection; which leads him to reject bad or counterfeit art since those are harmful to society inasmuch it damages the people’s ability to separate good art from bad art.

Tolstoy detaches art from non-art (or counterfeit art); art must create a specific emotional link between artist and audience, one that “infects” the viewer. Thus, real art requires the capacity to unite people via communication (clearness and genuineness are therefore crucial values). This aesthetic conception led Tolstoy to widen the criteria of what exactly a work of art is; he believed that the concept art embraces any human activity in which one emitter, by means of external signs, transmits previously experienced feelings. Tolstoy exemplifies this: a boy that has experienced fear after an encounter with a wolf and later relates that experience, infecting the hearers and compelling them to feel what he had experienced—that is a perfect example of a work art.

The good art vs. bad art issue unfolds into two directions, one is the conception that the stronger the infection, the better is the art. The other leads Tolstoy to the examination of whether that emotional link corresponds with the religion of the time. Good art, he claims, fosters those feelings that fit with the particular religion, while bad art inhibits such feelings. The problem Tolstoy sees is that the upper class has entirely lost its religion, and thus clings to the art that was good according to another religion. To cite one example, ancient Greek art extolled virtues of strength, masculinity, and heroism according to the values derived from its mythology. However, since Christianity does not embrace these values (and in some sense values the opposite, the meek and humble), Tolstoy believes that it is unfitting for people in his society to continue to embrace the Greek tradition of art.

Among other artists, he specifically condemns Wagner and Beethoven as examples of overly cerebral artists, who lack real emotion. Furthermore, the Symphony No. 9 (Beethoven), cannot claim to be able to “infect” their audience—as it pretends—with the feeling of unity and therefore cannot be considered good art.


War and Peace

War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy

The novel tells the story of five aristocratic families (particularly the Bezukhovs, the Bolkonskis, and the Rostovs–the members of which are portrayed against a vivid background of Russian social life during the war against Napoleon (1805-14).) and the entanglement of their personal lives with the history of 1805–1813, specifically Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. As events proceed, Tolstoy systematically denies his subjects any significant free choice: the onward roll of history determines happiness and tragedy alike.

In his 365 chapters (roughly 1500 pages), some only a few pages in length, Tolstoy tells of birth and death, balls and battles, gossip and tragedy, military strategy and political philosophy. While roughly the first two-thirds of the novel concern themselves strictly with the fictional characters, the later parts of the novel, as well as one of the work’s two epilogues, increasingly contain highly controversial, nonfictional essays about the nature of war, political power, history, and historiography. Tolstoy interspersed these essays seamlessly into the story in a way which defies conventional fiction. Certain abridged versions removed these essays entirely, while others (published even during Tolstoy’s life) simply moved these essays into an appendix.

If there is a central character to War and Peace it is Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate son of a wealthy count, who upon receiving an unexpected inheritance is suddenly burdened with the responsibilities and conflicts of a Russian nobleman. His former carefree behavior vanishes and he enters upon a philosophical quest particular to Tolstoy: how should one live a moral life in an imperfect world? He attempts to free his peasants and improve his estate, but ultimately achieves nothing. He enters into marriage with Prince Kuragin’s beautiful and immoral daughter Elena, against his own better judgment.


Anna Karenina

Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina

The novel, set among the highest circles of Russian society, is generally thought by the casual reader to be nothing more than the story of a tragic romance. However, Tolstoy was both a moralist and severe critic of the excesses of his aristocratic peers, and Anna Karenina is often interpreted overall as a parable on the difficulty of being honest to oneself when the rest of society accepts falseness.
Anna is the jewel of St. Petersburg society until she leaves her husband for the handsome and charming military officer, Count Vronsky. By falling in love, they go beyond society’s external conditions of trivial adulterous dalliances. But when Vronsky’s love cools, Anna cannot bring herself to return to the husband she detests, even though he will not permit her to see their son until she does. Unable to accept Vronsky’s rebuff, and unable to return to a life she hates, she kills herself.


Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) was an American author, development critic, naturalist, transcendentalist, pacifist, tax resister and philosopher who is famous for Walden, on simple living amongst nature, and Civil Disobedience, on resistance to civil government and many other articles and essays. He was a lifelong abolitionist, delivering lectures that attacked the Fugitive Slave Law while praising the writings of Wendell Phillips and defending the abolitionist John Brown. Among his lasting contributions were his writings on natural history and philosophy, where he anticipated the methods and findings of ecology and environmental history, two sources of modern day environmentalism.




Published in 1854, it details Thoreau’s life for two years, two months, and two days in second-growth forest around the shores of Walden Pond, not far from his friends and family in Concord, Massachusetts. Walden was written so that the stay appears to be a year, with expressed seasonal divisions. Thoreau called it an experiment in simple living.

