After his first two major full-length novels, 'War and Peace' and 'Anna Karenina', Tolstoy did not neglect the short story form which had played so prominent a part in his youthful literary endeavors. In any comparison of his accomplishments in this genre during the early and later periods, one is struck by the somewhat limited output in the second in terms of the forty years involved. Several reasons for the disparity come to mind, but perhaps the important one is that Tolstoy's enormous success in the novel served to lessen his interest in the short story.
Still more striking is the marked thematic difference between the short stories in the two periods. With a few exceptions those in the later period do not appear to have been written to enhance a literary reputation. Most of them seem to be inspired by an uneasy conscience or a deliberate subjective purpose, yet among them are several short stories that have often been acclaimed as Tolstoy's greatest. Of course, the difference in his approach and subject matter was connected with the spiritual crisis he underwent at the beginning of the 1880's, an experience which, as already indicated, altered the course of his life as well as his attitude toward art.
The earliest group of these short stories, written in 1872 between 'War and Peace' and 'Anna Karenina', Tolstoy regarded as "Tales for Children." He was dubious about the practice of writing stories specifically for youngsters and would probably have agreed with Chekhov's advice that one should select for children something truly artistic that has been written for adults. The tales in this group appear to be closely connected with Tolstoy's return to pedagogical pursuits in 1870, one result of which, as we have seen, was his ABC Book containing a complete educational curriculum for beginning pupils. In preparing its reading selections, he pored over collections of Russian mediaeval legends and the folk tales of a dozen countries, paying particular attention to the style of those he translated. The simplicity and clarity of these folk narratives plainly influenced the original tales he wrote for his ABC Book. In fact, more than ten years before he began to think seriously about the ideas that guided his notable treatise, 'What Is Art?', he had hit upon one of its salient contentions — that the language of sophisticated literature was less effective, artistically, than the language of the so-called popular literature of uneducated folk.
There is much of the fetching artlessness of folk tales in "God Sees the Truth, but Waits," for the emotional power of its message of forgiveness gains in impressiveness by virtue of the uncontrived simplicity of motivation and characterization. In the end, Aksyonov's triumphant faith in God transforms an unjust punishment into an act of beatification. The theme of a merchant who was condemned for a crime he did not commit and who accepted his tribulations in a spirit of Christian forgiveness was a favourite of Tolstoy's, and he used it earlier, in memorable circumstances, in the story told in 'War and Peace' by the peasant, Platon Karataev.
Though a youngster might not easily perceive the moral significance of "God Sees the Truth, but Waits," he would have no difficulty appreciating the simple feelings of fear, courage, pity, and endurance which Tolstoy illustrated without didacticism in "A Prisoner in the Caucasus." Moreover, the youngster would understand and approve the efforts of Dina, the charmingly portrayed little Tartar girl to free the Russian officer Zhilin, captured by her people, even though she risked severe punishment. She was won over not so much by the clever toys he made for her as by his courage, fearlessness, and strength of character, which aroused in her feminine feelings strange in one so young. The adult reader, however, will take pleasure in the work as a well-told story of adventure in the tradition of Tolstoy's early Caucasian tales, but at the same time differing from them in its special individuality and in its clarity and sincerity of expression. And again, like the early Caucasian short stories, it is based on a personal experience — once, in an exposed position as a cadet in the Russian forces, Tolstoy barely escaped capture by the Tartars.
The third and last story in this group for children, "The Bear-Hunt," likewise grew out of an actual incident — in 1858 Tolstoy, while hunting with a friend, was attacked by a huge bear that had been wounded, and he almost lost his life. Though the details of the real and fictional accounts are quite similar, in the latter one may observe the transmuting power of Tolstoy's art manifesting itself in the wonderfully realistic descriptions of winter scenes on the first day of the hunt, the sleeping and awakening in the woods, and much else, all of which appears to be entirely imaginary.
It is worth pointing out that Tolstoy regarded "God Sees the Truth, but Waits" and "A Prisoner in the Caucasus" as the best of all his many short stories. In consigning the whole corpus of his works to the category of "bad art" in 'What Is Art?' he made exceptions of these two tales, placing the first in the highest category of "religious art" and the second in the category of "universal art."
It has been pointed out that after his spiritual conversion Tolstoy devoted himself to the theory and practice of a new faith that amounted to a form of Christian anarchism incompatible with the kind of emphasis he had been placing on fiction. There is even a suggestion that he would like to have broken cleanly with art just as he flatly rejected the kind of life he had previously led. If now, however, he was unable to abandon imaginative writing, he was determined that it would be consistent with the new morality and ethics to which he subscribed. And it must be said that nearly everything he did write after his conversion was conceived and executed, in varying degrees, in the spirit of his new faith. That is, he sought to create in terms of the categories he established in 'What Is Art?' — religious art that transmits feelings of love of God and one's neighbour, and universal art that transmits the very simplest feelings common to all men. The remarkable fact is that not a few of these works must be included among his most memorable artistic achievements.
