On "God Sees the Truth, But Waits"

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Reprinted from Studies in Short Fiction 3(1975):261-69

 

A STRUCTURAL ANALYSIS OF

LEO TOLSTOY'S "GOD SEES THE

TRUTH, BUT WAITS"

 

GARY R. JAHN

 

It is well known that in the late 1870's Tolstoy passed through a spiritual crisis which led, inter alia, to a renunciation of his highly successful career as an author of "literary" pretensions. Less well known are two earlier abdications from this role. In the early 1860's Tolstoy abandoned literature in order to establish a school for the peasants living on his estate and to publish a journal explaining his pedagogical methods.[1] In the early 1870's, having returned to literature long enough to write War and Peace, he once again abandoned it for the sake of pedagogical work. The scope of his efforts on this occasion was national rather than local, and he devoted some four years to the writing of a series of primers for use in elementary schools.

 

In connection with this project, Tolstoy wrote a large number of stories, sketches, and articles to form the bulk of the practical matter in a course in the elements of literacy which he had designed. Among these are two stories which he, in his tractate on aesthetics, What is Art, excepted from the general repudiation of the fiction which he wrote prior to the crisis and conversion of the late 1870's.[2] These were "The Prisoner of the Caucasus" and "God Sees the Truth, But Waits."

 

This paper will offer a structural analysis of the second of these stories with an eye to demonstrating that, while Tolstoy's stimulus for writing it was superficially nonliterary, the structural eloquence of the story is in no way impaired as a result.

 

I would suggest that the meaning of the story can be best understood by considering the narrative in the light of the implications suggested by the structure of the plot. "God Sees the Truth, But Waits" serves, in fact, as an excellent example in defense of the supposition that Tolstoy's re-

 

1. For information on Tolstoy as educator see the chapter on this topic in George Rapall Noyes, Tolstoy (New York: Duffield and Company, 1918) . Tolstoy's own writings on education from this period are collected in vol. 8 of Lev Tolstoi, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, 90 vols. ( Moscow‑Leningrad: Goslitizdat, 1928‑1958 ), the socalled Jubilee Edition. All references to Tolstoy's works, both in the text and in the notes, are to volume and page of this edition. The translations are mine.

 

2. xxx, 163.

 

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nunciation of the "literary" and "artistic" should be understood, at least insofar as his own practice is concerned, as extending only to the estimation of these qualities as self‑justifying fictional values.

 

Considering the brevity of the story, the scope of the narrative seems extraordinarily ambitious. It subsumes the whole of the life of the protagonist, Ivan Dmitrich Aksenov, from his young manhood to his death, a period of no less than twenty‑six years. While the basis of the narrative is biographical, however, the number of incidents recounted is very small.

 

Aksenov, a happy and successful merchant, leaves home on a business trip. On the night of his first day on the road he shares a hotel room with a stranger, a fellow merchant. During the night a thief enters the room and robs and murders Aksenov's companion. Unaware of this, Aksenov departs early in the morning, and, on the second day of his journey, he is overtaken by the police and charged with murder. Although innocent, he is tried and convicted.

 

He spends twenty‑six years at hard labor in Siberia. A new convict, Makar Semenov, then arrives at the prison, and Aksenov learns that it was this hardened criminal who had committed the crime for which he himself had been imprisoned. One night Aksenov observes Makar digging a tunnel. The prison authorities discover the tunnel before it is completed. The prisoners are assembled for interrogation, and the warden questions Aksenov in particular. Though he has good reason to hate Makar, Aksenov refuses to report him. Makar is so moved by Aksenov's protection of him that he comes to him at night to seek his forgiveness. On the next day Makar confesses to the authorities that he was the real murderer. Aksenov is granted a full pardon, but by the time it arrives he has died.

 

The unity of the narrative is based upon the fact that it relates the life story of a single individual. It is highly selective in the events presented, and the structure of their arrangement is tightly controlled. There are substantial accounts of only two brief periods in Aksenov's life. The first half of the story is devoted to the events surrounding the murder of the merchant. The second half of the story recounts the events consequent upon the coincidental meeting of Aksenov and the real murderer. In all, these events represent only a few weeks in Aksenov's life.

 

The isolation and juxtaposition of two significant events in the life of the protagonist is basic to the symmetry that is the dominant factor of the story. The symmetry is evident in many ways.

 

An examination of the general ordering of the narrative material reveals that the bulk of each half of the story is devoted to a detailed account of a climactic event in the life of the protagonist. Both of these accounts are preceded by a physical description of the protagonist and a brief portrait of the manner of his life and of his emotional state prior to his involvement in the climactic events which follow. Approximately equal periods

 


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of time in the life of the protagonist have elapsed prior to the occurrence of each climactic event. As he is described in the first half of the story, Aksenov would seem to be still in his young manhood, perhaps twenty-five to thirty years of age. At the beginning of the second half of the story it is mentioned that Aksenov has spent twenty‑six years at hard labor in Siberia.

