The Forged Coupon
by Leo Tolstoy
"Lying in the ditch, Stepan constantly saw before him the meek, thin, frightened face of Marya Semyonovna and heard her voice: 'Can it be?'--she said in her peculiar, he lisping, pitiful voice. And Stepan would again live through all he had done to her. And he became frightened, and closed his eyes and wagged his hairy head, so as to shake these thoughts and memories out of it." - Leo Tolstoy, "The Forged Coupon"
The stories of Leo Tolstoy are linked by what the French scholar and translator Michel Aucouturier calls Tolstoy's "gift of concrete realisation", and an ever-restless breed of philosophical inquiry – a combination that could produce works of an intensity that surprises even after repeated readings.
Tolstoy's greatest short story, The Death of Ivan Ilyich revolves around the eponymous judge discovering, as he slowly, painfully expires, that his entire life has been a sham, built on bourgeois trivialities and bereft of love. Even at his end his family cannot comfort him – "he saw that no one would feel sorry for him, because no one even wanted to understand his situation" – leaving him to receive succor from Gerasim, the butler's helper. Tolstoy himself often contemplated suicide throughout the latter half of his life, but his fear of death was greater even than his suspicion of the meaninglessness of existence. It has been suggested that Tolstoy calmed himself by reading the Scriptures. Apprehending this adds another layer to the terrifyingly powerful climax of Ivan Ilyich, in which Ivan's rapture ("There was no more fear because there was no more death") does not convince, but jars against his earlier, terrible description of death as "that black sack into which an invisible, invincible force was pushing him".
Tolstoy's understanding of death, informed by his wartime experiences in Silistria and Crimea, seems to me unique in literature. Both visceral and meditative, it attains a sort of frozen horror when he describes the thought processes of serial killer Stepan in The Forged Coupon. This story is divided into two parts. In Part I, schoolboy Mitya is in desperate need of money to repay a debt, but his father angrily denies him assistance. Dejected, under the instigation of a friend Makhin, Mitya simply changes a 2.50 rouble bond coupon to read 12.50 roubles, but this one evil deed sets off a chain of events that affects the lives of dozens of others, when his one falsehood indirectly causes a man to murder a woman at the end of Part I, and then seek redemption through religion in Part II.
Having written the novella in his dying years, after his excommunication, Tolstoy relishes the chance to unveil the "pseudo-piety and hypocrisy of organized religion." Yet, he maintains an unwavering belief in man's capacity to find truth, so the story remains hopeful, especially in Part II, which shows that good works can affect another as in a domino effect, just as evil does in Part I. The depiction of Stepan is particularly fascinating as his character reminds the reader of other Tolstoyan characters who are changed by the power of scripture. His story and the fate of Mitya are keen moments in this set of chain-like stories.
The novella is sometimes translated with the title "The Counterfeit Note" or "The Forged Banknote." Whatever its name this is a powerful tale that features fascinating characters, each given a brief moment in the story, and a thought-provoking depiction of the power of fate.
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