The Devil by Leo Tolstoy

Both of the Tolstoy titles included in the Art of the Novella series are later works. The Death of Ivan Ilych was published in 1886, 11 years after Anna Karenina and 17 years after War and Peace. And while The Devil wasn’t published until the twentieth century, it was apparently written around 1888, the same time Tolstoy was working on The Kreutzer Sonata. I don’t know exactly where I would put a “break” in Tolstoy’s work, where I would say it comes under new management, to paraphrase a comment by Amateur Reader, but the two novellas, like The Kreutzer Sonata, have the polemicist out in full force, doing his best to drown the novelist.

Here, with The Devil, my impatience with this late Tolstoy feels unfair. The story is one near to the author’s heart: a young landowner, recently inheriting an estate, goes to live on it and, unused to being away from the sexual services readily available in the city, arranges to have meetings with a peasant woman whose husband is away in town. Stepanida is described as a “peasant” in this Louise and Aylmer Maude translation, and it’s not immediately clear from the novella (at least to me) when it’s set, and therefore whether she is simply a peasant or really a serf.* When Tolstoy himself had such relations and similarly impregnated a country woman who wasn’t his wife, she was a serf—that is to say, all but his chattel slave.

Yevgeny, our young landowner, feels very badly about what he’s done. He’s addicted to sex, addicted to Stepanida, and even his truly angelic wife can’t keep his mind set firmly on hearth and home. There’s nothing for it, he must forcibly separate himself and Stepanida so they can never again see each other—sex is that powerful. And he wants to be a respectable family man, not constantly racked with guilt.

What’s wrong with all this, then? To be sure, I don’t advocate adultery and deception, and if Tolstoy wanted to encourage young men to avoid debauching their servants and taking such advantage of their social position to ruin the lives of those dependent on them, good for him. But it’s how it’s done. Yevgeny is revoltingly weak-willed; God help us if all men are so. Stepanida is all but “asking for it” every time she looks at him with those playful eyes of hers. And there are other signs of Tolstoy’s obsessions. Yevgeny’s wife isn’t simply “an angel in the house,” she’s an obvious contrast to women like Ivan Ilych’s widow and the wife in The Kreutzer Sonata, suppressing as much of her hysteria around childbirth as humanly possible, or something. Here are some of Tolstoy’s—sorry, I mean the narrator’s—thoughts on “the gift which furnishes the chief delight of a relationship with a loving woman”:

[I]mmediately after marriage his wife decided that Yevgeny Irtenev was superior to anyone else in the world: wiser, purer, and nobler than they, and that therefore it was right for everyone to serve him and please him; but that as it was impossible to make everyone do this, she must do it herself to the limit of her strength. And she did; directing all her strength of mind towards learning and guessing what he liked, and then doing just that thing, whatever it was and however difficult it might be.

…[T]hanks to her love of her husband she penetrated into his soul. She knew his every state and his every shade of feeling—better it seemed to him than he himself—and she behaved correspondingly and therefore never hurt his feelings, but always lessened his distresses and strengthened his joys. And she understood not only his feelings but also his joys. Things quite foreign to her—concerning the farming, the factory, or the appraisement of others—she immediately understood so that she could not merely converse with him, but could often, as he himself said, be a useful and irreplaceable counselor. She regarded affairs and people and everything in the world only through his eyes….

Besides all this she had very good taste, much tact, and above all she had repose. All that she did, she did unnoticed; only the results of what she did were observable, namely, that always and in everything there was cleanliness, order, and elegance. Liza had at once understood in what her husband’s ideal of life consisted, and she tried to attain, and in the arrangement and order of the house did attain, what he wanted.

Can you blame me for allowing things like this to bring out my sarcastic side (never too far buried)? Yevgeny is a despicable child. Tolstoy may want me to despise him, but he seems to make it so only by infantilizing all men. Amateur Reader asked, regarding The Death of Ivan Ilych, whether the story was meant to be universal. It’s a good question, and that means a hard one. For Ivan Ilych, I might have to re-read to say more assuredly, but here I think there is no real evidence, and not much suggestion, that Yevgeny’s vices are universal to men (leaving off the epigram, from the Book of Matthew). And yet there is so much outside evidence—shout “inadmissible!” all you like, and I’ll agree with you, but also note that you just can’t un-know things—that Tolstoy did consider these problems absolutely pervasive between men and women.

Some of this outside evidence comes from his biography, but much of it also comes from his other work—for example, The Kreutzer Sonata. For the most part, these complaints don’t really speak to aesthetics. Tolstoy was a very good writer. But not always—in Kreutzer, I’ve argued, there is a very real danger of interpreting the novel contrary to authorial intent because of a highly unreliable narrator that it turns out Tolstoy agrees with at every turn based on extratextual evidence. And there, that evidence is an afterword he wrote specifically to clear that question up.

*Yevgeny does seem to be under the impression that he can decide where Stepanida and her husband live, at least to some extent, maybe, but this is the best evidence I can find.

5 comments to The Devil by Leo Tolstoy

  • MJ

    I really, really disliked this book. I’m sure I’m supposed to read it as seeing Yevgeny as “the devil” but I just see too much Tolstoy in him, and Tolstoy specifically names Stepanida as the devil. I just couldn’t get past that.

  • I’d say those passages are some strong textual evidence for “this novella is incredibly annoying.” I have encountered the assumption that “all men are so” in certain novels (Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook leaps to mind), and it’s very difficult to parse because it reflects my reality not at all, yet seems self-evident to the narrators and, I can only believe, to the authors as well.

  • Without excusing Tolstoy for an annoyingly didactic story, the blurb claims this was not published in his lifetime, but found stuffed into a chair. It is possible he wrote the story for its purgative effect.

  • If you want to pile on, or run up the score, or whatever the right metaphor is, read Tolstoy’s ca. 1890 story “Father Sergius” next.

  • I love your sarcastic side. And have been avoiding this one but not for long I suppose. But that narrator/Tolstoy conflation you point out…