Childhood (1852)
Leo Tolstoy
Key elements of Tolstoy’s approach
• Tolstoy’s examination of life on the basis of introspection
• Details are examined minutely: dissecting the tissue of
• Emphasis on individual experience, rather than social
• The individual’s subjective view is the only interesting one:
refusal to generalize
• Is there an overarching moral perspective? Is the world only
all relative? What is the nature of good and evil?
• Sees and represents the world freshly, as if seen for the first
A new kind of writing
• Complete break with Romantic literature, and
with a literature focussed on conventions,
imitating previous literature.
• Lack of fantasy: all the means of narration are
focussed on making the reader believe in the
events described. (Suspension of disbelief)
Metaphor vs. Metonymy
• Russian linguist Roman Jakobson pointed to
the two aspects of language:
• substitutive vs predicative
• substitutive predominates in poetry, uses
simile, metaphor, symbols
• predicative predominates in prose, adds
details, uses synecdoche.
• Tolstoy and realist fiction: dearth of metaphor
or symbol, emphasis on the particular, detail
Part of larger work
• Tolstoy planned four parts.
• Only three completed: Childhood, Boyhood,
• Inspired by such works as Dickens’ David
Copperfield (1850)
Genre and structure
• Genre: best described as a novella, a stream of
small events and observations focussed on one
• Introspective, first-person narrative, broken
into short chapter-episodes.
• Rooted in autobiography, although not literally
a retelling of the author’s life.
Tolstoy and Rousseau
• Clear influence of Rousseau’s Confessions
• The same desire to expose intimate feelings experienced
during childhood, even those of shame, embarrassment and
• Emphasis on honest portrayal of everything, even the most
embarrassing intimate details
• Rousseau’s vision of child born pure and corrupted by man
• Development of child’s sexuality
• Importance of nature as a world outside man
• Interest in education theory – the best way to educate children
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)
• « Ce n’est pas ce qui est
criminel qui coûte le plus à
dire, c’est ce qui est ridicule
et honteux ».
• “It is not one’s criminal acts
that are the most difficult to
admit, but those things that
are ridiculous and
shameful.” Confessions
Childhood is ahead of its time…
• Equivalents in the late nineteenth and early twentieth
- Anton Chekhov’s The Steppe, a description of a
young boy being sent to school, travelling with a
caravan of wagons loaded with wool.
- Focus on memory points to Marcel Proust’s À la
Recherche du temps perdu.
- Portrait of a young version of the author suggests
James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Psychological Analysis
• Ability to enter into the perceptions of another
individual. Later: a horse, a dog.
• Shows how behaviours are uncontrollable,
growing out of deep emotional issues.
• Tolstoy’s analyses of the subconscious
foreshadow Sigmund Freud, psychological
analyses of the post-Freudian world.
The double perception in Childhood
• An older narrator unflinching describing the child’s
perceptions and emotions from within.
• Describes emotions and behaviours, then clinically
analyses them in detail, examining the shifts in
perception of the child’s consciousness.
• Theme of awkwardness of the child’s view: growing
conscious of his errors, feeling shame (frequent
The clinical interest
• Tolstoy’s analysis is clearly of himself: his
own emotions, his own experience of growing
• Reflects Tolstoy’s scientific interest in
children’s development, in education, in
• Interest in education shades into questions of
psychology, philosophy, morality, religion.
The spatial surroundings
• The location is divided down the middle:
- The country estate of Nikolenka’s parents.
- The salons and ballrooms of Moscow.
The cast of characters
The family:
• Nikolenka Irtenyev
• Brother Volodya
• Sister Lyubochka
• Papa
• Maman
• In Moscow: Grandmother
The extended household
Karl Ivanych
Marya Ivanovna or Mimi
Katyenka – her daughter
Natalya Savishna
• Grisha the holy fool
• Mme Kornakov – “beats children”
• The Ivins - Seryozha
• Sonechka – first true love.
• Ilyinka Grap – the poor little German boy
• Ivan Ivanych – the rich uncle
Some of the key themes: Childhood
• Childhood innocence (Ch. 15, pp. 57-59)
• Naïve, but accurate, judgements of child about
adults: who is good and bad.
• Moving to Moscow seems a watershed
Some of the key themes: Memory and Maman
• Memory – associated with mother, music
• Maman pouring tea (Ch. 2, p. 9)
• Music and memory (Ch. 11, pp. 41-42)
• Elusiveness of maman’s face (Ch. 14, p. 55)
• Later Nikolenka experiences the trauma of mother’s
death: maman associated with absence
Some of the key themes: Sexuality
Childhood sexuality
- Kisses Katya’s shoulder
- crush on the boy Seriozha
- “unfaithful in love” (p. 97-98)
- Sonechka
Some of the key themes: Family
• Relationship to parents, fuzzy understanding of
their relationship.
• Naïve, but accurate judgements of child about
adults: separation into good and bad.
Some of the key themes: Social classes
• Class relationships:
- snobbery
- treatment of poor boy Ilyinka Grap
• serfdom:
- relationship to servants (domestic serfs), Nikolai,
Natalya Savishna
- remote perception of the working peasants harvesting
in the fields
Some of the key themes: Religion
• True religious fervour found among the simple
peasant folk:
- Grisha the holy fool
- Natalya Savishna
- mother’s death – outward forms of religion as
opposed to deeply felt beliefs
• Do we derive pleasure from reading this
• What is aesthetically pleasing about it?
• Do we find the descriptions truthful and
• What feelings, if any, are stirred in you by this
For next class…
• Choose one character from the text, and be
prepared to describe that person and his or her
role. Explain why you chose that person.
• In reading Childhood, make a list of the
different vices that the narrator exposes in his
• Study carefully chapters vi, vii and viii; we
shall be analyzing them in class.

Leo Tolstoy - University of Ottawa