‘Elias’ is a realistic Christian parabolic short story penned by the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy in 1885. Leo Tolstoy wrote this short story after his moral crisis and spiritual awakening post-1870. ‘Elias’, also sometimes titled ‘Ilyas’, is the story of a Muslim Bashkir of Russia in the Ural Mountains. Elias undergoes prosperity and then failure in his life through the changing wheel of fortune. Though the short story is about a Muslim Bashkir, the text’s theme is highly Christian, primarily based on the Lord Jesus Christ’s teachings: the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes. The short story ‘Elias’ is swarming in the ethical theology of a very simplistic Christianity, which highlighted Leo Tolstoy’s writings post-1870. The Christian Old and New Testament themes dealt with in this story are namely the parable of the Prodigal Son, the life of Abraham and Sarah his wife, the Beatitudes of Christ, the virtue of poverty and simple living, the teachings of Christ titled ‘Sermon on the Mount’ by the Gospel writer Saint Matthew, the Assyrian captivity and subjugation of the Jewish community, and the fact that ultimately a faithful Christian can only find happiness and contentment in serving his Master to the best of his ability. Through the oriental characters of the hospitable Bashkirs, Leo Tolstoy paints the moving story of Elias and his wife. They slog for fifty years for riches without finding happiness until they lose everything and then find their joy and bliss in frugal living, poverty, in service to others, and concentrating on the things that truly matter in life: love for one’s spouse, dedication to our allotted task, dignity in labor, and love for God as the Ultimate Master of our destiny.
The story of Elias starts with a parallel of Elias’s beginnings to that of the Old Testament characters Abraham and Sarah. Like Abraham, Elias was left nothing by his father, and he had to work hard day and night to create his own wealth in flocks of sheep, teams of horses, and herds of cattle. He grows rich and becomes the richest man in the Government of Ufa. Ufa is the Republic of Bashkortostan in Russia. Elias’s wife, Sham-Shemagi, is like the Old Testament matriarch Sarah who works hard with her husband slogging day and night to tend to their wealth in flocks and herds, serving important guests who came to their home, and getting the hired laborers to work. However, like Abraham and Sarah, Elias and Sham-Shemagi are as good as childless or barren. Although they had three children, the first son was an alcoholic who wasted Elias’s money and ultimately died in a drunken brawl, the second son made off with most of Elias’s wealth which he got in the form of an inheritance, thus disowning his father. And lastly, their only daughter died. The second son’s tale seems similar to the Prodigal Son’s tale, who disowns his father’s home and takes his share of the fortune to make his life elsewhere. This the second son does under the promptings of his self-willed wife, which seems to indicate the sin of Eve whom the Serpent tempted in the Garden of Eden. Lord Jesus Christ tells the parable of the Prodigal Son in the Gospel of Luke. After his moral and spiritual crisis, Leo Tolstoy started following and writing about the basic teachings of Christ mentioned in the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The name Sham-Shemagi indicates a headcloth designed for a desert environment to protect the wearer from sand and heat. Elias’s wife wore the headscarf as a religious dress, and it is indicated that she followed the purdah system when we see that even in her old age, she preferred to sit with her mistress behind a curtain in front of strange male guests. Thus, there is an intermixing of the two cultures of Christianity and Islam, which we usually see in some short stories of Leo Tolstoy.
Elias is prosperous in the beginning. He is famous all over the district and is a great host to important, distinguished guests. However, after the Prodigal Son leaves his home, downfall comes to Elias and Sham-Shemagi. One by one, their wealth dwindles:
- The Prodigal Son took a house and some of the cattle.
- Then a disease broke out among the sheep, and many died.
- There followed a bad harvest, and the hay crop failed.
- The death of many cattle followed during a terrible winter.
- Finally, the Kirghiz or the members of an indigenous people of Central Asia living chiefly in Kyrgyzstan captured his best herd of horses.
Elias continued working hard but finally had to give up and sell his rich merchandise like his furs, carpets, saddles, and tents, indicating that these items were useless and only the vanities of wealth and riches. Elias and Sham-Shemagi became laborers in an upper-middle-class Muslim neighbor’s home, namely Muhammad Shah, who took pity on them. Muhammad Shah gave them a roof over their heads and a job within their capacity to fulfill, and he realized that they worked peacefully in his service without a word of regret about their past life and their losses. There is an indication by literary scholars that probably Muhammad Shah ill-treated Elias and Sham-Shemagi, but that is not very likely other than the fact that he spoke and gossiped about them to his relatives behind their back and that he almost disregarded the purdah system by lifting the curtain which separated Sham-Shemagi from his relatives. Thus, because of the indication of so-called ‘harassment’, it is felt that Elias and Sham-Shemagi were merely feigning contentment or complacency with their lot. That is not so. Instead, we see through the Christian color of Leo Tolstoy’s parabolic fiction that what the writer wants to highlight here is:
- The importance of the Beatitudes of the Lord Jesus, especially about the ever-changing wheel of fortune of life which should never be depended on for permanent happiness. In one of the beatitudes that celebrate the poor, the Lord Jesus states, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven’. This indicates that “Poor in spirit” means to be humble and simple. Humility is the realization that all your gifts and blessings come from the grace of God. To have poverty of spirit means to be completely empty and open to the working of God in our lives. We are humble when we are an empty cup and devoid of pride. Humility brings openness and inner peace, allowing one to do the will of God. Also, poverty and riches are like a wheel of fortune that constantly changes in one lifetime; the person who is poor at this moment will be rich in the next and vice versa. Thus, in the Gospel of Matthew in the Sermon on the Mount by Christ, it is taught that one must not base one’s happiness on riches because wealth never gives true happiness. Let us also remember that Leo Tolstoy’s spiritual transformation was mainly linked with the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount in the Bible.