The qualities Tolstoy now sought in art he detected in the old religious legends and folk tales he had combed in connection with the compilation of his ABC Book. The fact that the Russian masses lacked easy accessibility to inexpensive editions of such literature prompted him to explore the matter. One consequence was the establishment, in 1884, of a publishing firm called Intermediary, the main purpose of which was to make available to the people cheap booklets containing fiction and illustrations reflecting the essence of Tolstoy's Christian teaching. Initially the business was headed by his disciple V. G. Chertkov.
In 1882 Tolstoy had published "What Men Live By," a beautiful retelling of the old legend of the angle sent to earth by God to teach men to live by love. Chertkov, impressed by the widespread popularity of this short story, urged Tolstoy to contribute similar tales to Intermediary. He did, and no doubt the initial popularity of the firm's booklets may be attributed to the fact that three of the early ones contained stories from his pen. His conviction that the masses would read good literature if they could afford to buy it was proved to the hilt, for these Intermediary booklets, Russia's "paperbacks," priced at the equivalent of a cent, sold twelve million copies in the first four years of the existence of the firm.
The second grouping among these later short stories could be described as "Folk Tales and Legends." It is made up of a series of narratives written mostly for Intermediary and hence aimed primarily at peasants and workers, but their simplicity and charm delight young and old of all social classes. Sources of most if not all of these stories may be found in oral and written literature of the folk, but in retelling the tales Tolstoy has made them entirely his own. He declared in an article, "Truth in Art" (l887), that
"there are fairy tales, parables, legends, in which marvellous things are described that never happened or ever could happen, and these legends, fairy tales, and fables are true, because they show wherein the will of God has always been, and is, and will be: they show the truth of the kingdom of God."
In these pieces for Intermediary he strove to retain the artlessness of folk literature, its customary trappings of devils, imps, supernatural happenings, repetition of motifs, and other-worldly plots, but at the same time he used them to impart his own moral and religious convictions. And the narrative style he employs has nothing of the saturated realism of his previous fiction. It has the biblical simplicity of one of his favourite tales, that of Joseph and his coat of many colours. The unknown author of this story, Tolstoy writes in 'What Is Art?'
" did not need to describe in detail, as would be done nowadays, the blood-stained coat of Joseph, the dwelling and dress of Jacob, the pose and attire of Potiphar's wife, and how adjusting the bracelet on her left arm she said, 'Come to me,' and so on, because the content of feeling in this tale is so strong that all details except the most essential — such as that Joseph went out into another room to weep — are superfluous and would only hinder the transmission of emotion. And therefore this tale is accessible to all men, touches people of all nations and classes young and old, and has lasted to our times and will last for thousands of years to come."
"Two Old Men" (1885), "Where Love Is, God Is" (1885), and "The Repentant Sinner" (1886) fall into Tolstoy's category of "religious art" which transmits feelings of love of God and one's neighbour. The moral of the first story — that the best way to keep one's vow to God and to do His will is for each man to show love and do good to others — does not seem contrived in this appealing narrative of the two old friends who set out on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. One fails to get there because of his compulsion to help a starving family on the road, whereas his comrade, who reaches the goal and performs all the conventional acts of worship, comes away religiously unmoved. The bland flavour of biblical narrative suffuses "Where Love Is, God Is," and the same may be said of "The Repentant Sinner," but the "instructional" purpose of both stories is allowed to remain too close to the surface.
Characteristic folk-tale content and narrative method predominate in the remaining stories of the group, except for the very brief pieces, "Evil Allures, but God Endures" (1885), "Little Girls Wiser than Men" (1885), and "Elias" (1885), which Tolstoy wrote as illustrative texts to accompany pictures reproduced in Intermediary. His intention is to portray the simplest feelings common to all men which, as indicated, he later associated with the category, "universal art." In this respect he succeeds, sometimes quite brilliantly. However, in pure folk literature a moral lesson, if any, is never made explicit, and whenever present it is subordinated to narrative interest in incident and character. This is not always the case with Tolstoy. Though the story of the enmity of peasant neighbours in "A Spark Neglected Burns the House" (1885) is absorbing, the old father's moral preaching conveys the impression that the incidents were deliberately devised to prove that one must forgive one's enemies and, if necessary, turn the other cheek.
On the other hand, "The Story of Ivan the Fool" (1885) is an unblemished folk tale, in which Ivan emerges as a convincing popular hero. There is some humour in Ivan's repeated frustration of the devil's designs on him, and in his dedication to hard work there is an exemplification of a solid folk virtue which is contrasted with the vain hopes of easy success on the part of his two brothers. It has been said that the story contains an indictment of militarism and commercialism, but if this is so the indictment is never allowed to obtrude upon the artistic unity of the narrative. The same may be said of the so-called anti-war element in "The Empty Drum" (1891), another effective retelling of a folk tale which, according to Tolstoy, was still current in the Volga region. There is also humor in "The Three Hermits" (1886). The rather pompous bishop, after teaching the Lord's Prayer to the ignorant hermits on an island, decides they need no further lessons in the faith when he discovers them running on the surface of the water in pursuit of his ship to seek further instruction from him.