 

Symmetry also governs the narration of the two climactic events themselves. Both narrations begin with a conversation. In the first half of the story there is a conversation between Aksenov and his wife prior to his departure on a journey. In the second half Aksenov converses with Makar following the latter's arrival at the prison. After the initial conversation in each half of the story there follows a narrative account of the protagonist's subsequent actions. In the first half Aksenov begins his journey, and during the night of his first day on the road the man with whom he shares a room is murdered. In the second half, again at night, Aksenov observes Makar's attempt to dig a tunnel through which to escape from the prison.

 

Consequent upon the actions which occur during the brief narrative interval, the protagonist is, in both halves of the story, drawn into a dramatic confrontation with the authorities. In the first half Aksenov is interrogated by the police inspector who apprehends him. In the second half the authorities discover the partially completed tunnel. When the prisoners are assembled for interrogation, Aksenov is singled out and questioned by the warden regarding his knowledge of it.

 

Both of the scenes of confrontation are followed by a second meeting between the participants in the initial conversation. In the first half of the story Aksenov's wife visits him in prison and it is suggested that she too believes him to be guilty of the murder. In the second half Makar comes to Aksenov to confess that he had been the real murderer and to ask Aksenov for forgiveness.

 

Both halves of the story conclude with a brief narrative of the sequel to the incidents described. In the first half Aksenov is tried, convicted, scourged, and deported. In the second half Makar confesses to the authorities. Aksenov is pardoned, but by the time the document arrives he has died.

 

The development of the character of the protagonist is also symmetrical, but the symmetry arises from the juxtaposition of accounts of his emotional state and his reaction to specific situations which are closely related by their symmetrical positioning in the text but are essentially dissimilar in their significance for the character of the protagonist. This pattern might be called a symmetry of opposites.

 

An example is the description of the protagonist which begins each half of the story and the events which appear later in support of the de-

 


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scription. In the first half Aksenov is described as fair‑haired, curlyheaded, and handsome. He is a successful merchant for although he is still young he already owns two shops and a house. He is the father of a family. That he is light‑hearted and given to merriment and song is both stated outright and then corroborated by his flippant reaction to the dream of ill omen which his wife has about him and by his guitar playing on the second day of his journey. At the beginning of the second half of the story, his physical appearance has changed completely. His hair has turned white and his beard has grown out long, narrow, and grey. He has lost all of his worldly goods and has sunk from a position of relative affluence to that of a penniless convict. He has lost all contact with his family. Since his imprisonment he has received no word from home and does not know what has become of his wife and children. All his merriment has evaporated. He sings now only in the choir of the prison church and is esteemed by his fellow prisoners and the prison authorities for his gravity and meekness.

 

The protagonist's emotional response to his confrontation with the authorities is quite dissimilar in either half of the story. In the first half Aksenov is highly agitated, stunned, stammering, and confused. In the second half he is again highly agitated, but he retains his self‑control, and the response that he makes is firm, lucid, and the result of a conscious decision.

 

The emotional response of the protagonist to the second conversation in each half of the story is, again, both similar in detail and dissimilar in its emotional import. In the first half Aksenov sheds tears of despair when he learns of his wife's lack of faith in his innocence. In the second half he sheds tears of joy as he hears Makar's confession and forgives him. The implication in the narrative conclusion to each half of the story is that the protagonist's emotional state remains the same as in the preceding scene, so. that Aksenov's emotional states at the end of the two halves of the story are opposite to one another. At the end of the first half he is suffering and in despair, while at the end of the second half he is joyful, calm, and contented.

 

The symmetry of the structure of the story is further reinforced by a number of verbal echoes in its two halves. Immediately on either side of the structural mid‑point of the story there is a similar prepositional phrase. The first half of the story ends with the words ". . . to Siberia" and the second half begins "In Siberia . . ." (xxi, 249) When Aksenov is threatened by the police inspector in the first half of the story, he is described in the words "He was shaking all over with fear." When, in the second half, he is threatened by Makar, "He began to shake all over with fury." (xxi, 248, 251) The first line of the first half of the story reads "In the city of Vladimir lived a young merchant, Aksenov." Compare the first


 

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line of the second half of the story: "In Siberia, at forced labor, Aksenov lived for twenty‑six years." (xxi, 246, 249) In the confrontation with the police inspector in the first half of the story ". . . [Aksenov] couldn't get out a single word." In the confrontation with the warden in the second half ". . . he couldn't for a long while get out a single word" (xxi, 247, 252) .

