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28 pages 56 minutes read

Leo Tolstoy

What Men Live By

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1885

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Symbols & Motifs

Clothing

Clothing is used as a symbol within the story to show how well-off characters are. The story’s inciting incident is that Simon and Matryona need a new coat. Michael’s nakedness is a key point of concern in whether they should care for him—if they cannot even clothe themselves, how will they provide for another who needs even more than they do? His lack of clothing is also a visual illustration of how bereft he is—a man without even clothes on his back. Matryona’s initial anger peaks with her demand that Simon “Give [him her] jacket. It is the only one I have, and you must needs take it from me and wear it yourself” (Part 3, paragraph 19). Giving up the clothing, i.e., pragmatic material security, saves not only Michael but also Matryona.

Other depictions of clothing are similarly symbolic. The gentleman wears a fur coat and has German leather for his boots, signs of his excess and selfishness. The twin girls and their adoptive mother are also well-dressed and comfortable, but in this instance, it shows the care the mother has for her young charges. The gentleman’s wealth doesn’t protect him from death, while the twins’ clothing proves that God provides.

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