I’ve started reading Tolstoy’s two-volume Collected Shorter Fiction (Everyman’s Library), and so intermittently throughout the next eight months or so I will be posting about the stories as I read them. The first story in the collection is “The Raid,” a story about a military expedition into the Caucasus. Tolstoy’s main theme in this work concerns bravery and cowardice, and is grounded in the narrator’s main question: “[U]nder the influence of what feeling does a man, with no apparent advantage to himself, decide to subject himself to danger and, what is more surprising still, to kill his fellow men?”
Certainly this is an important question, but there are two other pressing questions, one directly and the other indirectly, that Tolstoy raises in the course of the story. The one he directly points to, which I will not discuss at length, is related to the question above, and has to do with justice and self-preservation: “On whose side is the feeling of self-preservation and consequently of justice?” This question concerns war: On whose side is the notion of “right”? Can it be that both sides are right? What about “wrong”? Does the idea of self-preservation and its implementation stand equal to the cost of war and the cost of having to protect ourselves interminably because the war being fought is not in any actual, realistic way winnable? And if it all comes down to perceptions rooted in narrow-minded and narrowly actualized ideologies, then where does “justice” fall? Does it even exist?
The other question that Tolstoy indirectly poses is related to the nature and value of literature, particularly fiction. The narrator witnesses a lieutenant engage in conversation with some mounted Tartars, and tells the reader
He was one of our young officers, daredevil braves who shape their lives on the model of Lermontov’s and Marlinsky’s heroes. These officers see the Caucasus
only through the prism of such books as A Hero of our Time and Mullah-Nur, and are guided in their actions not by their own inclinations but by the examples of their models.
Tolstoy’s apprehension here is with the effects of reading fiction on impressionable young minds lacking in experience, and the knowledge gleaned from that reading. Tolstoy’s gripe is with the artificial nature of fiction, how it creates a story that is essentially lies which can shape unlearned minds in a fashion that can be detrimental to how they engage with others and the world. This worry over the matter of the moral edification of fiction has existed since the birth of the novel in the early eighteenth century. These contrived narratives, Tolstoy warns, can delude readers who are not properly educated into believing that the way characters resolve their predicaments is appropriate to the situation when it may not be.
His concern is also, as in the quotation above, with the idealized nature of the scenes, events, and characters with which writers color their stories, and how undiscerning readers perceive these. Tolstoy is here speaking against the “romantic” quality of fiction, of its tendency to be, by its very nature, a deliberately constructed, and so idealized, vision of the world that creates a false, unrealizable image in the minds of the reading public, an image that many model when it is unrealistic to do so because the story is not natural or truthful. For Tolstoy and the narrator, believing the “fiction” of fiction can be a dangerous thing, leading to individuals thinking “romantic” thoughts and desiring to enact them in real life, rather than being disillusioned of such thoughts.