Hadji Murat should be a tragedy—it is not. That is the crucial fact about it. Tolstoy refused to write tragedy, here or in Anna Karenina (even there) or in War and Peace. There is no terror, no compassionate grief or dire pity; there are no fates or, whatever the sense some readers have that Tolstoy punishes Anna, furies; there is history, contingent from the perspective of order, necessary from the perspective of causality.
But to appreciate what it means to say that this great novella, or short story, is not a tragedy we need to appreciate how it (like the novels) contains the opportunity for tragedy, where the tragic vision might have entered.
All of Tolstoy’s greatest works—the two long novels, and the two shorter works, “Ivan Ilych” and “Hadji Murat” (italics or quotation marks? Short story or novella?)—center on a death-scene. In Anna Karenina it is not Anna’s so much as Nikolai, whose chapters are titled (the only chapters with titles), “Death”; In War and Peace it is Prince Andrei’s death; in the short works, death is a center of gravity, pulling the narrative to its close.
But even among these works, Hadji Murat has an opportunity for tragedy that is nowhere else present, because of the heroism of the titular protagonist, and because of the impossible, irreconcilable conflict in which he finds himself. In the history of Hadji Murat, Tolstoy discerned what could have been an exemplary tragic arc.
The refusal of tragedy—and it seems an active refusal—is one of the instances of resistance and denial that characterizes the story both in its action and in its formal execution. The refusal is felt in the absence of any final insight into the value of life, life as an unknowable remnant or residual beyond human accounting or understanding; elsewhere in Tolstoy, this is the central mystery that emerges within the scenes of death. As terrifying as nothingness for those characters, dying affords Tolstoy an occasion to observe, in its final instantiation in the form of this individual person or that, this “life” that is not ultimately knowable, but that is everywhere observable. Because life is affirmed, rather than the arbitrary power of gods, or the terror of eternal perdition, or the ferocity of fates or furies, Tolstoy’s death scenes work in conjunction with the barely expressed epiphanies, sometimes found elsewhere, sometimes found at the moment of death, to fend off the tragic. (Anna’s death is tragic, but also strikes out with life in Tolstoy’s presentation of it, but here the situation is more complicated). The clarity of the death-bed scenes (even as the character’s thoughts become disjointed, they make something of what they see) is both source and consequence of Tolstoy’s refusal of tragedy; he does not seem to need to represent obscurity, or to represent obscurely, for life to reveal itself. And why should obscurity be needed for life that exceeds the capacity of any conceptual order to contain it? Does the feeling of being in the dark as a reader greatly improve upon the word “dark,” in its small indication of the darkness?
Here, from near the end of “The Death of Ivan Ilych”:
“And suddenly it became clear to him that what was tormenting him and would not be resolved was suddenly all resolved at once, on two sides, on ten sides, on all sides. He was sorry for them, he had to act so that it was not painful for them. To deliver them and deliver himself from these sufferings. “How good and how simple,” he thought. “And the pain?” he asked himself. “What’s. become of it? Where are you, pain?””
This is pathetic, but the pity is comic in scale, like Lear searching for the button on his shirt; but there is no final moment of Cordelia, no final crushing of the spirit here. Instead, there is a realization that the torment had ended, that some resolution had arrived, though its nature cannot be clarified to Ivan or to us. And it is by not fumbling in the dark, by not bumping against the words that could never serve the experience, that Tolstoy manages to respect what Ivan sees: not something beyond death, not into the abyss, but into life itself, humanly conscious life, as it suddenly appears on its own, when the world apart from it has fallen away.
