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Darwin and Mechnikov in Tolstoy’s Literary Imagination

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*Note change of venue from standard*; coffee and tea available from 4.45pm

Leo Tolstoy was a notorious critic of science as it was practiced in the late nineteenth century. At the same time, he was heavily influenced by newly appearing scientific theories. This talk explores Tolstoy’s response to two of the most noted scientists of his day: the zoologist, Charles Darwin, and the pathologist, Ilya Mechnikov. Tolstoy frequently criticized both men in his diaries, letters, and essays, but their ideas helped shape his fictional works. In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy used his two main characters to represent an acceptance and a rejection of Darwinian theory and, in so doing, highlighted the dangers of regarding it as scientific law. In his final novel, Resurrection, rather than making the characters’ fates provide a judgment on scientific theory as he did in Anna Karenina, Tolstoy coopted Mechnikov’s phagocytic theory for his own ends, making it the metaphoric basis for his moral philosophy. This offered him a way of synthesizing science and religion through art.

Anna A. Berman is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at McGill University (Montreal, Canada). Her primary area of research is the family in the nineteenth-century novel, with a focus on Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. She is interested in literary depictions of siblinghood, kinship, and forms of love that provide an alternative to the standard romantic love/marriage plot. Her book, Siblings in Tolstoy: The Path to Universal Brotherhood, will be published this fall by Northwestern University Press. Recently, she has begun to research the links between nineteenth-century conceptions of the family and the scientific theories of Charles Darwin and Ilya Mechnikov. Berman also studies Russian opera, with a particular interest in adaptations of literary texts.

This talk is part of the CamCREES seminars (Cambridge Committee for Russian and East European Studies) series.

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