Student Theses and Dissertations

Date of Award

Spring 5-21-2023

Document Type


Degree Name

B.A. with honors

Honors Designation


Program of Study




First Advisor

Matthew Eatough

Second Advisor

Timothy Aubry

Third Advisor

Laura Kolb


In this senior thesis, I explore the writings of acclaimed 19th-century author Leo Tolstoy through the lens of existential and ethical nihilism: a philosophical ideology espousing an assertion of a meaningless existence shaped by similarly meaningless governing social, political, and religious conventions. Prior to the author’s religious conversion at the age of 50, Tolstoy’s writings reflected a nihilistic worldview that opposed any socially accepted definition of a meaningful existence. Although within the span of 1800s Russia nihilism was strongly associated with atheism and terrorism, Tolstoy distanced himself from any accepted cultural value or label—including the negative political associations and other philosophical debates around the term “nihilism” itself. This thesis argues that Tolstoy’s later works served as a consequential explosive rejection of meaningless conventions that he himself had participated within, such as materialistic consumption, corrupt religious practices, and the literary genre of fiction itself. The structure of this paper builds on the author’s biography and a historical view of guiding values within Russian society in the 1800s, connecting scenes from Tolstoy’s life with a close reading of passages from his late novellas and non-fiction writings: The Death of Ivan Ilyich, A Confession, and The Kreutzer Sonata. His work defied the beliefs of other popular writers, common social aspirations for wealth and fame, and the authority of the Russian Orthodox Church, pointing to his inability to accept any codified outline of existential meaning or moral behaviors.


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