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5 Greatest Novels of Leo Tolstoy That You Can't Go Without Reading

Updated on July 14, 2019
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Prachi is a voracious reader and a bibliophile. She has her own library with a collection of more than thousands of books of different genre

An arrogant person thinks himself perfect. This is the chief harm of arrogance. It distracts a person from his main aim in life - becoming a better person.

— Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy during his student years at Kazan University in Russia. He studied law and oriental languages at the university, but left the studies in midway.
Leo Tolstoy during his student years at Kazan University in Russia. He studied law and oriental languages at the university, but left the studies in midway.

Leo Tolstoy, a legendary Russian writer, has become a source of inspiration for a century now. His work in fiction, history, and non-fiction is still relevant and considered to be one of the biggest literary achievements ever.

Though Leo Tolstoy is widely known for War and Peace and Anna Karenina, he has penned several other greatest literary hits as well including The death of Ivan Ilych and many more.

It was difficult for me to just list down five of his best works, but to make the list compact and influential. I am here with 5 must-read novels. It’s possible you must have already read them, if not you are missing something epic.

No English novel can ever attain the universality of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace.

— Encyclopaedia Britannica on War and Peace
A Television adaptation of the novel War and Peace, released in 2016.
A Television adaptation of the novel War and Peace, released in 2016.

1. War and Peace

Genre: Historical

  • Leo Tolstoy never considered this as a true novel, not a real poem nor more or less of a historical chronicle. It is, indeed, a genre mixer of fiction and history.
  • It is considered as the real jewel of the world literature and one of his great achievement.
  • The novel is about the French invasion of Russia and the Napoleonic era impact on Tsarist society.
  • It talks about the stories of five aristocratic families - the Bolkonskys, the Bezukhovs, the Drubetskoys, the Kuragins, and the Rostovs.
  • The novel was written in parts, the first half was named “1805”. It was fully published in the year 1869.
  • The reason, why it was named so, is unknown, though it is said Tolstoy took inspiration from Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’ 1861 work La Guerre et la Paix (French words meaning “The War and Peace”)
  • The novel states the story of 60 years before Tolstoy was born and has around 160 real person name in it.
  • His passion to write this novel was so intense that he went on meeting with different people who lived through the year 1812 when French invaded Russia.
  • He read all the historical data available in French and Russian, including letters, autobiographies, journals, biographies of Napoleon and other important figures of that era.

I think... if it is true there’re as many minds as there’re heads, then there, certainly, are as many kinds of love as there’re hearts.

— Anna Karenina
A Film adaptation of the novel Anna Karenina, released in 2012.
A Film adaptation of the novel Anna Karenina, released in 2012.

2. Anna Karenina

Genre: Realist, modernist

  • Published in 1878, Anna Karenina is considered to be the finest work of literature ever written.
  • Tolstoy called it his first true novel.
  • From 1873 to 1877, it was released in installments in the periodical The Russian Messenger.
  • It is a tragic story of Countess Anna Arkadyevna Karenina. She is married to Count Karenin and considered to be a socialite and noblewoman.
  • The story is about her extramarital affair with Count Vronsky, whom the society finds difficult to tolerate.
  • On the other hand, her brother’s uncontrollable womanizing is something the society doesn’t much bother about.
  • The story revolves around her struggling life with her lover, their journey to Italy and back to Russia and much more that keeps you engaged till the end.
  • Besides Anna, the novel has numerous diverse topics that also includes the love affair between Konstantin Ljovin, a wealthy landowner and Princess Kitty, sister-in-law of Anna's brother.

False. Everything and every one by which you have lived and live now is all a lie, a deception, concealing both life and death from you.

— The Death of Ivan Ilyich
A Theatrical adaptation of the novel The Death of Ivan Ilyich
A Theatrical adaptation of the novel The Death of Ivan Ilyich

3. The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Genre: Fiction, philosophy

  • The Death of Ivan Ilyich is an epic novella about the life of a high-court judge and his untimely death due to terminal illness.
  • Published in 1886, it is said to be one of the brilliant masterpieces of the fiction world, till date.
  • The main aim of this novella is to get rid of the illusion of fear of death and embrace life as it is.
  • Ivan Ilyich, the protagonist, is a carefree married person, who sometimes endure his wife’s demanding behavior. While decorating his new home, he falls awkwardly and things start to take a turn.
  • The story's main aim is to reflect people's views when they are in their last phase of life.
  • According to the story, death is an enemy which makes us deceive ourselves and steals the real meaning of our life and throws us into solitary confinement.
  • In the mid of the journey of writing this novel, Tolstoy's personal epiphany made him raise questions against sexuality, education, Russian Orthodox Church and much more.
  • It was a time of spiritual upheaval for Tolstoy.

