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Tolstoy Short Stories

Tolstoy Short Stories

Literature majors usually study the works of Leo Tolstoy's short stories when they have a course in World Literature. The writers at Paper Masters create custom projects on any of Tolstoy's short stories, with a focus on his most famous work, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Let our writers help you understand this Russian master of World Literature.

Leo Tolstoy examines the human condition in many of his short stories. The pervasive theme throughout 3 of his most well known stories:

  1. The Three Hermits
  2. Three Questions
  3. The Death of Ivan Ilyich

The Death of Ivan Ilyich is the study of the moral conflict man feels in accessing his own worth in relation to God, the universe and other men.

The moral conflict in Tolstoy's religious fable "The Three Hermits" is in faith and humility, whether it is more important to place simple faith in God and humble yourself before him or to value one's own status on earth. The fable tells the story of a bishop traveling on board a fishing boat, when he hears a fisherman tell a story about three hermits who live on a deserted island, holy men who live quietly in simple service to the Lord. The fisherman details how he was once stranded on the island and the hermits fed him and helped him mend his boat. When the bishop expresses an interest in meeting them, he is told it is not worth his time, that "they are foolish old fellows who understand nothing and never speak a word." But the bishop insists on meeting them, and upon finding their method of prayer inadequate - a simple chant to the heavens for God's mercy, begins to teach them the Lord's Prayer verbatim, telling them "you do not know how to serve Him." He works laboriously to teach them every word: "They blundered, and he corrected them, and made them begin again." After performing this service, the bishop sails off, only to see a distant white light on the water, which is revealed to be the hermits running atop the water to ask the bishop to teach them again as they had forgotten the words. The bishop, seeing the hermits imbued with the power of God, is thus humbled in the meaning of faith.

In Tolstoy's "Three Questions", the lesson lies in having a moral and useful purpose in life. This fable is about a king who seeks the answers to three questions - what is the right time to begin something, what are the right people to listen to, and what is the most important thing to do. If he knows the answers, he feels that he will be successful at anything he wishes to undertake.

The king listens to many conflicting suggestions, and dismisses them. The premise, in Tolstoy's worldview, illustrates the lack of moral judgment among the empowered. He felt "organized government was...a vast conspiracy against man, designed to exploit his labor" and "corrupt his soul." Instead, the king decides to seek the advice of a wise hermit living in the woods. The hermit is found digging in front of his hut. Again, Tolstoy "saw in the simple tillers of the soil, the hewers of wood, and the drawers of water, a deeper understanding of the meaning of life, of goodness, and of truth". When the king responds to the hermit's weakness by helping him dig the soil, he avoids an attempt on his life and is thus rewarded for his generosity. Tolstoy believed that to do good was the only way to achieve peace and happiness. By responding to the fundamental goodness within himself, the king resolved the issue of his purpose in life, that the only purpose is a moral one.

The central moral issue raised by Tolstoy in "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" is of life itself; that is, what is the point of our lives, and what is the value in living? Tolstoy's protagonist, Ivan Ilyich, is a mid-level lawyer and judge, who lives his life simply and without complications, bowing to the norms of society. He mostly just keeps up appearances. He weds because it is expected of him. He has naked ambition, making and using connections to attain higher office, and functioning at his job with the utmost efficiency and probity; he dispatches things, a human clearing-house: "Ivan Ilyich very soon acquired the art of eliminating all considerations irrelevant to the legal aspect...his own personal opinion completely excluded." He presides over his lifeless marriage with the same magisterial coldness, maintaining a residence, buying and adjusting furniture. When his wife becomes too disagreeable to face, he avoids her, absorbing himself in work, playing cards, and throwing parties so that the guests will divert him from any interaction with her. He is a well-paid clerk, at his job and his home.

His life, however, is drastically changed when he contracts a serious illness and is confronted by the same cold indifference from the doctors and his wife that he was accustomed to meting out to others in court. He craves warmth and sympathy; they merely try to keep up appearances. He is forced to re-examine his life and finds it has been all lies, all purposeless, "caught in such a mesh of falsity that it was difficult to disentangle anything." In his dying days, he refers often to his childhood - the last time he was truly free from ambition, from posturing, from status, and he views his current self as "trivial and disgusting", that he is a burden to his family, and that the purpose of living is dying. In coming to that realization, he loses his fear of death.

But he reaches a greater truth. He finds his only comfort in the selfless company of his servant Gerassim, who cares for him and eases his pain - and speaks of death openly. He is the anti-Ilyich, yet his young, strong vitality does not embitter Ivan Ilyich, whereas his wife and daughter's good health fills him with loathing. This is because Gerassim's way of living, of loyalty and concern for others, is what Ivan Ilyich should have been reaching for all his life. He resents his wife and daughter not for their good health, but for their wasted lives, their empty pastimes, such as going to the theater and making pointless conversation. In accepting death, in releasing his family of their burden, he achieves the highest state, a state of complete selflessness.

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