The moral lesson in "The Imp and the Crust" (1886) is a natural part of the story, in which the devil finally tricks the kind peasant into drunkenness. If Tolstoy's handling of this gem of a folk tale is regarded as a plea for temperance, it is a conclusion that must be drawn by the reader, for it is never explicitly stated in the text. Tolstoy's dramatization of the story, a comedy entitled 'The First Distiller' (1886), which will be considered in a later chapter, does turn out to be an amusing piece of forthright temperance propaganda.
Though interesting characteristics of the Russian peasantry are reflected in "A Grain As Big As a Hen's Egg" (1886) and "The Godson" (1886), the first appears to have been written specifically to demonstrate that people then, unlike their forebears, have ceased to live by their own labor and depend on that of others. The second is oddly complicated for a story in the folk-tale tradition, perhaps because Tolstoy imposed upon it the dual purpose of showing that one must care more about others than about oneself, and that one must not fear death if one wishes to make one's heart fast to God. It is unnecessary to append a moral to the well-known and consummately narrated "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" (1886), for the whole story is about the traditional greed of the peasants for land. The failing betrays one of them, who in the end discovers too late that all the land he requires is the six feet in which he is buried. This uncompromising object lesson in the vanity of human wishes was later repudiated by Chekhov in his tale "Gooseberries," where the narrator pointedly declares:
"Man needs not six feet of earth, not a farm, but the whole globe, all nature, where he will have room for the full play of all the capacities and peculiarities of his free spirit."
Before the end of the 1880's Tolstoy appears to have lost interest in turning popular legends and tales into short stories that would illuminate his religious and moral convictions. In 1903, however, a special circumstance led him to attempt more stories of this kind. He was invited to contribute to a volume on behalf of persecuted Jews of Russia, especially those attacked that year — in the terrible pogroms at Kishinev. Other distinguished authors, including Chekhov, gladly offered manuscripts for the proposed book. Tolstoy's three brief stories for this purpose were translated into Yiddish by the eminent Jewish writer Sholom Aleichem and appeared in a volume published in Warsaw.
The economy of means in the first of these stories "Esarhaddon, King of Assyria," with its simple moral preachment that when you harm others you harm yourself because all life is one, is matched by "Work, Death, and Sickness," a retelling, says Tolstoy, of a religious legend current among South American Indians. Here, in four short pages, he drives home the lesson that work ought to unite all men so that they might live in unity and love. The last of these tales written to aid the Jewish sufferers, "Three Questions," is equally succinct in detailing the manner in which a baffled king discovers answers to his problems.
The final group, his last short stories, consists of four which Tolstoy never published in his lifetime. In them he reverts to his early manner of fiction-writing before his spiritual conversion, with the difference that he still remains influenced by the special concerns of his new faith. At times he draws upon personal experiences as he did in so many of his previous creative works. This is especially true of "Memoirs of a Madman," which he began to write as early as 1884 and apparently never finished to his own satisfaction. It is a rather thinly disguised fictionized treatment of the oppressive fear of death, which he experienced before his religious change, and its relation to his growing belief that the kind of life he led then was irrational, fit only for a madman, and must be abandoned. Scenes of the visitation of death are as intensely and brilliantly realized as Prince Andrew's striking encounter with death in War and Peace.
In "After the Ball" (1903), the seventy-five-year-old Tolstoy goes back for inspiration to a love affair as a youthful student at Kazan University. But how vividly and freshly he evokes the atmosphere of the past by employing the saturated realism and psychological probing of his earlier art! At the end of the story, however, there lurks the aged Tolstoy's implied condemnation of the state as a kind of conspiracy not only to exploit citizens, but to demoralize them as well. For after the ball, when the young Ivan Vasilyevich, his mind still filled with the ecstasy of love, accidentally witnesses the horrifying spectacle of a deserter being fatally clubbed through the gauntlet of his fellow-soldiers at the command of a colonel, who is his beloved's father, the hero's passion for the daughter not only grows cold, but he mentally vows never to enter any form of government service.
There can be no doubt that "Fedor Kuzmich" (1905) was intended to be a long narrative, but even in its present unfinished state it may stand as a rather well-rounded short story. Again Tolstoy returns to artistic memories and methods of an earlier period, specifically to the historical novel, 'War and Peace', and one of its principal characters — Alexander I. Though there seems to be no diminution in his skill in handling the material of historical fiction, it is also clear that Alexander's attraction for him now is based more on ideological than artistic considerations. Accepting the allegation, believed by many at the time, that Alexander falsified his death in 1825 and secretly disappeared and became a repentant and holy hermit in Siberia, Tolstoy undertook to portray him in this light. Obviously he was intrigued by the analogy between his own hopes and aspirations in his last years and those of this emperor, who supposedly turned his back on a worldly existence in order, in poverty and humility, to live a religious life of thought and good deeds.
In the few highly concentrated pages devoted to "Alyosha" (1905), one of the last short stories Tolstoy wrote, he is again the pure artist, untroubled and uninfluenced by moral or religious preachments. Or perhaps it would be better to say that all he believed and hoped for is artistically sublimated in the radiant image of "Alyosha the pot," the simple peasant drudge who in his cheerful, self-sacrificing service to others discovers that perfect peace which Tolstoy sought for in vain at the end of his life. The story is a perfect masterpiece in miniature.