In this lesson, we are going to read a short story titled “Three Questions” by the Russian author Leo Tolstoy, who was a highly acclaimed novelist, short story writer and essayist. We shall start with a discussion on the life and works of Tolstoy before delving into the text of the short story. Here, we shall also discuss the themes pervading the short story and analyse its various facets. Further, the style and the techniques that went in while composing the story shall be discussed. It might be important to note that Tolstoy was known for ‘realistic’ fiction.
Significantly, Leo Tolstoy was regarded by many including M.K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. as an influential advocate of ‘nonviolent resistance’. The present unit shall familiarise you with the moral aspect that pervades Tolstoy’s writings. The short story that we are going to read is written in the form of a parable. Let us reflect on what a parable is before we step further into the text of the story. In the previous unit, we have been familiarised with ‘fable’ as well as its difference from ‘parable’. However, the definition of ‘parable’ given below shall further help you in acknowledging the features of a parable. As put forward by M. H. Abrams in his A Glossary of Literary Terms, a “parable is a very short narrative about human beings presented to stress the tacit analogy, or parallel, with a general thesis or lesson that the narrator is trying to bring home to his audience” (p. 7). Thus, while reading the short story, we have to keep in mind that Tolstoy aims to provide an understanding regarding universal human phenomena and bring out the philosophical essence of life.
LEO TOLSTOY: HIS LIFE AND WORKS
In this section, we shall get an idea of the life led by Tolstoy whose full name was Leo Nikolaevitch Tolstoy, and his important contribution as a writer. In 1928 the Russian writer and philosopher, Leo Tolstoy was born near Moscow at Yasnaya Polyana, his family estate in Tula province. He came from an aristocratic family and his parents were Count Nikolai Ilitch Tolstoy and Princess Marya Nikolaevna Volkonskaya. He had three brothers and one sister. However, their fate turned out to an unexpected course when they lost their parents. Indeed, at two years of age, Tolstoy lost his mother and about this loss, Tolstoy was brought up by father’s distant cousin Tatyana Ergolskaya for a few years. When he lost his father at the age of nine, Alexandra Osten-Saken became the legal guardian. However, upon Alexandra’s death, the children were taken care of by their father’s sister who lived in Kazan, Russia. Tolstoy received his early education at home before he enrolled in the university in 1843 to pursue Oriental Languages and Law. However, he left the university midway in 1847 and returned to Yasnaya Polynaya as he sorted out that he would become a farmer and help the poor. Following his elder brother, Tolstoy then joined the Russian army in 1851. His marriage to Sofia Andreevna Bers was notably an unhappy one although they had thirteen children. Indeed, their marriage deteriorated as Tolstoy’s ideologies became distinctively radical.
Regarded as one of the greatest writers of all times, Leo Tolstoy is well known for many of his works including War and Peace, Anna Karenina (1878), The Resurrection (1899), The Death of Ivan Ilych (1886), Hadji Murad (1898), etc. Besides these, his autobiographical trilogy namely Childhood (1852), Boyhood (1852) and Youth (1856) are rich sources of information regarding Tolstoy’s beliefs. His autobiographical novels reflect his realisation of the differences between the rich and the poor class. The experiences he had during the Crimean War was recorded in the book Sevastopol Sketches (1855). In fact, it was during his service in the army where he gained varied understandings which he later depicted realistically in his works. He has been widely recognised as one who propounded realism in his works. His plays include The Power of Darkness (1886), The Light Shines in the Darkness (1890), The Fruits of Enlightenment (1891) and The Living Corpse (1900). The non-fictional works of Tolstoy are A Confession (1882), What Is To Be Done? (1886), The Kingdom of God Is Within You (1894), What Is Art? (1897), etc. among others. Apart from “Three Questions” Tolstoy wrote many short stories. Some of them are “The Raid”, “The Snowstorm”, “God Sees the Truth, But Waits”, “Where Love Is, God, Is”, “Promoting a Devil”, “Repentance”, “The Devil” and so on.
It must be noted that Tolstoy’s political views were greatly influenced by Victor Hugo, Schopenhauer as well as the French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. The ethical writings of Schopenhauer upheld his beliefs in the Christian doctrines of moral principles. Indeed, the story under discussion is a reflection of his insistence upon morality. At 82 years of age, Tolstoy died in the year 1910 suffering from pneumonia. Before his death, he abandoned his highborn lifestyle and secretly left his family. The undisclosed escape from his family was due to his family’s objection and unacceptance of his increasing radical opinions.
