The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 27, 2023 - 2:16:20

Sofia Tolstoy and feminism

Katie van Schaijik, Oct 04, 2010

I’ve just read a book review of The Diaries Sofia Tolstoy that fills me with an inexpressible sadness.

Who can read it without sympathizing with feminism?

On Nov. 13, 1863, the young wife describes her existence:
“I am left alone morning, afternoon and night. I am to gratify his pleasure and nurse his child, I am a piece of household furniture. I am a woman. I try to suppress all human feelings. When the machine is working properly it heats the milk, knits a blanket, makes little requests and bustles about trying not to think—and life is tolerable. But the moment I am alone and allow myself to think, everything seems insufferable.“

She admires her husband’s gifts of insight and expression, and feels most at peace when she’s able to help him his work by typing his manuscripts, sometimes repeatedly.

Yet, as she poignantly remarks, “If he had one iota of the psychological understanding which fills his books, he would have understood the pain and despair I was going through.”

Her life is filled with enervating child-rearing and household cares. In the introduction to the book (which I found at, Dahlia Lithwick makes clear that Sofia Tolstoy was a typically modern woman, in exactly the sense Jules discusses below—in her self-awareness, her brooding restlessness and discontent.

...why am I not happy? Is it my fault? I know all the reasons for my spiritual suffering: firstly it grieves me that my children are not as happy as I would wish. And then I am actually very lonely. My husband is not my friend: he has been my passionate at times, especially as he grows older, but all my life I have felt lonely with him. He doesn’t go for walks with me, he prefers to ponder in solitude over his writing. He has never taken any interest in my children, for he finds this difficult and dull.

Sofia longs for new landscapes, intellectual development, art, contact with people: “To each his fate. Mine was to be the auxiliary to my husband…”

Lithwick makes the likewise typically modern and back-firing mistake of seeing birth control as the solution to Sofia’s problem:

Like most women at the time, Sofia was at the mercy of her reproductive system—the advent of the pill was still almost a century away.

But to me, even without yet having read the diaries, it seems clear that the real source of her suffering was much deeper, and had everything to do with her sense of subordination, instrumentalization and thwarted personal selfhood. The consolation is that her suffering and her husband’s gifts have been part of awakening the world to problem.