 

The symmetry of plot and verbal texture has two primary functions. First, it draws attention to the two main events in the protagonist's life as climactic situations resulting in a profound change in both the outward and inward character and progress of his life. Second, it organizes the representation of the life of the protagonist in such a way that two distinct schemes of development become apparent. The outward and material development of Aksenov's life is presented by what might be called a structural anaphora. This line of development is the specific function of the symmetry of like to like in the story. Summarizing this line in brief, one may say that the protagonist passes from worldly success to worldly wretchedness in the first half of the story, and in the second half this process is repeated more intensely as he passes from wretchedness to death. Aksenov's inward and spiritual development, on the contrary, is presented as forming an antithetical pattern, and the representation of this line of development is the specific function of the symmetry of opposites. Summarizing again, the protagonist passes from light‑hearted self‑satisfaction to despair and resignation in the first half of the story, but in the second half the process is reversed as he passes from resignation to contentment and joy.

 

The presence of two variants of the symmetry that dominates the structure leads to a tension within the story itself. The account of Aksenov's life contains two lines of development that are distinct from one another both in structure (as anaphora to antithesis) and in their significance for the protagonist. A proper understanding of the meaning of the story must take this tension into account and allow it a role commensurate with its structural importance.

 

None of the analyses of "God Sees the Truth, But Waits" of which I am aware have taken the structure of the story satisfactorily into account. By way of example, we may consider the most substantial of the existing interpretations, that of the late N. N. Gusev.[3]

 

Gusev maintained that the theme of the story was the eventual triumph of truth over falsehood.[4] He based his interpretation on the title of the story, isolating the word "truth" (pravda) and the notion that the truth does not always become known at once as the significant factors. He

 

3. N. N. Gusev, L. N. Tolstoi: Materialy k biografii s 1870 po 1881 g. (Moscow: Izdatel'stvo Akademii Nauk SSSR, 1963 ), pp. 77 ff.

 

4. Ibid., 78.


 

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seems to have regarded the development of the protagonist as a realistic situation serving as a more or less neutral background against which the theme was represented. In Gusev's interpretation neither the way in which the truth about the murder becomes known nor the effect on the protagonist of the long delay which precedes its revelation have any special importance.

 

Beyond this, Gusev specifically disavowed the presence of any "mystico‑religious" elements in the story and maintained that the name of God in the title was merely coincidental to the popular saying that Tolstoy selected to title the story.[5]

 

Gusev's interpretation seems to me to have two prominent flaws. First, his insistence on understanding the word pravda in the title of the story only in the sense of "truth" does not take the full meaning of the word into account. Throughout his remarks Gusev consistently opposes pravda to lozh' (lie, falsehood). But pravda extends beyond "truth" to a broader meaning that might be rendered as "truth with justice" or "righteous truth." Lozh' is not the opposite of pravda but of istina; the true antonym is krivda, that is, "crookedness" or "malignant falsehood." Thus, it is not necessarily truth in and of itself that is important in the story but justice or righteousness in the way in which truth affects the life of the protagonist. One might even suggest that the title "God Sees What is Right, But Waits" would be a more accurate rendering of the Russian.

 

Second Gusev's deemphasis of the role of the protagonist relative to the theme of the revelation of the truth seems unwarranted in light of the fact that the reader's sympathy is strongly engaged on Aksenov's behalf. The reader knows from the beginning what the truth is and the entire interest of the story is in the observation of Aksenov's reactions against the injustice of his situation. Aksenov's despair and later his resignation are, one would think, universally comprehensible. His ultimate joy is the fact in his development as a character that is difficult to understand; and whatever the explanation of this joy may be, it is certainly not to be found in his coming to know the truth about the crime. Who knows better than the protagonist himself that it was not he who committed the murder? And when his knowledge is expanded by the certain belief that in Makar he has discovered the real murderer, his immediate reaction is not one of joy and satisfaction but rather of hatred and bitterness.

 

If one insists, as Gusev did, upon being bound by the limits of a materialist approach to the reality represented in the story one can of course find no cause in the story for the joy that Aksenov experiences at the end of his life. Likewise, the structural tension which marks the simultaneous yet contrasting progress of Aksenov's material and spiritual development will also be inexplicable.

 

5. Ibid.


 

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If one adopt a wholly materialistic view of the events depicted in the story, one must conclude that what is represented is the ruin of an innocent man through injustice and coincidence. If one admits the validity of the spiritual point of view, however, Aksenov appears to be ignorant rather than innocent. The process that causes him to pass from frivolity through despair, resignation, and bitterness to joy and so strips away his spiritual ignorance is properly regarded as justice rather than injustice. It is only through this process that Aksenov comes to understand the truth about himself, that he is not simply a material being but also a spiritual one and that, in the final analysis, the well‑being of the spiritual man is of greater value than that of the material man. The material man can aspire no higher than mirth, ebullience, and self‑satisfaction; the spiritual man aspires to joy and contentment. Aksenov's happiness at the beginning of the story, the loss of which seems at first so unjust, proves to be only an encumbered shadow of his joy at the end.

