Tolstoy's Bookshelf: The Story of Joseph from Genesis
The Story of Joseph, from the Book of Genesis
Tolstoy singled out the story of Joseph from Genesis as one that was "enormously" meaningful to him in his early years. It is easy to imagine that Tolstoy would have identified with the story of Joseph, a dreamy younger brother who was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers and forced to make it on his own in exile. Joseph, as the story goes, rises from slavery to a position of power and ends up being the one to save his family from starvation. Tolstoy was orphaned at any early age and he and his siblings were eventually forced to move from their childhood home, the family estate of Iasnaia Poliana, to the distant city of Kazan. For much of his youth, he felt like the biblical Joseph, yearning to return to the bosom of his family while making a life for himself elsewhere. Although Tolstoy eventually returned to his maternal home, he never got over the sense of abandonment, betrayal and yearning that characterized his early years. In this way, his story diverges from Joseph's in Genesis, which has a happier ending.

Whereas in his youth Tolstoy singled out the story of Joseph as having been personally meaningful, he cites the whole book of Genesis as a work that had an enormous impact on him later in life, from ages 50 to 63, when he read it in Hebrew. At this point, Tolstoy was pondering issues relating to sin and sex, which were ever closely linked in his mind. Tolstoy tended to blame sexuality for what was wrong with the world around him. The world would be better off—and the dangers of sex contained somewhat—if men returned to manual labor in the fields and women concentrated all their energies on what he regarded as their one and only purpose in life: motherhood. The solution Tolstoy comes up with is in essence a reenactment of Yahweh's punishment of Adam and Eve for their transgression: Adam is condemned to till the earth by the sweat of his brow and Eve is condemned to have her sorrows multiplied in labor (Gen. 3:16-19).


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