The realist movement in literature first developed
in France in the mid-nineteenth century, soon spreading to England, Russia, and the United States. The novel, including many
works widely regarded to be among the greatest novels ever written, best represents realist literature. Realist writers wanted
to narrate their novels from an objective, unbiased perspective that simply and clearly represented the factual elements of
the story. They became masters at psychological characterization, detailed descriptions of everyday life in realistic settings,
and dialogue that captures the idioms of natural human speech. The realists endeavored to precisely represent modern culture
and people from all lifestyles. Thus, realist writers often dealt with themes of socioeconomic conflict by contrasting the
living conditions of the poor with those of the upper classes in urban as well as rural societies.
Tolstoy's oeuvre marks a step
forward not only in Russian literature but in the literature of the world. This step forward was made, however, in rather
peculiar circumstances. Although Tolstoy continued the great realistic traditions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,
the traditions of Fielding and Defoe, Balzac and Stendhal, he did so at a time when realism had already fallen into pitfall.
No novelist was more acutely aware of the reality around him than
Tolstoy or more exhaustively absorbed, through the intellect and senses, in all its manifestations. Tolstoy accepted the real
world, and his picture of it was fresh and interesting because he saw so much more of it than his readers, but its commonplaces,
observed through the prism of his imagination, took on new meaning.
Tolstoy said in his essay "Non-Acting":
"It is commonly
said that reality is that which exists, or that only what exists is real. Just the contrary is the case: true reality, that
which we really know, is what has never existed."
That reality was so often different from what men and women hoped
and dreamed that life often disappointed them because they have confused the imagined with the real was a central problem
with Tolstoy's more thoughtful characters. In The Cossacks, Olenin's conception of the romantic existence of these
people of the Caucasus is shattered by the reality of it; in War and Peace, Prince Andrew's exaggerated notions of
a career in the army and in politics are harshly corrected by experience; and in Anna Karenina Levin's idealistic hopes
about marriage are soon disappointed. In such cases, Tolstoy usually demonstrated that the reality of things is richer, more
positive and life giving than the reality imagined by such characters. However, he did this through their active experiences,
although reflection played its part, for he never forgot that realistic literature should portray human beings in action.
Tolstoy's intense sensibility and temperament added a unique dimension
to his creative process, which enhances the men and women of his novels, as well as their experiences, with amazing life-affirming
qualities. Though his novels excite the imagination and seem laden with significance, they achieve this without any sacrifice
of probability. It is hard to think of any other great writer whose fiction was so closely bound up with fact.