Battle of the Titans: Tolstoy vs. Dostoevsky

Tolstoy by Ilya Repin
Tolstoy by Ilya Repin
Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov
Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov

Some say that there are two types of people in the world: those who love Tolstoy and those who love Dostoevsky. In this seminar, we will examine why the two giants of Russian literature often inspire such polarizing opinions. Tolstoy, the master of the everyday, writes with an epic sweep. Dostoevsky’s prose is manic and suspenseful, his characters often on the edge of sanity.

Yet both writers tackle some of the biggest philosophical questions that we face today: what constitutes a good life? Does God exist? What is the meaning of life? By reading short works by both authors side by side, we will determine where we stand on the Tolstoy–Dostoevsky divide, and perhaps even come to understand the other side!

The stories we will discuss are “Death of Ivan Ilyich”, “Master and Man”, and “Father Sergius” by Tolstoy and “The Gambler”, “Dream of a Ridiculous Man”, and “A Gentle Creature” by Dostoevsky.

Images courtesy Wikimedia Commons and Wikimedia Commons/Google Art Project

“All mediocre novelists are alike; every great novelist is great in his own way. Which is why the choice between nineteenth-century Russia’s two supreme prose writers ultimately boils down to the question of which kind of greatness resonates with a particular reader.”

– Andrew Kaufman


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Julia Zarankin holds a PhD in comparative literature from Princeton and now works as a writer, editor, and lecturer to later life learners about the wonders of literature in Toronto. She looks forward to pondering life’s big questions alongside Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and perhaps even finding an answer or two.

Participants are required to obtain the specified editions in order to facilitate the group’s ability to find and cite portions of the text during discussion.

Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy
(Perennial Classics, 2004)
ISBN-13: 978-0060586973
(“Death of Ivan Ilyich”, “Master and Man”, “Father Sergius”)

Great Short Works of Fyodor Dostoevsky (Perennial Classics, 2004)
ISBN-13: 978-0060726461
("The Gambler", "Dream of a Ridiculous Man", "A Gentle Creature")

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