Along with Fyodor Dostoevsky, Tolstoy was one of the giants of 19th Century Russian literature. His more famous works include the novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina, and many shorter works, including the novella The Death of Ivan Illych and "Ivan the Fool".
His autobiographical novels, Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth, his first publications (1852-1856), tell of a rich landowner's son and his slow realization of the differences between him and his peasant playmates. Although in later life Tolstoy rejected these books as sentimental, a great deal of his own life is revealed, and the books still have relevance for their telling of the universal story of growing up.
His fiction consistently attempts to convey realistically the Russian society in which he lived. Cossacks (1863) describes the Cossack life and people through a story of a Russian aristocrat in love with a Cossack girl. Anna Karenina (1867) tells parallel stories of a woman trapped by the conventions of society and of a philosophical landowner (much like Tolstoy), who works alongside his serfs in the fields and seeks to reform their lives.
Pierre Bezuhov in War and Peace is another character whose life reflects that of the author. War and Peace is famous for the breadth of its canvas. Its title topics are only the beginning of its ambitious inclusiveness, but most of his works had strong stories, broad social description, and philosophical overtones. In The Death of Ivan Illych (1884), Tolstoy faces his own fear of death.
A letter Tolstoy wrote to an Indian newspaper entitled "A Letter to a Hindu" resulted in a long-running correspondence with Mohandas Gandhi, who was in South Africa at the time and was beginning to become an activist. The correspondence with Tolstoy strongly influenced Gandhi towards the concept of nonviolent resistance, a central part of Tolstoy's view of Christianity.
Tolstoy was an extremely wealthy member of the Russian nobility. He came to believe that he was undeserving of his inherited wealth, and was renowned among the peasantry for his generosity. He would frequently return to his country estate with vagrants whom he felt needed a helping hand, and would often dispense large sums of money to street beggars while on trips to the city, much to his wife's chagrin. When he died in 1910, thousands of peasants turned out to line the streets at his funeral.