LET US KNOW
Realism is a technique by which writers can represent life as it appears. In literature, it emerged in opposition to the Romantic tradition. As noted in A Glossary of Literary Terms, “realistic fiction is written to give the effect that it represents life and the social world as it seems to the common reader, evoking the sense that its characters might in fact exist, and that such things might well happen.”(260) A basic characteristic of realist fiction is to represent “complex characters with mixed motives who are rooted in a social class, operate in a developed social structure, interact with many other characters, and undergo plausible, everyday modes of experience.” (192)
SUMMARY/ EXPLANATION OF THE SHORT STORY
In this short story, Leo Tolstoy narrates the story of a curious king who wanted to know three things to become successful every time he undertook a task. Being in a responsible position, the king wanted his questions to be answered. In fact, this contemplation triggered him to announce ‘a great reward’ to anyone who could answer his three questions, which were, ‘what was the right time for every action?’, ‘who were the most necessary people?’ and finally, ‘what was the most important thing to do?’
Concerning all the three questions, many learned men came up with different answers. As their answers varied, the reward was given to none. The king knew of a wise hermit who lived in the forest and decided to consult him regarding his questions. However, the hermit was a simple man and was available only for common men. Thus, the king dressed himself in simple clothes and left behind his horse and bodyguard to meet the hermit. When the king approached the hermit, he was engrossed in digging the ground in front of his hut. The hermit greeted the king and went on digging. The king could see the difficulty with which the hermit, who was frail, dug the ground. The king then informed the hermit about the intention of his visit.
The hermit listened to the questions that the king asked but rather than answering immediately, he kept quiet and continued to dig the ground. Seeing the frail hermit, the king proposed to dig the ground so that the hermit could take rest. The king continued to dig the ground, stopping at an interval to repeat his questions. Instead of an answer, the hermit suggested that the king should take some rest. The king was, however, reluctant to allow the hermit to dig the ground and so he himself continued to dig until it began to turn dark. The king finally stopped digging to ask the hermit either to answer his three questions or let him return home.
It was at that point that a bearded man came running towards them. The man was bleeding from a wound he has had in his stomach. As soon as he came near the king, the man fell down ‘moaning feebly’ and fainted. The king along with the hermit first unfastened the clothes the man was wearing. Thereafter, the king washed and bandaged the wound with his handkerchief and a towel that the hermit had given. As the man was badly wounded, the king had to wash and bandage the wound several times. By the time, the man revived his consciousness it was already very dark and cold outside. So the two of them ‘carried the wounded man into the hut and laid him on the bed’. While the man was quietly sleeping, the king too fell asleep by his side after a tiring day. Next morning as the king woke up the bearded man sought his forgiveness. It came as a surprise to the king because he has neither met the man nor did he know about him. However, the bearded man revealed that his brother was executed and his property was seized by the king which led him revenge upon the king. He apologised because while he wanted to kill the king, the king saved his life. He knew that the king had visited the hermit and planned to kill him on his way back. However, the delay of the king compelled him to come out of his ‘ambush’ just to get attacked by the king’s bodyguard. Out of gratitude, the man offered to become his faithful slave. The king was moved by such an outlook and befriended the man; he also promised him that his property will be restored. The king further told the man that he would send his own physician and servants to look after him. In this way, their enmity transformed into friendship.
After the man was gone, the king turned around looking for the hermit hoping to get the answers to his three questions. The hermit was sowing seeds in the beds that he and the king had dug the day before. As the king confronted the hermit, he begged him one last time for the answers. To his utter surprise, he was being told that the questions had already been answered. The hermit explained to the king that:
“If you had not pitied my weakness yesterday, and had not dug these beds for me, but had gone your way, that man would have attacked you, and you would have repented of not having stayed with me. So the most important time was when you were digging the beds, and I was the most important man, and to do me good was your most important business. Afterwards, when that man ran to us, the most important time was when you were attending to him, for if you had not bound up his wounds he would have died without having made peace with you. So he was the most important man, and what you did for him was your most important business.”
What the hermit pointed out was that the ‘present’ time was the most important time because it was the only time he had power. The most important man is the one he was with at that time and the most important thing was to do good. The story ended with the hermit reflecting on the purpose of life; for the wise hermit the most important thing to do was to do good and that must be the sole purpose of life. In the following section, we shall look into the major themes of the story.