In “Hadji Murat,” Tolstoy does not need a countervailing epiphany to set against, or within, the hero’s death. But this is not felt as an absence, or as a diminishment; it is dispensed with as an excrescence might be, the sort of scraping away common to some late artists, whereby what is revealed as the source of power is a simplicity residing where we would not expect. And this is not to suggest that elsewhere Tolstoy is lacking, it is not to suggest that the bare simplicity of Hadji Murat is better than what we find in War and Peace. In the latter:
Not only did Prince Andrei know he would die, but he felt that he was dying and was already half dead. He was conscious of an aloofness from everything earthly and a strange and joyous lightness of existence. Without haste or agitation he awaited what was coming. That inexorable, eternal, distant, and unknown—the presence of which he had felt continually all his life—was now near to him, and, by the strange lightness he experienced, almost comprehensible and palpable…
He dreamt that he was lying in the room he really was in, but that he was quite well and unwounded. Many various indifferent and insignificant people appeared before him. Many various indifferent and insignificant people appeared before him. He talked to them, and discussed something trivial. They were preparing to go away somewhere. Prince Andrei dimply realized that all this was trivial and that he had more important cares, but he continued to speak, surprised by empty witticisms. Gradually, unnoticed, all these persons began to disappear and a single question, that of the closed door, superseded all else. He rose and went to the door to bolt and lock it. Everything depended on whether he was, or was not, in time to lock it. He went, and tried to hurry, but his legs refused to move and he knew he would not be in time to lock the door though he painfully strained all his powers. He was seized by an agonizing fear. And that fear was the fear of death. It stood behind the door. But just when he was clumsily creeping towards the door, that dreadful something on the other side was already pressing against it and forcing its way in. Something not human—death—was breaking in through that door and had to be kept out. He seized the door, making a final effort to hold it back—to lock it was no longer possible—but his efforts were weak and clumsy and the door, pushed from behind by that terror, opened and closed again.
Once again it pushed from outside. His last superhuman efforts were vain and both halves of the door noiselessly opened. It entered, and it was DEATH, and Prince Andrei died.
But at the instant he died, Prince Andrei remembered that he was asleep, and that the very instant he died, having made an effort, he awoke.
‘Yes, it was death! I died—and woke up. Yes, death is an awakening!’ And all at once it grew light in his soul and the veil that had till then concealed the unknown was lifted from his spiritual vision. He felt as if powers till then confined had been liberated, and that strange lightness did not leave him again.
When, waking in a cold perspiration, he moved on the divan, Natasha went up and asked him what was the matter. He did not answer and looked at her strangely, not understanding.
That was what had happened to him two days before Princess Marya’s arrival. From that day, as the doctor expressed it, the wasting fever assumed a malignant character, but what the doctor said did not interest Natasha, she saw the terrible moral symptoms which to her were more convincing.
From that day an awakening from life came to Prince Andrei together with his awakening from sleep. And compared to the duration of life it did not seem to him slower than an awakening from sleepm compared to the duration of a dream.
There was nothing terrible or violent in this comparatively slow awakening.
His last days and hours passed in an ordinary and simple way. Both Princess Marya and Natasha, who did not leave him, felt this. They did not weep or shudder and during these last days they themselves felt that they were not attending on him (he was no longer there, he had left them) but on what reminded them most closely of him—his body. Both felt this so strongly that the outward and terrible side of death did not affect them and they did not feel it necessary to foment their grief. Neither in his presence nor out of it did they weep, nor did they ever talk to one another about him. They felt that they could not express in words what they understood.
They both saw that he was sinking slowly and quietly, deeper and deeper, away from them, and they both knew that this had to be so and that it was right.
He confessed, and received communion: everyone came to take leave of him. When they brought his son to him, he pressed his lips to the boy’s and turned away, not because he felt it hard and sad (Princess Marya and Natasha understood that) but simply because he thought it was all that was required of him, but they they told him to bless the boy, he did what was demanded and looked round as if asking whether there was anything else he should do.
When the last convulsions of the body, which the spirit was leaving, occurred, Prince ss Marya and Natasha were present.
