Victor Terras on Dostoevsky and Tolstoi

In his book, Reading Dostoevsky, Victor Terras makes a few interesting comparisons and contrasts between Dostoevsky and Tolstoi.

In regard to heroes, “Tolstoi’s heroes and heroines are ordinary people, engaged in typical relationships, mostly normal ones. The forces that move them are the ones the most men and women know well—for example, the sex drive” (p. 37). With Dostoevsky, “typical relationships” and characters are marginal, as he claims that a “deeper truth” is opened up with exceptional characters and not-so-typical relationships. According to Terras, “normal love affairs do not interest Dostoevsky. Even simple adultery is a nontopic. Dostoevsky is fascinated by passions that seem to be a manifestation of a metaphysical yearning for an absolute, for something that defies reason—in a word, the Eros of Plato’s Symposium. Eros has many forms: the earthly lust of Fiodor Pavlovich Karamazov […] Dmitry’s sensual but more exalted ‘aesthetic’ love, Ivan’s cold intellectual passion, Aliosha’s spiritual agape” (p. 38)

As is well-known, Dostoevsky is found of developing characters such as Prince Myshkin, Aliosha, and Sonia Marmeladov who exemplify genuine Christian agape. Here we might get the impression that this aspect of Dostoevsky is similar to the “old Tolstoi” who often wrote of the purity of love. But, as Terras explains, “the keynote of Dostoevsky’s feeling is different. Nowhere in Dostoevsky is there a real challenge to, must less a putdown of, that powerful god, Eros. There is nothing resembling the old Tolstoi’s squeamish distaste for sex in Aliosha’s extreme chastity, or in Myshkin’s virginity. Myshkin and Aliosha are both bridegrooms. The Dostoevskian saint is chaste because of too much, not too little, Eros” (p. 39). It seems to me that St. Augustine, C.S. Lewis, and Kierkegaard would say the same of the Christian saint.

4 thoughts on “Victor Terras on Dostoevsky and Tolstoi”

  1. Thanks for these reflections. I have to admit, reading Tolstoy is kind of like reading trashy pulp novels for me — fun reading, but not much depth. The allegories are a little too obvious.

    Dostoevsky is a different story. I come back to Myshkin and The Idiot over and over again.

    Have you seen the Bortko ekranizacija? If not, I highly recommend it — has it. It’s ten hours, covers the whole novel. Evgenij Mironov is excellent as Myshkin (his “Musul’manin” is also very, very good).

  2. Hi Chris,

    I didn’t even know that that website existed. Thanks for the info–I will have to check it out.


  3. Thanks for these thoughts Cynthia. Dostoevsky’s fascination with ‘abnormal’ lives vs Tolstoi’s common humanity raises questions about the place of culture and the fall, amongst many others.

  4. Terras found a key. I understood why Tolstoi is vapid to me. The reason is in marginal passions which attracts me ;)

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