‘God Sees the Truth, But Waits’ by Leo Tolstoy: Short Story Analysis
‘God Sees the Truth, But Waits’ is a very moving and semi-parabolic short story penned by one of the greatest Russian writers of the nineteenth century, Leo Tolstoy. It chronicles Aksionov, a carefree merchant sentenced to the mines in Siberia because of his ill-fate. He was charged with the murder of one of his fellow merchants and robbing the merchant of 20,000 rubles. Aksionov was innocent, but nothing could save him from twenty-six years of imprisonment. He then took recourse to God, becoming a grandfather figure to the inmates of the Siberian mines. The story is like Tolstoy’s spiritual awakening, which took place in the year 1870. He wrote this short story in the year 1872. It is a realistic fiction story centered around mercy and forgiveness.
Aksionov is portrayed to be a carefree person who liked to drink until he got married. He was fun-loving and always cheerful. We notice a complete and predictable change in Aksionov’s character by the time he was caught by the Czarist police, flogged, and sent to Siberia’s mines. He becomes a penitent, filled with God’s grace, and very compassionate to all and sundry. Tolstoy is firm that God sees the truth of men’s matters; he knew Aksionov was innocent, but he did not wish for the truth to be revealed quickly. If early on, it would have been revealed that Makar was the killer and not Aksionov, the spiritual transformation of Aksionov would not have taken place. He wouldn’t have shown compassion and the virtue of forgiveness that he showed Makar Semyonich, the real killer, if the truth had to be revealed immediately. That is the reason for the title. God indeed saw the truth, but he waited for circumstances to align themselves, and the truth would only be revealed after much suffering on the part of Aksionov. Should the reader applaud this virtue of forgiveness or not? A fascinating question to ask ourselves.
The positive side that Tolstoy tries to show us is the spiritual transformation of Aksionov. According to the author, that was the main core or central theme of this highly Christian centric semi-parabolic story. But I’m sure that there are now many people who would agree that this is not something that has to be applauded. Instead, we should be appalled that a just man dies a miserable death in Siberia while his wrongdoer enjoys most of his life and only repents at the end when he feels it is ‘convenient’ to be penitent. This story may have echoed the spiritual transformation of Leo Tolstoy. Still, for a twenty-first century citizen of this world, we wouldn’t be so docile like Aksionov was if we were being charged with the murder done by someone else. It is mentioned how the wife of Aksionov made a petition to the Czar to set her husband free, which he refused. We also know from first-hand experience and history, especially from Russia and the USSR, how even innocent people are convicted of crimes they have not committed. Some die without having forgiven their wrongdoer. But many have also forgiven – we cannot refute that.
In literature, a well written short story can mean different things to different people over a passage of time. Well written fiction can generate new meanings over time, something that I read in a book titled How to Read Literature by Terry Eagleton; you can check out the review on my blog. I have taken what Eagleton has said very seriously while trying to analyze Aksionov’s sad story. From the dawn of time, we keep asking ourselves the same question: Why do we have to suffer right till the end? When do we get to see redemption? In this short story, there is one part which I would like to focus on, and that is the part where Aksionov doesn’t give out the secret that Makar had been the one to dig a hole under the shelve in prison. Makar was trying to make a tunnel by digging a hole under the wall of his bunk. He would hide the mud in his boots and empty them outside on the road when the prisoners were driven to work. His hole was found, and the soldiers asked Aksionov for the criminal’s identity since everyone looked up to him as a grandfather figure and a living saint. Notice how Aksionov, even though he had an inkling that Makar was indeed the one who had made him suffer in the past, still strangely doesn’t let on that he knew who the person was. Later in the story, he told the soldiers they could do whatever they wanted with him instead of the real criminal.
The point is people suffer, but no redemption comes in this life. This is a fact, and you can’t ignore it. But the second point and a vital point is that though their wrongdoers torment innocent people – they will never stoop to their level to prove their innocence. That is the point in this short story; otherwise, it could only mean that Aksionov died unnecessarily, as we see in the end.
We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.—Martin Luther King, Jr
The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.—Mahatma Gandhi
The writings of Leo Tolstoy positively influenced both Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Aksionov forgave because that was the right thing to do. His life was uselessly wasted, yes, I agree with you – but he did not bend down to dig a hole to escape this reality like Makar; he faced it, head-on. The parabolic lesson that we learn from the story of Aksionov is: Go through life which is full of suffering, but never surrender, never give up.
There are a few takeaway points that I want to highlight here:
- The way Makar got into the rooms in the first place is left to conjecture in this short story. Makar says he fled through the window but didn’t say how he came in. Couldn’t that have been understood by the police themselves? Why did the police say that there was no other way to enter or leave the inn when there was a window?
- It is very common to torture a criminal with kindness and goodness. It is what Aksionov accidentally manages to do to Makar by forgiving him of his wrongdoing towards him.
- Aksionov thinks that his wife and children may be destitute, on the streets begging, or worse, dead. However, when Makar comes to the Siberian prison mine camp, he says that the Aksionov family was doing very well except for the father in Siberia for a criminal act. Why does Aksionov still feel remorse when he thinks of his wife and children whom Makar has tortured?
- There is a three-stage development of Aksionov’s spiritual transformation, which is from standing by the truth to appealing to God and then lastly to bestowing mercy though he did not receive it.
- Many literature school textbooks would quote the Holy Bible and state that the Gospels’ readings are the reason for Aksionov’s action of mercy and forgiveness, but I don’t think so. I feel there is more to this story than mere Gospel forgiveness, especially in light of the Russia Leo Tolstoy was living in before he passed away. Indeed, where we in the twenty-first-century are concerned, the whole meaning, nature, narration, and interpretation of the text take a very unusual turn.
- Makar knew who Aksionov was when he reached the Siberian mine but pretended that he did not know Aksionov and what he had made him suffer by his criminal offense.
- It is mentioned that Aksionov, during his spiritual transformation, gave up entreaty and hope but only held onto the virtue of prayer and knowing God better. Suppose you see it from a theological perspective. In that case, he was getting to know himself better because Christianity indicates throughout the Holy Bible that Man is made in God’s image and vice versa. That is probably why Aksionov can make that broad statement that God will forgive him as probably Aksionov himself was a hundred times worse than him.
- Aksionov’s wife’s prophesizing dream comes true, and Aksionov never returns to his home, and he ages in captivity. However, his hair grows white while his beard goes grey. In the dream of Aksionov’s wife, only his hair grows grey.
I am very fond of reading Leo Tolstoy’s works. I am fond of all Russian writers; their works resonate with me somehow. I have reviewed many Russian writer’s short stories like Anton Chekhov, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Ivan Bunin and many others; do check them out. I hope to review more Russian short stories, novels, and essays soon. My eternal wish is to read the biographies of nineteenth-century Russian writers in my possession; they are scattered all over my office-cum-writing hut. If you want to know more about my life in books and with books, you can read my memoir Scenes of a Reclusive Writer and Reader of Mumbai. It is available on Amazon.
If you are interested in book reviews, book analysis, short story analysis, poems, essays, essay analysis, and other bookish content, you can check my blog insaneowl.com. If you wish to buy my books, you can check out my websites fizapathanpublishing.us and fizapathan.com. Happy reading to you all!
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