This collection of some of Tolstoy's short stories were all written after he entered his "radical Christian communist" phase toward the end of his life.
To understand The Kreutzer Sonata
, it helps to know that Tolstoy's marriage was miserable at this point, which perhaps explains why the Sonata is basically an extended rant on the evils of sex. According to Tolstoy, it's the duty of all Christians to avoid marriage, and if they do get married, to avoid sex. He expresses this through the words of his narrator, a man who killed his wife after suspecting her of having an affair, but in an essay Tolstoy wrote (also included in this collection) he makes it explicit that The Kreutzer Sonata
actually expressed his genuine views on sex and marriage.
The remainder of stories in this collection are shorter, also very heavily Christian-themed, but are a bit more like folk-tales and thus more entertaining, as Tolstoy wrote with wonderful detail, painting vivid pictures of Russian peasant life.Ivan the Fool
is your basic fairy tale about the Devil singling someone out (in this case, three brothers) to torment them and basically break up their family. Naturally, you've got two greedy/evil brothers and one simple but virtuous brother who prevails in the end.A Lost Opportunity
is about a couple of feuding peasant families, and is basically a lesson in the evils of vengeance and holding grudges and the virtues of forgiveness.Polikushka, or, The Lot of a Wicked Court Servant
is the grimmest story in the lot. I'm not sure what point Tolstoy was trying to make, since it started out as an obvious morality tale, looked like it was going to become a story about redemption (Polikushka is a greedy, thieving drunkard who swears to reform), but ends bitterly and hopelessly.
Finally, there is The Candle
, about an evil, tyrannical landlord and the serfs he oppresses. This had what I'd called a "deux ex machina" ending; the serfs plot to free themselves of their landlord's tyranny, but in the end, fate (i.e., "God") does it. Which is I suppose an expected lesson in a Christian fable, but the lesson I read was, "Don't do anything for yourself, just wait for God to solve your problems for you."
If you want a small Tolstoy sampler without reading Anna Karenina
or War and Peace
, this is a good collection to read, but it's evident to me that for all his genius and his purported Christian ideals, Tolstoy was a really bitter, misanthropic individual.