Funny how our youthful transgressions can sometimes catch up to us. Prince Nekhlyudov falls in love with Maslova, a maid of his aunts who he is visiting. On leave from the military and hardened by his time in the ranks, he seduces, rapes, and unbeknownst to him, impregnates her. She leaves the aunts, loses the child and bounces around from place to place until she ends up a prostitute. Then she is arrested for poisoning one of her clients, although she claims innocence, having thought the poison given her by the hotel owners was only a sleeping potion.
All this catches up with Nekhlyudov, because he is one of the jurors hearing her case. And through a mixup in the verdict, Maslova is sentenced to four years hard labor in Siberia. Seeing her, hearing of her fate, and realizing his own crucial role in her downfall serves as a wake-up call for the Prince, who has been more or less complacently enjoying his station in life while dabbling in a romance.
Subsequently, he gets involved in trying to secure a reversal of her verdict. Tolstoy gives us a realistic portrayal of a woman who, while appreciative of the help, will not easily reconcile to the man who put her on this path. We see Nekhlyudov move from a “noble Savior” to simply doing what is needed and becoming more and more aware of the injustices of the Russian justice and prison system. He not only advocates for Maslova but for others he learns of.
He also becomes aware of the structural injustices that lead to so many of these crimes and particularly the woeful state of the peasants on his own estates. Resolving to follow Maslova to Siberia if he must, he even begins turning over his land to the peasants. Needless to say, this does not sit well with his own family or class.
Tolstoy uses these encounters, as well as the Prince’s journey to Siberia to expose the evils of pre-revolutionary Russia. But he is also chronicling the spiritual awakening of a soul–a kind of resurrection. How this ends for Nekhlyudov and for Maslova I will not give away. But one senses that Neklyudov’s awakening draws on Tolstoy’s own experience, shaped profoundly by his reading of The Sermon on the Mount and reflected in his work The Kingdom of God is Within You.
I don’t think this work reaches the same level as Anna Karenina or War and Peace. Yet it does explore the awakening of a conscience in realistic and profound depth. It also raises profound questions about justice and prison systems and the difference between the ideals of justice and punishment and restoration, and the realities of perpetuating class and structural divisions, of miscarriages of justice against the innocent, and the creation of a criminal class that has relevance for our own justice system as well.