This is a perfect scene; but so is the scene in “Ivan Ilych” and so are the death scenes in Anna Karenina. So, too, I think, is the death scene in Hadji Murat. But to understand this latter scene, and its refusal of tragedy, we need to see what Tolstoy is doing in War and Peace and also in “Ivan Ilych.” In the latter, I’ve said, Ivan is relieved not just by the absence of pain but by a sense of what life is, its inherent value in its being present at the moment of death; whether that value is a harbinger of what resides on the other side of death is not especially important to my argument, since Tolstoy is frank that it is the apprehension of life itself, life that exceeds a life, that remains when the rest of the world surrounding a person has faded, that would define what the value might be. This is neither Christian hope nor Greek despair; it is instead an affirmation that life is good, and that if we are to have goodness beyond death, it would be the goodness of life. In War and Peace the effect is similar; Prince Andrei does his duty in order to die, but he does not hasten towards death, or urge death on; instead, he spends his final moments alone in the presence of life—not HIS life, or anyone’s life—but life itself, and this is what provides him with detachment and calm. This is a way out of tragedy that does not veer towards the inherent fervor of Christianity; it is a true ataraxia, but without the discipline of mind associated with Pagan philosophy; it is dispassionate calm that can nonetheless value what is revealed to it, which may be only the revelation of its own possibility (the power of knowing anything at all, the power of feeling anything at all). In both of these scenes, Tolstoy enters into the perspectives of his characters far enough for us to know what we cannot know more of; we are, most often, in the position of Princess Marya and Natasha, though neither of them, probably, could articulate their awareness of what Andrei is going through. (And when we go beyond what Marysa and Natasha could know, as when Tolstoy describes Andrei’s dream (or Ivan’s question to Pain), equanimity is achieved by a neutralizing balance of dread and absurdity, not a pulling to one extreme and then another, but as casting the character’s recognition of dread, and feeling of dread, as an absurd gesture, from which the character themselves remain partially detached.)
These scenes are not only useful as contrasts for what is a different handling of the death scene in Hadji Murat; they also serve the elucidate what Tolstoy is doing there, and to move us in the direction of seeing why he is doing it. I would suggest that the best way of understanding the simplicity of Hadji Murat’s final scene is in terms of the simplicity achieved by Andrei and Ivan in their final moments; but that the simplicity in Hadji Murat is taken on instead by Tolstoy, so that his presentation is intended to reflect that simplicity. Here, the refusal of tragedy does not emanate from what is or is not happening in the character’s head, but from what Tolstoy keeps out of his own:
The militiamen got among the bushes, but several shots in succession came cracking from the rampart. Three or four men fell and the attackers halted. They now opened fire from the edge of the bushes too. They fired and, running from bush to bush, gradually edged towards the rampart. Some managed to get across, while others fell to the bullets of Hadji Murat and his men. Hadji Murat never missed; Gamzalo’s aim was no less sure and he gave a delighted yelp each time he saw his bullet strike home. Kurban sat by the edge of the ditch changing ‘La ilaha illa allah’; he took his time in firing, but rarely got a hit. Meanwhile, Eldar was quivering all over in his impatience to rush the enemy with his dagger; he fired often and at random, continually looking round at Hadji Murat and showing himself above the rampart. The shaggy-haired Khanefi continued his role as servant even here. With rolled-up sleeves he reloaded the guns as they were handed to him by Hadji Murat and Kurban, carefully ramming home the bullets in oiled rags with an iron ramrod and priming the pans with dry powder from a horn. Khan-Mahoma did not keep to the ditch like the others, but kept running across to the horses to get them to a safer place, all the time shrieking and casually firing without resting his gun. He was the first to be wounded. He was struck by a bullet in the neck and collapsed backwards spitting blood and cursing. Hadji Murat was wounded next. A bullet went through his shoulder. He tore some adding from his jacket to plug the wound and went on firing.
