Thursday, August 18, 2011

"Ivan the Fool" by Leo Tolstoy

"Ivan the Fool" by Leo Tolstoy  (1886, 35 pages)

A Comic Parable 

My Posts on Russian Literature

"Ivan the Fool" by Leo Tolstoy is the final story in One World Classics Why the Two Ivans Quarrelled by Nikolai Gogol and other Comics Russian Stories.  So far I have posted on stories by Ivan Krylov and Mikhal Saltykov.   I enjoyed both of these writers and reading them helped expand my understanding of 19th century Russian literature.   (I will soon post on the lead story in the collection.)

Leo Tolstoy (1828 to 1910-Russia) in addition to War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877)  wrote a number of parable and fairy tale like short stories expressing his religious faith and his social beliefs.     The two most famous of these stories are "Ivan the Fool" and "How Much Land Does a Man Need" (my review of this story can be found here).

"Ivan the Fool" expresses Tolstoy's disdain for the Russian social system and his belief in the intrinsic goodness of the Russian peasant and the sanctity of manual labor.    It is also an expression of his understanding of the duties of a Christian toward others.   It is also a use of the "holy fool" tradition that was a strong part of  Russian culture.

The plot is simple.   An old devil sees three brothers who get along well and have divided up the estate of their father without quarrelling.     One brother is a soldier, one a business man, and the third is a simple man that works the fields with his own hands.   They have a deaf mute sister but she does not play a large part in the story.    (Maybe her being a deaf mute is somehow a symbolic representation of the weak state of women in Russian society but I will let that question go.)

The old devil decided to see if he can ruin the lives of the three brothers.  He sends three imps after each of the brothers.   Two of the brothers are easy prey because of their greed and vanity.   Ivan the fool with his simplicity, honesty, and directness gets the better of his imp.   The great fun of this story is seeing how the imps do get the better of two of the brothers but defeat by Ivan.   I will leave the rest of  the plot untold.

"Ivan the Fool" is pushing a social agenda and Tolstoy had by now come to not belief in art for its own sake.   In essence it is telling us that all of the real work of Russia is done by her peasants who carry on their backs a giant superstructure of parasites.

I think even if Tolstoy wrote only his parables and short stories he would still have readers.   In talking about the merits and the worth reading index of works like "Ivan the Fool" and "How Much Land Does a Man Need" one has to fight the impulse just to say "Hey look the world's greatest novelist wrote these stories so go read them already".

I really liked "Ivan the Fool".   It would not be a bad introduction to Tolstoy for those who have not read him yet.

Guy Daniels translated this story.   It is very well written and a very enjoyable read.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was sent  by the publisher a free copy of this and other books.     I have begun to read his Hadji Murat and hopefully will post on that soon.

What is your experience with the lesser known works of Tolstoy?

Mel u


  1. I am reading my first Tolstoy book now and I started with the biggest, War and Peace. About a 3rd of the way done. So far, I love it.

  2. Booksnob-I read War and Peace for the second time two years ago-I really loved it also-it took a little while for all the characters to get straight in my mind-(there are 500 plus of them) but that is a widely reported experience-thanks for your comment and visit

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