« Judgment by Joseph Finder | Main | 48 Hours by William R. Forstchen »

Selected Short Stories by Leo Tolstoy

Published by Dover (Thrift Editions) on December 13, 2017

The stories in this collection are not Tolstoy’s best (“How Much Land Does a Man Need?” and “The Death of Ivan Ilyitch” are examples of excellent stories that aren’t included here) but reading Tolstoy is never time wasted. The Dover blurb calls some of these stories “hard to find,” so the volume might be of more value to a Tolstoy completest than to a casual reader. The stories appear in chronological order and the later stories reflect a mature talent that had not yet developed in the earlier stories.

The narrator of the “The Raid” is the early version of an embedded journalist. He is a civilian who wants to learn something of war, and to that end seeks out a captain who is on a campaign in the Caucasus. The narrator and the captain discuss theories of bravery and cowardice. The narrator also contemplates the reasons for war and wonders how it can coexist with nature. The story is interesting but, even for 1853, far from groundbreaking in its philosophical explorations.

The narrator of “The Snow-Storm” undertakes a perilous journey by carriage to the next town in the middle of a blizzard, when whiteout conditions make it impossible to stay on the road. The driver seems to vacillate between an acceptance of fate, whatever that might turn out to be, and a desire to avoid death on the frozen steppe. The story is notable for its vivid descriptions and contrasts; less so for the story it tells, which is less observant of human nature than Tolstoy’s later work.

“The Bear-Hunt,” like “The Snow-Storm,” is based on an actual event in Tolstoy’s life. It contains the memorable line (spoken by the narrator’s hunting companion), “He’s eating the master! He’s eating the master!” The moral of the story is, if you insist on shooting a bear, you’d better kill it, because you don’t want to make an enemy of an angry bear.

Zhílan is on his way home from war in the Caucasus when he is captured by Tartars and becomes “A Prisoner in the Caucasus.” The Tartars hold Zhílan and another Russian for ransom. While awaiting a ransom that he knows will never come, Zhílan befriends a Tartar child while plotting his escape. The story is again based on a real incident in Tolstoy’s life and is notable for the fact that his captors (presumably religious since they adhere to Muslim prayer rituals) are generally quite decent to Zhílan until his first escape attempt, although that may be because he only has value to them as a living hostage.

“Two Old Men” decide to take a pilgrimage on foot to Jerusalem before they die, putting their affairs in the hands of their family members. Along the way, as seems fitting for a religious pilgrimage, one man stays behind to feed a starving family, finally returning home when he is nearly out of money. The other completes the journey but returns to find that his family has not managed well in his absence. The friend who failed to go to Jerusalem, on the other hand, is doing very well. Tolstoy’s point, expressly articulated in the last sentence, is that making a show of worshipping God is less important for the soul than expressing your love for humanity by doing good to others. That will always be a timely message. This is my favorite story in the volume.

“The Godson” is a parable about a boy who goes in search of his godfather, is told not to enter a room (which, of course, he enters), and is tasked with lessening the evil in the world as punishment for the evil he causes. The lesson the boy learns is that “evil cannot be removed by evil.” Another timely message, as is the lesson about how to rid the world of evil (hint: making a show of righteous piety won’t do it).

A boy who is berated by his father commits the transgression suggested by the title of “A Forged Coupon.” At the urging of a friend, he cheats a shopkeeper who cheats a peasant who later commits crimes of his own that indirectly cause others to commit crimes, including murder. One point of “The Forged Coupon” is that rich people believe themselves to be above the law and are often treated that way by the government, while the poor people they abuse are punished disproportionately when they are driven to lawless action. Some things never change. The novella’s second part is about guilt, redemption, and the vanity of judgment. Just as the crime in part one had unintended consequences, part two suggests that good acts can cause good fortune that the actor never contemplates. The first half of the novella is riveting, while the second half is a bit preachy.

“After the Dance” starts as an old man’s remembrance of a woman with whom he danced at a ball when he was young. The woman also danced with her father, a colonel, and the young man admired the father’s obvious love for her. But in the morning the young man sees the colonel beating a soldier who tried to desert and cannot reconcile the colonel’s brutality with the tenderness he saw the night before. The observation prompts the young man, and the reader, to wonder whether an inability to understand the colonel’s duality renders the young man unfit for military service.

The shortest story in the volume is my second favorite. “Alyosha the Pot” is a hard-working but dull-witted young man who is so dependable that many people in a merchant’s home come to rely on his labor. When the young cook, Ustinia, befriends him, he is shocked and worried that her friendship might interfere with his work. Yet he is also pleased. “He felt for the first time in his life that he — not his services, but he himself — was necessary to another human being.” They want to wed but the merchant who employs them does not approve of married servants (particularly women, who might get pregnant), and Alyosha’s father, who collects all of Alyosha’s wages, forbids it. The story’s ending is tragic, although Alyosha doesn’t regard it that way, because he is content with the knowledge that he has done no harm in his simple life, and that everything works out for the best. Layers of complexity lurk beneath a simple story that invites readers to ask whether Alyosha, in his simplicity, understands the big picture better than deep thinkers, or whether Alyosha, in his simplicity, does not appreciate how those who exploit him have robbed him of the richness his life could have had.


PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
All HTML will be escaped. Hyperlinks will be created for URLs automatically.