I don’t live my life, there’s something much stronger than me which instructs me. I suffer; but then, I was dead and only now, do I live.

— The Cossacks
The Cossacks
The Cossacks

4. The Cossacks

Genre: Fiction, Novella

  • Originally named Young Manhood, The Cossacks is a short novel published in 1863.
  • To prove its worthiness, it is enough to say Nobel prize winner Ivan Buningave called it his favorite work by Tolstoy.
  • Tolstoy, actually, wrote this piece to pay off his debts.
  • The novel is partially about his own life and his experience of the Caucasian War.
  • The people who knew him personally said the protagonist of the novel is inspired by his real life’s drinking and gambling problems as well as numerous promiscuous partners.
  • The protagonist, Dmitry Andreich Olenin, wishes to get rid of his ordinary life and thus, escapes to befriend Caucasian people.
  • He gets drunk, commits adultery and forgets his real identity.
  • The story takes turn when he starts to learn about his inner life and embraces the spiritual life, later.

Cossacks are the group of East Slavic-speaking people. They are predominantly known as the members of self-governing, self-military, and democratic communities. They're located in Southern Russia and Eastern and Southern Ukraine.

In the midst of the inescapable winter, I find within me the invisible summer...

— The Kingdom of God is Within You
The Kingdom of God is Within You
The Kingdom of God is Within You

5. The Kingdom of God is Within You

Genre: Religion and philosophy, non-fiction

  • Being banned in Russia, The Kingdom of God is Within You was first published in Germany in 1894.
  • It is one of the few non-fiction works of Leo Tolstoy, purely based on his philosophical thoughts.
  • The book tries to lay a new foundation of Christianity that focuses on universal love.
  • He elaborates the non-violent teaching of Jesus Christ and asserts that Christ wants people to abolish violence and give up revenge.
  • The reason why it fell into the controversy was because of his viewpoints which spoke against the governments’ policies.
  • Mohan Das Karamchand Gandhi, fondly called as Mahatma Gandhi in India, wrote in his autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth that this book left him overwhelmed. He also considered it to be the most influential part of his life.
  • Later, he and Tolstoy together worked on implementing non-violent principles in the era of the British colonial rule.
  • Besides Gandhi, the book also inspired other famous leaders such as James Bevel, leader of the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s, to abandon the violence and pursue the religious path.

Leo Tolstoy has authored more than twenty super-successful books in his lifetime. He, certainly, had a struggling life which is quite clear from his novels, especially The Cossacks. There’s been a huge debate categorized under Noble Prize controversies which states that despite his legendary literature work, he was always ignored by the Noble Prize committee.

According to some sources, it is said that Tolstoy, himself, never wanted to receive a Nobel Prize, he even urged to pull his name off from the list.

His life is a fine example of how a person finds his innermost peace in spirituality and non-violence.

He never considered himself as a professional writer, but a serial killer, indeed. He believed in the freedom for women in the world of strict social convention.

He was skeptical of his own writing. In his last years, he actually criticized his well-acclaimed work War and Peace and Anna Karenina.

Did You Know?

Leo Tolstoy never liked Shakespeare. According to the sources, he was deeply intimidated by his talent and considered him the true genius of the literary world. Well, no one can deny this fact.

Leo Tolstoy during his army years
Leo Tolstoy during his army years

Tolstoy went under religion conversion after his experience in the army

In 1851, he joined the army along with his older brother in the Caucasus. He worked during the Crimean War and was recognized for his bravery. Thus, He was promoted to lieutenant. But, later, he left the army after seeing the horrifying number of deaths in warfare.

In the year 1901, the Russian Orthodox Chruch excommunicated him because of his rejection of religious beliefs and rituals. He was also kept under police surveillance.

He died of pneumonia on November 20, 1910.

© 2019 Prachi Sharma

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