[ENGL 257] Studies in Literature–Hedgehog and the Fox: Dostoevsky and Tolstoy
When talking about nineteenth-century Russian literature, one inevitably utters—often in one breath—the names of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, and their pairing has led to a conglomerate name—Tolstoevsky—used in jest to emphasize their dual and dominating significance. Yet though each engages the so-called “accursed questions” that permeate most of Russian literature—the meaning of life, the existence of God, the role of the individual, and so on—each comes to his own conclusions. In his famous essay on Tolstoy’s philosophy of history, “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” Isaiah Berlin begins by quoting the Greek poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin goes on to position several writers and thinkers throughout the ages into one or the other category. Dostoevsky, according to Berlin, “is nothing if not a hedgehog”; Tolstoy, however, is a bit harder to categorize, for, as Berlin argues, “Tolstoy was by nature a fox, but believed in being a hedgehog” (from Russian Thinkers, 1978, pp. 23-24). In order to get at the essence of their differences, we’ll be reading the magnum opus of each writer: Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Tolstoy’s War and Peace. In addition, we’ll be reading Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground as well as various critical responses to the novels by both contemporaries and later critics, including Berlin, D. H. Lawrence, Albert Camus, and Sigmund Freud. Our discussion will center on the novels as both literary and philosophical texts; in the process, we will attempt both to identify the “one big thing” Dostoevsky knows and the “many things” Tolstoy knows and to interrogate the underlying assumptions of Berlin’s categorization.