“The Living Corpse” by Leo Tolstoy

The Living Corpse

The Living Corpse

Leo Tolstoy

In 1900, more than 20 years after finishing his masterpiece “Anna Karenina,” Tolstoy returned to a character named Karenin in a troubled marriage, although this Karenin seems to have no blood relation to the original. Still, it’s a fascinating indication that, for all the dislike he felt for the novel “Anna Karenina” as he was struggling to finish it, the issues he raised in it continued to be of major significance for Tolstoy decades later.

“The Living Corpse” is a play about an unhappily married couple, Liza and Fedya. Liza is faithful and tried to love Fedya, but Fedya is a gambler, a drunkard, and a womanizer who resents Liza for making him feel bad about himself; in one of those moments of Tolstoyan insight, Fedya explains that we love those whom we treat nobly, but hate those whom we treat shabbily because they remind us of our failures. Fedya wants a divorce in order to free up Liza to marry his friend Viktor Karenin, another person of irreproachable virtue who has been chastely in love with Liza since childhood, but ends up deciding that suicide is the best way out for all of them–at this time divorce was still scandalous.

I have a hard time reading plays, which I normally find to be pretty flat on the page, so it’s hard for me to judge this work on its merits. I can see it being excellent on the stage in the hands of a skilled director and actors, and Tolstoy sets up the tension between the characters masterfully: Liza and Viktor to seem to be in an impossible situation, and you can’t help but worry for them.

At the same time, the play could just as easily turn into a cheap melodrama in the wrong hands, and since it is a play, it lacks the thing that particularly marks Tolstoy’s writing: the skillful use of description for characterization and mood. While Tolstoy’s dialogue is also often brilliant, cutting out the descriptive passages reduces the reading experience to something much more two-dimensional.

Still, this certainly could be turned into a gripping play, and it’s of considerable interest to Tolstoy scholars, as it seems to indicate a complete about-face in Tolstoy’s earlier stated convictions regarding marriage, or at least, his willingness to consider alternate points of view. The reasons for Liza and Fedya’s divorce are compelling, and those who oppose it are depicted as unkind and narrow-minded. The heart of the play–the problem of people trapped in an unsuitable relationship that can only make them unhappy and make them act immorally–is genuine and true, and is an empathetic revisioning of Tolstoy’s most famous works, and one of the central concerns of his oeuvre.

“The Living Corpse” was not published during Tolstoy’s lifetime, and while it may be difficult for modern readers to truly comprehend, those familiar with the conditions of 19th-century Russia will understand why: it is a fairly frontal attack on a lot of accepted religious and moral doctrines of the time, emphasizing personal conduct, personal happiness, and personal morality over the stranglehold of societal pressure. In it one can see Tolstoy’s constant questioning of generally accepted social mores, and his willingness to imagine himself into the Other, even, or especially, when that Other is in some way not only different, but overtly opposed to his situation and beliefs.

Just a reminder that The Breathing Sea I is shortlisted in the Literary category for The 50 Best Indie Books of 2017!  Votes are much appreciated and can be cast here.

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