Sunday, April 26, 2015

A Moral Fable

The Devil
by Leo Tolstoy

"But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart."   -  (Matthew 5:28, RSV)

The Devil is a fable-like short story from the from the latter period of Tolstoy's fiction writing career, almost thirty years after his own marriage. In it two young men, Eugene Irtenev and his brother, are left a large inheritance after the death of their father. In spite of the debts associated with the inheritance, Eugene accepts it and buys off his brother's portion, thinking that he can sell off large tracts of land while making improvements to the rest. Living alone with his mother while working on the farm, Eugene misses the relations he had with women while living in St. Petersburg. After inquiring in the village, he is introduced to a young peasant named Stepanida whose husband lives away in the city. For several months Eugene and Stepanida have intimate encounters, with Eugene paying her each time. Eventually, Eugene's mother thinks it is time for him to get married, preferably to an heiress who will help them with their debts. However her plan is foiled when Eugene falls in love with Liza Annenskaya, a charming middle-class girl, and they are married after Eugene breaks off relations with Stepanida.

After a year of marriage, Liza employs two peasant women to help with cleaning the estate. One of them is Stepanida (quelle surprise).  When Eugene notices her, all the passion for her that he thought was forgotten comes rushing back (Surprise redux). He can't stop thinking about her and decides that she must be sent away. Liza later suffers a harmful fall while pregnant, and Eugene takes her for a rest cure to the Crimea for two months on doctor's orders. She gives birth to a daughter, and Eugene's financial prospects are starting to look promising. His estate is described as being in the best working condition it has ever been, and he thinks he is finally happy.

At a village festival, Eugene notices Stepanida dancing, and their glances re-awaken his desire (no longer surprising). Tormented by lust, he thinks of resuming relations with her, but realizes that the affair would cause too much of a scandal. Eugene says of Stepanida,
"She's a devil. An outright devil. She's taken possession of me against my will. Kill? yes. Only two ways out: kill my wife or her. Because to live like this is impossible." (p 204)
(Following this there are two versions of the ending presented by the translators, Pevear and Volokhonsky) Each version of the ending is fundamentally similar for while in the original version Eugene commits suicide with a revolver, in the revised version he kills Stepanida followed by prison and a return home where he drowns himself with drink.

This story seems like a straightforward cautionary tale with Eugene refusing to take responsibility for his own lack of moral fiber or will. Tolstoy is suggesting we should be responsible for our actions, but are we ever really able to control our will? Is there instead an "Imp of the Perverse" who takes control out of our hands and minds? That was an idea suggested by Edgar Allan Poe and it may be the reason why we sometimes lose our mind. If we are luckier than Eugene we may be able to keep our life (if not our mistress).

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Brian Joseph said...

Though perhaps juts a cautionary tale, it sounds as if the story takes many age old human questions.

Based on your commentary it also sounds as if Eugene is on a rollercoaster of feelings. I find that such experiences often make for interesting stories.

James said...


Yes, Eugene is buffeted about by his feelings with disastrous consequences.

Sharon Henning said...

HI James! Good review. I love Tolstoy but I don't think I've read this story before.
As far as free will goes, I think St. Paul nailed it when he said,
"That which I would do, I don't and that which I wouldn't, I do."
Have a great day!

James said...


Thanks for your apt quotation from St. Paul. Tolstoy would surely approve as he was wont to quote the New Testament.