- Living a frugal life and a life of minimalism brought Elias and Sham-Shemagi happiness and contentment, for it does not take much to make one happy, just a positive and happy mindset. Otherwise, even if one is the richest man in the district, if such a person does not have peace of mind, is ruled by his pride, is full of anxiousness, and craves after money as a means to an end, he will never be happy. The happiness of money is merely a sham or temporary at best. Elias was the richest man in the district at one time but was never happy. Now towards the last two years of his life, he and Sham-Shemagi had found the elixir of life, which was a proper attitude towards one’s situation.
- Poverty is a virtue in the eyes of Christ, which is brought forth in the story of Elias, who in his poverty finds ultimate happiness in serving his master Muhammad Shah. Elias and Sham-Shemagi did not crib or complain about their ‘so called’ fallen position in society but instead accepted their poverty with grace and dignity and served their Master with fruitful pride. Thus, they gave dignity to their labor.
- Serving their Master to the best of their ability despite their advanced age indicates how an ethical, moralistic Christian must do every task on earth as if one was serving one’s heavenly Master in heaven.
These are the Christian themes brought out by Leo Tolstoy in a partial parabolic manner in the short story titled ‘Elias’ or ‘Ilyas’. Notice in the text that the condition of Elias and Sham-Shemagi is similar to the subjugation of the Jews in the Bible, especially under the Assyrian invasion. However, like the Jews of that age, Elias and Sham-Shemagi never grudged their age of labor and exile because they were sure that their God or the Divine was looking out for them.
Muhammad Shah was generous and grateful for the times he had been a guest at Elias’s home. Thus, he, in a way, ‘adopts’ the elderly couple and declares he would treat them with dignity, give them jobs within their capacity, and feed and clothe them. The following were the jobs they were given by the compassionate Muhammad Shah:
- In the summer, Elias would work in Muhammad Shah’s melon garden.
- In the winter, Elias would feed his cattle.
- Sham-Shemagi would milk the mares of Muhammad Shah.
- Sham-Shemagi would make kumiss, a fermented liquor prepared from mare’s milk, and used as a drink.
Muhammad Shah was generous and treated Elias and Sham-Shemagi well. We know this because of the way he revered them, calling them with respect and speaking about them to his relatives with awe. Elias is the man who was well known in the district from his days of old. Even the relatives of Muhammad Shah had heard of his hospitality but had never before seen him. However, Elias loves and respects and honors the word of his wife to such an extent that he petitions the guest at the get-together to ask her why they were living a frugal life in contentment. He indicates that she would speak more frankly about the situation than he would. In other words, he was trying to indicate that their condition would be believed if a woman would narrate the change of events in their life.
Sham-Shemagi, in her simplicity and humbleness, mentions that in the fifty years when they were rich, she and Elias hankered after wealth and riches instead of finding happiness, and they failed miserably in the process. However, once they entered the service of a kind master for the past two years, they had finally found contentment in frugal living, a healthy prayer life, good conversations, and abiding love between them. She mentions many ill effects of their riches in their lives in the past, which gave them much unhappiness:
- They had too many cares.
- They did not even have time to talk to each other.
- They did not have time to pray to God and think of their souls.
- They were constantly being hosts to important guests and wondering about their wounded pride if the guests were to complain about the food served or the presents.
- They would be taskmasters to their bonded laborers or hired men trying to always get the maximum out of them.
- They were always worried whether a wolf would kill a foal or a calf or thieves would steal the horses.
- They always had restless nights or stayed awake to worry if their ewes were overlying their lambs.
- They would wonder how to get fodder during the winter.
- They used to argue and disagree with one another.
- Their lives thus would pass from one trouble to another.
Notice how their fears and worries were baseless and not worth the worry. They were worried about almost everything, so much so that they were not enjoying their lives despite having everything they needed. It took them to lose everything to gain their happiness and learn how to enjoy life. However, once they started laboring for their Master’s good and happiness, they achieved their bliss and happiness in their frugality and poverty. Thus, this indirectly brings out the Sermon on the Mount theme of Christ as:
But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.Matthew 6:33
In the last part of the text, Leo Tolstoy creates an inter-religious feeling of community when the Mullah or holy learned Muslim priest or clergyman declares that what Sham-Shemagi, Elias, and of course the Lord Jesus was stating was also to be found in the Holy Writ of Islam. He does not mention which writ he is indicating. However, by ratifying the philosophy of Elias, he stops the laughter of his dissenters, creating an awareness in them that there is a possibility that what happened to Elias can also happen to them, for no one is impervious to the changes in one’s destiny and fortunes. The Mullah made the guests contemplate on his theory that one should take the first step to realize what Elias and Sham-Shemagi realized for themselves about poverty and happiness.
I enjoyed reading and analyzing this short story titled ‘Elias’ by Russian short-story writer Leo Tolstoy. A Braille copy of the analysis is available here. I hope to read and analyze more short stories and novels penned by Leo Tolstoy in the coming days. If you are interested in reading more analyses of Leo Tolstoy’s short stories, you can check them out here. If you are interested in reading an award-winning collection of LGBTQIA short stories, you can check out my collection titled The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name. If you were helped by this analysis and want to know more about my life, you can check out my two memoirs, The Reclusive Writer & Reader of Bandra or Scenes of a Reclusive Writer & Reader of Mumbai. I hope to read and review more Russian short stories and other fiction and non-fiction soon.
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