28 pages 56 minutes read

Leo Tolstoy

What Men Live By

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1885

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “What Men Live By”

“What Men Live By” is a short story published in 1885 by Russian author Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy is considered one of the great 19th-century Russian writers and is best known for his novels, Anna Karenina and War and Peace. During his lifetime, he received both the Nobel Peace Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature, among other honors. “What Men Live By” was written after Tolstoy’s religious awakening and published after Confession, his treatise on melancholia, philosophy, and religion.

This guide refers to the translation made by Louise and Aylmer Maude, which is available on Project Gutenberg. The Maudes were Tolstoy’s original English language translators. Tolstoy was friends with the couple and read and approved their translations of his work. Even among the many modern translations, the Maude translations of Tolstoy are considered to be accurate and engaging.

The story is centered around the moral and religious question posed by the title, asking whether men live to care for themselves or love others. Set against the backdrop of late-Imperial Russia, it follows a poor rural couple, Simon and Matryona, and the spiritual lessons they learn after taking in an unhoused man.

The opening emphasizes the precarious financial position Simon and his family are in. Simon, the village shoemaker, has set out to collect money he is owed in order to buy the materials necessary for a new coat. Only able to obtain a small portion of the money, Simon gives in to his despair and spends a small amount of money on vodka. Stumbling home, he worries aloud over how to care for his family, berating those who haven’t paid him in his anger.

As dusk falls, Simon approaches the shrine at the end of the road. Seeing a man lying naked against it, he at first fears that the man has been murdered and that he will be implicated. At first, he walks past, but his conscience wins out and he returns to help him.

While giving the man his own clothes and helping him up, Simon is quickly struck by the kindness of the man’s face. Bringing the man along with him, he asks him questions about his provenance and circumstances, to which the man simply responds that God has punished him. Though Simon worries over his failed attempt to get a coat and his wife’s reaction to him returning home with a stranger, he feels glad to be able to help someone.

At the house, Matryona has been dealing with household matters, fretting over whether the family can make the bread they have last through the week and whether Simon managed to get good material for a coat. When Simon appears at the door with the stranger, she thinks he has spent all their money on alcohol and brought home someone that he met on a drinking spree. Matryona, upset that Simon appears to have lost all their money, snaps that she has no supper for him and starts to storm out of the house. She does not cross the threshold, however, becoming consumed with curiosity over the nature of the stranger.

Simon tells the story of finding the man at the shrine, and when Matryona is still angry, he appeals to her love of God. This softens her heart toward the man, and she offers food and drink to him. As they begin to eat, the man looks up at Matryona and smiles.

Praising their care for him, he says “God will reward you” (Part 4, paragraph 9). Matryona gives him one of Simon’s shirts and a pair of trousers and offers him shelter for the night. All three go to bed, with Simon and Matryona wondering over the man and worrying about their circumstances.

The next morning, the stranger reveals his name is Michael, and Simon offers him work as his assistant. A year passes, and Simon, largely due to Michael’s assistance, becomes successful and well-off, with people from across the district going to Simon to buy their shoes. One day, a gentleman arrives at Simon’s hut with expensive leather and asks Simon to make boots that will last for a year without losing shape or coming undone. If he accepts the job but the boots do not last, he will be thrown in prison. Simon asks Michael if he should accept the work, and Michael says yes.

While Simon measures the gentleman, Michael appears to see something behind the gentleman that causes him to smile. After the gentleman departs, Matryona and Simon remark on his impressive figure and how he seems like he will never die.

Simon begins work on the boots, asking Michael to cut the leather. Michael does so, but instead of cutting the leather for boots, he cuts it into the shape of soft slippers. As Simon begins to panic over the wasted leather, the lord’s servant returns, telling Simon that the lord died in the carriage on the way home. He requests that instead of boots, he now use the leather to make soft slippers for the corpse. Michael hands over the slippers he made and the servant departs.

Years pass until Michael has been with Simon and Matryona for six years. One day, a finely dressed woman with two small girls, one of whom walks with a limp, arrives at the hut. Michael appears to recognize the girls, though they do not seem to know him. The woman orders shoes for both girls and tells the story of how she came to adopt them. Their father died before they were born, and their mother died less than a day after. When the mother died, she fell onto one of them, leaving her with a limp. The woman was the only one in the village who had a baby at the time, so she took them in. As the years passed and her own child died, she grew to love the two girls as her own. Matryona remarks that the old proverb is true: “One may live without father or mother, but one cannot live without God” (Part 9, paragraph 4). As the conversation continues, a light suddenly falls on Michael, and he appears to be glowing, smiling for a third time.

After the woman departs, Michael approaches Simon and Matryona and proclaims that God has forgiven him. Simon asks how he angered God, and Michael recounts how he was an angel, the very angel sent to collect the soul of the mother of the two girls they had just met. Saddened by her plight, he returned to God without taking the mother’s soul. God bade him return to take the mother’s soul and learn three truths: “What dwells in man, What is not given to man, and What men live by” (Part 10, paragraph 5). As the mother’s soul rose to God, Michael fell to Earth, landing at the shrine where Simon found him.

Michael says that at first, both Simon and Matryona were terrifying to him, but once they began to help him, they became alive and taught him the first truth: What dwells in a man is Love. Years passed, and when the gentleman came to order boots, Michael saw the angel of death standing behind him. This prompted him to make the slippers and taught him the second truth: What is not “given to man is to know his own needs” (Part 11, paragraph 4). The reappearance of the twin girls whose mother’s death set him on this journey showed him that despite their mother’s plea, they were living good lives without either parent. This, Michael says, showed him the last truth: What men live by is God.

He once again proclaims his new understanding and the goodness of men living in harmony and working together. Announcing that “He who has love, is in God, and God is in him, for God is love” he at last ascends to heaven (Part 12, paragraph 4).