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Leo Tolstoy—What Men Live By

If you have any doubt about the theme of this little fable presented by the great Russian writer, the six separate scriptural epigraphs should help to clarify matters. “Love,” it seems clear, must be at the center of this story. I cannot read this story without thinking of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez’ story, “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” More on that in a moment.
In Tolstoy’s story, Simon, a poor shoemaker, heads to town in order to collect some debts and buy sheepskins in order to make himself a decent winter coat. After his debtors let him down, leaving him with only a few cents, Simon heads home. En route, he encounters a naked man, Michael, shivering near a shrine. He brings the man home, makes an apprentice of him, and eventually experiences a measure of prosperity as the youth emerges as a skilled craftsman.
As the story concludes, we learn that Michael is indeed an angel being punished by God for a moment of disobedience. After a series of personal revelations, which serve to restore him into God’s good graces, Michael’s angelic glory is revealed and he heads back into heavenly service, leaving Simon without an assistant.
The Garcia-Marquez story serves as a worthy counterpoint to this one. In that story, a winged man, presumably an angel, appears after a storm. The family in that story, assuming the man to be angelic, treats him abysmally, housing him in a chicken coop and exploiting him for their own monetary gain. In Tolstoy’s story, the family does not recognize Michael’s true nature yet treats him very well. In both cases, we revisit the Homeric theme of hospitality, seen in The Odyssey.
For my taste, Tolstoy’s story is a bit too didactic to be completely pleasing. Rather than following Poe’s idea of “Singleness of Effect” and beginning with a desired effect, Tolstoy begins with a message, rarely the route to achieving great literature. In fact, as we proceed through the stories of Eyes to See, the genius on view is that of authors capable of revealing a worldview without preaching, of expressing Christianity without appearing as apologists.

Posted in Realism, Russian Literature.

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