What Was on Tolstoy's Bookshelf?
By Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Tolstoy idolized Rousseau (1712-1778) from an early age, and even, for a period, wore a medallion with a picture of Rousseau around his neck. Tolstoy was still praising him to the skies late in his life. In 1905, Tolstoy wrote, "Rousseau and the Gospels are the two strongest and most positive influences on my life." It's important to take into account the context in which Tolstoy made this remark. He sent this tribute to the president of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Society in Geneva, who wrote asking for his support. Still, the fact that he puts Rousseau on the same level of importance as the Gospels is somewhat shocking. It attests the supreme importance of Rousseau for Tolstoy. Although Tolstoy prided himself for having read "all twenty volumes" of Rousseau's works and declared that "many of his pages are so kindred to me that it seems to me that I wrote them myself," he singled out three works, Confessions, Émile, and Julie for their particular influence.
From Rousseau's Confessions, Tolstoy adapted the technique of self-involved self-examination—and possibly of self-justification, whereby he expected his version of what he experienced to be the last word. In confessing, Rousseau has a characteristic way of admitting that he has done something reprehensible (such as letting a servant girl be blamed for a theft he committed or abandoning his children) while making himself seem innocent and society or other individuals seem guilty for what he has done.
From Émile, a discourse on child-centered pedagogy and the corrupting effects of civilization, Tolstoy adapted ideas that he used in the experimental schools he set up for peasants on his estate. Rousseau sets forth proscriptive views on family life, motherhood and, interestingly enough, maternal breastfeeding, all of which Tolstoy found kindred. Tolstoy is reported to have mercilessly hectored his wife about breastfeeding their children herself, instead of following common practice and hiring peasant wet nurses. In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy pays quite a bit of attention to the nursing of infants. Kitty earns Rousseau's highest seal of approval by breastfeeding Mitya herself.
From Rousseau's novel Julie, Tolstoy learned the thematics of adultery, love, marriage and family life. Most readers will probably find Tolstoy's novels more engrossing and realistic than Julie, but they may be interested to find that Tolstoy applied some of Rousseau's psychological dynamics and ideology to a different kind of novel with a different plot—there are comparisons to be made between its plot and that of Anna Karenina.