Saturday, February 21, 2015

Story of a Prince

Father SergiusFather Sergius 
by Leo Tolstoy

"I lived for men on the pretext of living for God."  -  Leo Tolstoy, Father Sergius

This story is about a man with a problem. As the story opens you may not immediately realize what the problem is for he is described as "a handsome prince who everyone predicted would become aide-de-camp to the Emperor Nicholas I and have a brilliant career,". What could be better than that?  For young Prince Stepan Kasatsky apparently there was something better, for he "left the service, broke off his engagement to a beautiful maid of honor, a favorite of the Empress's, gave his small estate to his sister, and retired to a monastery to become a monk".

After a flashback to his youth and his success in all his efforts the narrator shares his decision to throw all of that over for the monastery. Yet, he did not change his personality and his primary motive of pride. For in becoming a Monk he was aiming to "be above those who considered themselves his superiors". Most of all he was consumed with "contempt with all that seemed most important to others and had seemed so to him while he was in the service". But is that really what the life of a monk is all about? He finds that it is not and his journey toward his own unique form of spirituality is just beginning at this point. It has a long way to go with many temptations for he has a great deal of difficulty dealing with his all-consuming pride and vanity.  Despite his being removed from the world, he is still remembered for having so remarkably transformed his life. One winter night, a group of merry-makers decide to visit him, and one of them, a divorced woman named Makovkina, spends the night in his cell, with the intention to seduce him.  She inflames Sergius to the point where he resorts to personal physical mutilation.  It is a painful and dramatic moment, but the effect wears off making the episode seem pointless in retrospect.

This tale, while differing in details from others from Tolstoy's pen, seems to adhere to a pattern of presenting a protagonist living a problem-filled life which ends in a miraculous reversal of character. For Sergius his ultimate conversion (some might say redemption) comes in a dream. But several pages before his dream he has a moment alone under an elm tree that seems to foreshadow his ultimate change. The narrator described the landscape at this moment at the cusp of the end of the day in terms of such natural beauty that it seemed to be touched with the ghost of St. Francis of Assisi.

One thing missing from Sergius's life is happiness. He first has worldly success followed by weariness, vanity, striving, and ultimately acceptance of what he claimed to be the feeling of god within him. He seemed to be fulfilling what was revealed to him to be god's plan, but some might question the nature of his revelation. Could it have been yet another form of the hubris that afflicted him his whole life? Possibly one might say, that once a Prince - always a Prince.

View all my reviews


Brian Joseph said...

Of course this book sounds fascinating to me.

I am in the middle of reading Anthony Trollope's The Last Chronicle of Barset and the character of Reverend Crawley reminds me a little bit of Sergius. he is very religious, pious and intellectual. Yet inside he sees his attributes as making him superior to others.

James said...


Your connection seems apt indeed. Having read The Last Chronicle of Barset almost two decades ago I do not remember much about the story, but I cannot forget Mr. Crawley. He is a memorable character whose attributes are similar to those of Tolstoy's Prince.
I look forward to your review of Trollope's fine novel.