‘Let’s rush them with our swords, urged Eldar for the third time. He rose above the rampart ready to charge the enemy, but was instantly struck by a bullet. He staggered and fell backwards across Hadji Murat’s leg. Hadji Murat looked at home. His handsome sheep’s eyes stared earnestly up at him. His mouth, with its upper lip pouting like a child’s, quivered but did not open. Hadji Murat freed his leg and went on taking aim. Khanefi bent ove Eldar’s dead body and quickly began taking the unused cartridges from his ‘cherkeska’. Meanwhile Kurban went on chanting, slowly loading and taking aim.
The enemy, whooping and screeching as they ran from bush to bush, were getting nearer and nearer. Hadji Murat was hit by another bullet in the left side. He lay down in the ditch and plugged the wound with another piece of wadding from his jacket. This wound in his side was mortal and he felt that he was dying. One after another images and memories flashed through his mind. Now he saw the mighty Abununtsal-Khan clasping to his face his severed, hanging cheek and rushing at his enemies with his dagger drawn; he saw Vorontsov, old, feeble and pale with his sly, white face and heard his soft voice; he saw his son Yusuf, Sofiat his wife, and the pale face, red beard and screwed up eyes of his enemy Shamil.
And these memories running through his mind evoked no feelings in him, no pity, no ill will or desire of any kind. It all seemed so insignificant compared to what was now beginning and had already begun for him. But his powerful body meanwhile continued what it had started to do. Summoning the last remnants of his strength, he lifted himself above the rampart and fired his pistol at a man running towards him. He hit him and the man fell. Then he crawled limping badly, went straight at the enemy. Several shots rang out. He staggered and fell. A number of militiamen rushed with a triumphant yell towards his fallen body. But what they supposed was a dead body suddenly stirred. First his bloodstained, shaven head, its ‘papakha’ gone, then his bodyy lifted; then, holding onto a tree, Hadji Murat pulled himself fully up. He looked so terrifying that the advancing men stopped dead. But suddenly he gave a shudder, staggered from the tree, and like a scythed thistle fell full length on his face and moved no more.
He did not move, but could still feel, and when Hadii-Aha, the first to teach him, struck him across the head with his great dagger, he felt he was being hit on the head with a hammer and failed to understand who was doing this and why. This was the last conscious link with his body. He felt no more, and the object that was trampled and slashed by his enemies had no longer any connection with him. Hadji-Aha put a foot on the body’s back, with two strokes hacked off its head and rolled it carefully away with his foot so as not to get blood on his boots. Blood gushed over the grass, scarlet from the neck arteries, black from the head.
Karganov, Hadji-Aha, Akhmet-Khan and the militiamen gathered over the bodies of Hadji Murat and his men (Khanefi, Kurban, and Gamzalo were bound) like hunters over a dead beast, standing among the bushes in the gunsmoke, gaily chatting and celebrating their victory.
The nightingales, which were silent while the shooting lasted, again burst into song, first one nearby, then others in the distance.
This was the death that was brought to my mind by the crushed thistle in the ploughed field.
