‘A Grain as Big as a Hen’s Egg’ by Leo Tolstoy: Short Story Analysis
‘A Grain as Big as a Hen’s Egg’ is a parabolic short story penned by one of the greatest Russian writers of all time, Leo Tolstoy. The short story brings out the central meaning of self-sufficiency and people following a system similar to a very rustic or basic form of socialism. This form of socialism was observed in the early days of our history when we had evolved from being nomadic hunters to being grain sowers. At that time, the barter system existed, and people never had any land issues or disputes because the land belonged to everyone as a community. This short story was published in the year 1886. We are aware that in the 1870s, Leo Tolstoy had a spiritual transformation following a moral crisis. He then took recourse to an early form of Christianity whose principles he tries to highlight in the short stories he published later in his life. A similar short story is Leo Tolstoy’s ‘The Imp and the Crust’, which I have reviewed on this blog; you can check my analysis for your reference.
In the short story ‘A Grain as Big as a Hen’s Egg’, the story starts when a group of children finds a corn grain as big as a hen’s egg with a groove cutting through it. Like most mercenary people, a traveler bullied the children into selling the rare item for only a penny and then sold the curio at an exorbitant price to the King. The King wonders about this rare object until a hen comes and pecks at the grain. It is then that they all realize that the object of study was a grain of corn. Notice that there is mention of a hen flying on the window sill to peck at the grain. However, we know that hens are barely able to fly as their wings are too small. It is a fairy tale nature to an otherwise moving and serious story, where community spirit and sharing for the common good are highlighted.
The King is puzzled on seeing the grain and asks his wise men to find out more about it, but they cannot find anything of such nature in their books. They wouldn’t have been able to find anything of this nature in their books because the world’s knowledge did not understand the early Christian form of living, which was practiced among the first converts to the religion. Russia was in a terrible state when this story was penned. The Czarist regime was not looking after the needs of the poor, the middle class, and mostly the peasants. Tolstoy wants Russia to revert to a very basic system where all power and wealth would not be in the hands of the privileged few. The brotherhood of humankind was preferred in this first set up. Was Leo Tolstoy, an absolute bourgeoise Russian writer, hinting that the country’s situation was such that a revolution of a Communist or Socialist nature could take place? That is something to be debated. Another bourgeoise nineteenth-century Russian writer whose short stories I have analyzed is Anton Chekhov. You can check out my review of his short stories for reference.
The King can’t find his answers from his wise men, so he decides to ask the peasants whether they had ever seen such grain before. Notice that he preferred asking his wise men first and not the peasants. This is indicative that he was very distant from the peasants and the poor. He was not connected to them and didn’t think of their needs, even though they were his subjects. He prefers asking people like his wise men who have nothing to do with farming and just men of books. The King seems to be like the Czars in the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Russia. The King wants to speak to an old peasant. In all, he converses with three generations of peasants:
- The first peasant walked on two crutches. He could hardly see nor hear very well. When he was given the grain to study, he had to feel it with his hands like a blind man. He was ashen, sickly, and toothless.
- The second peasant was the father of the first peasant. He walked on one crutch, could hear and see much better than his son.
- The third peasant was the grandfather of the first and father of the second peasant. He did not need crutches to walk. He could see and hear very well. And he had a good set of healthy teeth with which he bit into the unusually large corn piece.
The King is amazed at seeing the differences in generations of his farmers. Tolstoy tells us that the eldest peasant was much more physically fit because he relied on his own labor. He never depended on others to get the job done. Is Tolstoy trying to say that we must be selfish and not allocate work to others in the community? No, what Tolstoy means to say is that we have to give up our differences as people, hold the land in common and share all the goods among every worker, each according to his need. Economists and many analysts predict that if we want to survive as a human race, we too will have to revert to this simple way of living. (I read a fiction book which talks about a similar lifestyle: Diane Cook’s, The New Wilderness, which was shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. I have reviewed the book on this blog; do check out my review for reference.) So, because we work as a team, our labor becomes our own and benefits the entire community. It is not Capitalism at all, but something similar to a minimalistic lifestyle. The land belonged to everyone, so there was no need for rules, laws, or battles to fight over land. This left people to enrich themselves and be free of tensions and frustrations. They didn’t covet other people’s goods and lived in righteousness.
That was why the eldest peasant in the family was healthy in mind and body. He is the only one of the three to recognize the grain, which was as big as a hen’s egg. According to the peasant, it used to grow in his time when people did not have to worry and be anxious all the time. It was raised when the poor and the rich were not divided, and people worked together to get a job done.
This story is didactic and full of the idealism that made Tolstoy the short story writer of great renown. His didactic stories had unusual twists and ended with a moralistic ideal which people could discuss. That was Tolstoy’s aim in writing literature. He wanted people to discuss his works and become better human beings. He prophesized most of the problems we are going through in these extraordinary times. Will we now take his messages seriously to live happier lives? Only time will tell!
I enjoyed analyzing this short story by Tolstoy. I came across it first in the year 1998 when I was a little girl at school. I fell in love with Leo Tolstoy’s writings at a very young age, and I used to read his books in my school library. To know more about my life in books and with books, you can check out my memoir Scenes of a Reclusive Writer & Reader of Mumbai on the products page or Amazon. You won’t regret it. It was a finalist in the 2020 DBW Awards; you can check my blog post for reference. I hope to read and analyze more short stories by Leo Tolstoy soon.
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