This page collects some short stories by Leo Tolstoy, one of the most notable writers of all time.
“The Prisoner of the Caucasus”
Zhilin, an officer, gets a letter from his mother to come home for a visit—she wants to see him before she dies, and she’s found him a bride. He gets leave from his colonel and prepares to go. A war with the Tartars is raging, making travel dangerous. Twice a week, an escort of soldiers accompanies travelers between fortresses. Zhilin leaves with one of them. Travel is slow with all the people, repairs to the wagons and issues with the animals. At the halfway point, Zhilin gets impatient, as does another man, Kostylin. They decide to go on themselves. They eventually climb a hill to survey the area; they’re spotted by a band of Tartars.
This longer story can be read in the preview of The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories. (30% in)
“The Diary of a Madman” (or “Lunatic”)
The narrator has been evaluated before the provincial board, who have decided, contrary to the narrator’s opinion, that he isn’t mad. He can trace his current mental state to a few childhood incidents when he was confronted with the realities of strife and suffering. From adolescence until his current age of thirty-five, he lived normally—enjoying life’s pleasures, getting an education, securing employment, and marrying and having a family. One day, he travels with a servant to an estate he might purchase. Along the way, he suddenly feels everything is hateful and starts questioning his actions. His anguish only intensifies.
This story can also be read in the above preview of The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories. (73% in)
“A Spark Neglected Burns the House” (“Quench the Spark”)
Ivan’s family is healthy, hard-working and prosperous and they live happily. The balance is upset by a feud with their neighbor, Gabriel. A hen belonging to Ivan’s daughter-in-law flew into Gabriel’s yard and laid an egg. When she inquires about it, Gabriel’s mother respond rudely. It quickly escalates into name calling and a shouting match. Legal proceeding follow. Ivan’s father, who used to run the farm, advises his family to reconcile, and not let this disagreement over a trifle get out of hand. His words go unheeded, and quarreling becomes a daily occurrence.
This story can be read in the preview of Collected Shorter Fiction of Leo Tolstoy: Vol 2. (5% in)
“Two Old Men”
Efim and Elisha, two older men, decide to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Efim is well-to-do and Elisha is of more modest means. They vowed to make this journey some time ago, but Efim keeps putting it off to tend to life’s business. Elisha persuades him to leave the affairs of home with his son and go. Before going, Efim leaves detailed instructions for his family on how to run things in his absence. Elisha gives minimal instructions to his family, leaving the running of things to their judgment. They set out with Efim distracted with what he’s leaving behind, while Elisha lives in the moment and tries to spread peace.
This story can also be read in the preview of Collected Shorter Fiction of Leo Tolstoy: Vol 2. (21% in)
“Alyosha the Pot”
Alyosha isn’t good at school and doesn’t say much. From childhood to the age of nineteen, he works hard on his family’s farm. His older brother works for a merchant, but is drafted into the army. Alyosha’s father sends him to take his brother’s place at the merchant’s. He’s a willing worker, completing all his brother’s tasks and more. The family continues to add more and more work to his schedule. He is burdened and mistreated, but he bears it well.
This is the third story in the preview of Classic Short Stories. (37% in)
“The Three Hermits”
A Bishop sails to the Solovétsk Monastery along with many pilgrims who want to visit the shrines. Along the way, a fisherman points out an island inhabited by hermits, holy men, who live there for their salvation. The Bishop is very interested in them. He arranges with the captain to delay their journey so he can visit the island, so he can teach the hermits the right way to pray. When the Bishop arrives, he finds the hermits know little of serving God, and they use a very simple prayer. He offers to help.
It occurs to a king that he would never fail if he knew three things—the right time to start something, who were the most necessary people and what was the most important thing to do. He sends out a proclamation, offering a reward to the man who can give him this knowledge. Many learned men respond, but they all give him different answers. Unsatisfied, the king decides to consult a hermit renowned for his wisdom.
Read “Three Questions”
“God Sees the Truth, But Waits” (“The Long Exile”)
Aksionov is a handsome, fun-loving merchant with two shops and a house. He was somewhat unruly as a younger man, but his temperament has evened out and his reputation is good. One summer he plans to go to a fair to sell his goods. His wife warns him not to go; she has had a bad dream and is worried. Aksionov is unconcerned. Halfway there, he stops at an inn with a fellow merchant. Aksionov leaves early the next morning and continues his journey. Down the road, he’s overtaken by the authorities and questioned about last night and this morning. The other merchant was murdered.
“The Death of Ivan Ilyich”
Ivan Ilyich had been seriously ill for weeks, and his colleagues are informed of his death. Their thoughts turn immediately to who will get his old job. They talk about him, and know they’ll be obligated to attend his funeral. Ivan lived simply, focusing on making advancement at work as wasn’t eager to be around his family. One day while hanging curtains, he fell and hurt his side. When he got it checked out, the doctor had bad news.
This story is a novella.
“The Empty Drum”
A beautiful young maid persuades Emilyan to marry her. They live in a small cottage on the edge of the city. One day, the king passes by and sees Emilyan’s wife. He’s struck by her beauty and can’t stop thinking of her. He wants her for himself, but can’t think of how to get her. He puts the matter before his advisors and they have an idea—work Emilyan to death at the palace and then the king will be free to take the widow. Emilyan reports for duty and works hard, harder than the king and his advisors thought possible.