Admittedly, as a death this is not as drawn out as Andrei’s; Murat has less time to reflect, to withdraw, and to settle into life. But that is largely a matter of how Tolstoy tells us about the fallen body, and what seems like a dead body that suddenly stirs; he might have offered us something at that moment, or later, when he fell but could not move except to feel the blows to his head. If this is the simplicity of Andrei or Ivan, though, the question that must be answered is where we find a corresponding insight into life itself? None would seem to be present here; there is only narration of action, with the beautiful assurance of detail and pacing that runs throughout the story, and without any special appeal to sympathy. On one level, that is the point: this action, this movement, and resistance, and going through life is life. This is it. On another level, or from another perspective, the answer lies in the last line of the story, which bluntly, artlessly returns us to the frame. The wording of that sentence is crucial: “this was the death,” and not “this was the life.” Yes, we might think, this death is the act of resistance that resembles the final moments of the thistle after it had been nearly ploughed under and was left alone in the field; but in light of the entire narrative, it could be said that Hadji Murat was, throughout the story, and possibly throughout his whole life, the thistle. And we might press and ask whether “this was the death” refers only to the final scene, or it if it does not refer to the entire story, the entire life that was itself an act of resistance doomed to fail. Whether or not it refers to the final scene or the final act, it is not the death of Murat that would seem relevant: it is the assertion of life in the face of death. Similarly, it would seem that the thistle stands out to Tolstoy not because it is dying, or doomed to die, but because it remains alive, in spite of all. Yet this identity of dying and living is crucial to the simplicity of Tolstoy’s narration in this scene and story as a whole, and not just because, somewhat sophistically, to be dying means one is perforce still living. For Tolstoy in this story, and for Ilych and Andrei, death is where simplified life is made visible and mysterious; it is not death that is mysterious; it is life that is unfathomable, irreducible to pattern or conceptual grasp, and death is the proof and guarantor of that unfathomability and irreducibility. The sight of the thistle served as a similar proof and guarantor, which is why it reminds Tolstoy of “this death” of Hadji Murat, as well as the entirety of his life:
…I thought I would pick this thistle to put in the middle of my bunch of flowers. I climbed into the ditch and after brushing away a furry bumblebee, which and worked its way into the centre of the flower and fallen into a sweet and languorous sleep, I set about picking the flower. However, this was no easy matter: it was not just that the stalk pricked me at every turn, even through the handkerchief which I had wrapped round my hand; it was so terribly tough that I was five minutes struggling with it, breaking through the fibres one by one. When at last I succeeded in plucking the flower the stalk was in shreds and the flower itself no longer seemed as fresh and beautiful as before. And, apart from that, it was too crude and clumsy to go with the delicate flowers I had in my bunch. I was sorry that I had needlessly destroyed a flower which had been fine where it was, and threw it away. But what strength and vigour, I thought, recalling the effort it had cost me to pluck it. How stoutly it defended itself, and how dearly it sold its life.
The way home was through a fallow field of black earth which had just been ploughed. I walked along the dusty, gently rising black-earth road. The ploughed field was squire’s land and very large, so that on either side of the road and on up the slope you could see nothing but black evenly furrowed fallow land, as yet unharrowed. The ploughing was well done and there was not a plant or blade of grass to be seen across the whole field: it was all black. What a cruel, destructive creature man is. How many different living creatures and plants he has destroyed in order to support his own life, I thought, instinctively looking ahead for some sign of life in the midst of this dead black field. Ahead of me to the right of the road there was a small bush of some kind. When I got nearer I saw it was a Tartar-thistle, like the one whose flower I had idly picked and thrown away.
The Tartar-thistle bush consisted of three shoots. One had been broken off and the remnant of stalk stuck out like a severed arm. There was a flower on each of the other two. The flowers had once been red, but now were black. One stalk was broken and its upper half with the soiled flower at the end hung down; the other, though caked with black mud, still stood erect. It was evident that the whole bush had been run over by a cart wheel and had then picked itself up again: for that reason it was standing crookedly, but still it was standing. It was like having part of its body torn away, its innards turned inside out, an arm pulled off, and an eye plucked out. But still it was standing and would not surrender to man who had destroyed all its brethren around.
What strength! I thought. Man has conquered everything, destroyed millions of plants, but still this one will not give in.
And an old tale of the Caucasus came to my mind, part of which I saw myself, part heard from eye-witnesses, and part created in my imagination. The tale as I recalled and pictured it was as follows.
The thistle is an emblem not only for life and death but of course for Tolstoy’s art, and it is a final statement on his achieved simplicity in Hadji Murat that he opens the story with a parable about letting-be; in this story, he lets be, so that the summation of Murat’s life is never greater than any of its parts, but, at the same time, so that each of those parts depends upon something—life—that cannot be thought of in terms of sums at all.