 

Aksenov began as a material being with no consciousness of his spiritual nature. Through a sudden shock, he lost his carefree confidence in his material well‑being and began to be aware of his spiritual nature. At the end of the first half of the story Aksenov had been stripped of his initial material self‑satisfaction and success. He had not yet achieved full spiritual consciousness. Only after the second great shock, his protecting and finally his forgiving Makar, did his spiritual nature come to full expression. "And suddenly [Aksenov] felt that his soul was unburdened. And he ceased longing for home, and he lost his desire to leave the prison, and only thought about his last hour" (xxi, 253) . Later we read, "When Aksenov's pardon arrived, he was already dead." (ibid.) The pardon that was to bring Aksenov liberty had become unnecessary, for the full and final liberation of his spirit from its material burden had already been achieved. Aksenov had come to the last stop of the journey on which he set out at the beginning of the story. Because of the tension that is produced by the structure of the story, the reader comes to understand that the life of the protagonist has involved a spiritual as well as a material journey.

 

The theme of spiritual triumph and liberation is reinforced in the story through an interplay of symbols. The first of these is Aksenov's home. The context of its use identifies his home very closely with the material aspect of Aksenov. One of the first things the reader learns about Aksenov is that he has two shops and a home (xxi, 246) . While in prison Aksenov received no word from home, but it is clear that he retained an interest in it since it was the first question he asked of Makar when he learned that they were both from the same town (xxi, 249‑259) . Having guessed that Makar was the real murderer, he was consumed by longing for his former life. He conjured up that life in terms of the images of his wife


 

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and children‑- vthe very essence of his home (xxi, 251) . His forgiveness of Makar marked his release from the power of this emotion: "And Aksenov ceased longing for home . . ." Taking Aksenov's home as the symbol of his material life, we find that references to the importance of the home exactly parallel the initial dominance and final surrender of the material aspect of Aksenov's character.

 

Closely related to the symbol of Aksenov's home is that of the prison. Since the prison replaces the home as the center of Aksenov's material existence, it is natural to look upon it as a contrast to the home. That was precisely what Aksenov did. The prison was the setting of his tragedy and grief, while home was the object of his longing and desire. This opposition is maintained until the act of forgiveness that is the climax of the story. After that, prison and home are no longer opposed but are rather joined in relation to a third and more important consideration. "And he ceased longing for home and no longer wanted to leave the prison, and he only thought about his final hour." Aksenov's ceasing to distinguish home and prison has come about through a transference of his attention from the material sphere in general to the spiritual one. He began to think only of his "final hour," his complete departure from the material world into that of the spiritual. "God Sees the Truth, But Waits" portrays the spiritual development of the protagonist in material terms. The relationship between these two planes of existence is wholly symbolic; the spiritual does not emerge as a directly stated phenomenon.

 

In the story the "truth /justice" of the title has real meaning only in terms of the spiritual plane of existence. Hence its proximity to God in the title of the story. While Aksenov is a victim of injustice on the material plane, he is treated with great mercy on the spiritual plane, for he is led willy‑nilly to the fruits of spiritual triumph. God is part of this story as more than an incidental element of the proverb that serves as the title. Like other aspects of the spiritual plane of the work, however, the presence of God is implied rather than stated.

 

That the total disregard for material values which characterizes Aksenov at his death is a desirable quality is a hard lesson to teach.[6] It seems to confront reason and human nature with hostility. To avoid this hostility the spiritual plane of the story and the lesson that it suggests are masked, but in such a way that they can be discovered. The narrative, by including no specific mention of the spiritual plane or lesson, masks their existence. The structure of the narrative, however, produces a tension in the story that can be resolved only by discovering what has been hidden.

 

6. The idea amounts to philosophic dualism; see G. W. Spence, Tolstoy the Ascetic (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1967) . In Spence's view this dualism is a weakness underlying all of Tolstoy's later philosophy.


 

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In communicating the meaning of the proverb that serves as its title, the story relies wholly on its nonrational, esthetic powers. Tolstoy him­self wrote, in What is Art?, "The concern of art consists precisely in mak­ing comprehensible and accessible that which might be incomprehensible and inaccessible in the form of reasoned explanation." (xxx, 109) It is hardly surprising, then, that in repudiating the works that he had written prior to 1880, he chose to make an exception of "God Sees the Truth, But Waits."

 

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