Walden is neither a novel nor a true autobiography, but a social critique of the Western World, with each chapter heralding some aspect of humanity that needed to be either renounced or praised. Along with his critique of the civilized world, Thoreau examines other issues afflicting man in society, ranging from economy (the first chapter of the book) and reading to solitude and higher laws. He also takes time to talk about the experience at Walden Pond itself, commenting on the animals and the way people treated him for living there, using those experiences to bring out his philosophical positions. This extended commentary on nature has often been interpreted as a strong statement to the natural religion that transcendentalists like Thoreau and Emerson were preaching.


“Civil Disobedience”

“Civil Disobedience”

Civil Disobedience is an essay published in 1849 under the title Resistance to Civil Government, it expressed Thoreau’s belief that people should not allow governments to overrule or atrophy their consciences, and that people have a duty both to avoid doing injustice directly and to avoid allowing their acquiescence to enable the government to make them the agents of injustice. Thoreau was motivated in part by his disgust with slavery and the Mexican-American War.

One of the most famous quotes often mistakenly attributed to either Thomas Jefferson or Thomas Paine, “That government is best which governs least”, actually came from Thoreau in this essay.


Alfred Lord Tennyson

Alfred Lord Tennyson

Tennyson is another poet with more poems worth studying than is comfortable. “Ulysses” and “Break, break break” are both poems that the GRE folks love, but they also want you to know that Tenyyson was interested in both the Arthurian tradition and in Homer (as in “Ulysses” and “The Lotus-Eaters”).




This poem is a GRE moneymaker. Know it.

“Ulysses” is a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson, written in 1833 but not published until 1842. It is narrated by an aged Ulysses who has become dissatisfied with his life as king of Ithaca. Ulysses has spent years fighting the Trojans (as described in the Iliad) and trying to return home (which is the subject of The Odyssey), but now that his journey is complete he feels restless and yearns to get back out into the world. He is an “idle king” who is not satisfied with his duties in Ithaca. He declares his intent to leave the throne to Telemachus (“He works his work, I mine”) and gather up all of his old sailors for one final voyage:

Tennyson questions what becomes of the hero after the quest. The man who could outwit the Fates could not grow old. Although many readers have accepted the last lines of the poem as inspirational, it is not clear that Tennyson intended them as such. Ulysses’s call to action is suicidal and proud. He intends to die contending, rather than in peace.


In Memoriam A.H.H.

*In Memoriam A.H.H.

In Memoriam A.H.H. is a long poem by the English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson. It is a requiem for the poet’s Cambridge friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who died suddenly of a stroke in Vienna in 1833, but it is also much more. Written over a period of 17 years, it can be seen as reflective of Victorian society at the time, and the poem dicusses many of the issues that were beginning to be questioned. It is the work in which Tennyson reaches his highest musical peaks and his poetic experience comes full circle. It is generally regarded as one of the great poetic works of the British 19th century.


“The Lotus-Eaters”

“The Lotus-Eaters”, Tennyson

Lotophagi , a fabulous people who occupied the north coast of Africa and lived on the lotus, which brought forgetfulness and happy indolence.
They appear in the Odyssey. When Odysseus landed among them, some of his men ate the food. They forgot their friends and home and had to be dragged back to the ships.
Begins in some sort of 9 line meter but eventually changes to other meters.

A long poem that begins:

‘Courage!’ he said, and pointed toward the land,
‘This mounting wave will roll us shoreward soon.’
In the afternoon they came unto a land
In which it seemed always afternoon.
All round the coast the languid air did swoon,
Breathing like one that hath a weary dream.
Full-faced above the valley stood the moon;
And like a downward smoke, the slender stream
Along the cliff to fall and pause and fall did seem.


Dylan Thomas (1914-1953)

Dylan Thomas (1914-1953)

Dylan Marlais Thomas was a Welsh poet and writer. He is widely considered to be among the greatest poets of the 20th century; his most famous poems include “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” and “And Death Shall Have No Dominion.”

Dylan Thomas is widely considered one of the greatest 20th century poets writing in English, frequently mentioned alongside Frost, Yeats, and T. S. Eliot in lists of the century’s most important poets. He remains the leading figure in Anglo-Welsh literature.

His vivid and often fantastic imagery was a rejection of the trends in 20th Century verse: while his contemporaries gradually altered their writing to serious topical verse (political and social concerns were often expressed), Thomas gave himself over to his passionately felt emotions, and his writing is often both intensely personal and fiercely lyrical. Thomas, in many ways, was more in alignment with the Romantics than he was with the poets of his era (Auden and Eliot, to name but two).

He is particularly remembered for the remarkable radio-play Under Milk Wood, for his poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” which is generally interpreted as a plea to his dying father to hold onto life, and for the short stories “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” and “The Outing”.


“Do not go gentle into that good night”

“Do not go gentle into that good night”

You should probably know for the exam that this a classic example of a villanelle.