Ethical theme pervades the story. Tolstoy throws light on the path to a successful life by maintaining moral standards and emphasising on good deeds. What Tolstoy highlighted through the story is the abandonment of self-interest for the good of others because fulfilment in life can only be attained by serving others. The king acts as the mouthpiece for several other people who also searches for the purpose of life. Often we do not see what lessons life offers and try to search for meaning in other things, but only in vain. From the story, it is evident that one must look into his or her self for most of the difficulties faced. This is because our very surrounding, the people we live with and our own actions pave the way for our happiness.
It is only by doing something good for the greater welfare of others that peace and happiness can be attained. Here, the king also found the answers to his questions by getting engaged in doing good, first to the hermit and secondly to the wounded man. By being humble and helping them, the king found out that the most important person is the one he was dealing with. This realisation was of prime importance to him as a ruler because he had greater responsibilities to protect his kingdom and his people.
The story also focuses on wisdom. The story, in fact, began with the king who was in search for knowledge- regarding the right time, necessary people and the right thing to be done to accomplish whatever task he laid his hands on. The hermit, who was a wise, polite and humble man was approached by the king who told him that the answers he was looking for exists within him. To make the king realise these, the hermit carries on his work without being bothered. Interestingly, the episode of the wounded man opened the king’s eyes. He realised that the right time, the right person and the right thing to do, all depends upon the present time in which he was living. The regret for the past or worrying for a future time, in any case, must not be considered too much as only the present time enables a person to exert his or her power. The present time is the time when a person is fully aware of his or her actions, thoughts and beliefs.
A forgiving attitude helps a man shed false judgments towards others. This is very well reflected in the story. Although the wounded man counted the king as his enemy, he was overwhelmed by the king’s actions and behaviour towards him. No matter what he had lost, the man forgave the king. The king became his ally only by doing the right thing at the right time. If the king had not saved his life, two things could have happened- either the king would have been killed by the man or the king would not have made peace with his enemy so easily.
As already mentioned, the story is written in the form of a parable. Tolstoy’s moralistic views get uphold in the story thereby touching upon human values and principles one must follow to attain success and happiness in life. Through the hermit, Tolstoy gives a moral lesson encouraging his readers to live the moments in their present life. Although the hermit is referred to as “frail and weak”, he emerges as the wisest man who can eradicate the king’s inquisitiveness regarding the ‘three questions’. Rather than giving direct answers to the king’s queries, the hermit chose to answer it differently. He led the king to realise the importance of the ‘present time’ by giving him ample scope to experience, develop ideas and finally answer his own questions himself through the actions he performed.
STYLE AND LANGUAGE
In the story “Three Questions” Tolstoy’s simple use of language is reflected. He uses the third-person narration. It must be noted that Tolstoy uses simple language to address grave issues that are philosophical in nature. Short sentences mark his writings with the intent to explain complicated nature of human beings and therefore, he gives emphasis to detail observation. The story moves in a linear motion and chronologically the readers are acquainted about the problem, that is, the questions that arouses in the king’s mind. Then the writer carefully builds up the climax in which the wounded man arrives and is attended by the king and the hermit. This is followed of the revelation by the wounded man who apologises and enables the story end with a positive aspect. In what we see as a chronological structure, lies the power of Tolstoy because as the story unwinds, it becomes possible for Tolstoy, like the hermit in case of the story, to present before his readers certain issues which have deeper meanings and are of universal nature. What is the striking point in Tolstoy’s writings is the scope given to the characters to grow on their own and most importantly the way he plays with the reader’s imagination without imposing his philosophies directly. To conclude, the greatness of Tolstoy’s craftsmanship is evident when he serves as the model of a great number of writers. As admitted by the Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee, “the ability to do something that sounds easy but is in fact very difficult, namely to write about a moment” is what Tolstoy is apt at as evident in this short story as well.
After reading the unit, you have been familiarised with one of the greatest Russian writers Leo Tolstoy. You have been acquainted with his major works like War and Peace, Anna Karenina, etc. and some of his plays, non-fictional pieces as well as his other short stories. You must have noted that his moralistic inclination towards religion (Christianity) contributed in writing stories like the “Three Questions”. You are now familiarised with the themes of the short story and well acquainted with its plot and structure. Besides, we have discussed the style and language of Tolstoy, particularly with reference to this story.