‘Little Girls Wiser Than Men’ by Leo Tolstoy: Short Story Analysis
‘Little Girls Wiser Than Men’, also called ‘Wisdom of Children’, is a parabolic short story penned in 1885 by one of the greatest Russian writers, Leo Tolstoy. Leo Tolstoy had a profound moral crisis in the 1870s, which created an even more profound spiritual awakening in him. He started following and preaching Lord Jesus Christ’s ethical tenets, especially the basic teachings of Christ. In this short story, he uses two themes that the Lord Jesus stressed during his ministry: forgiveness and that the Kingdom of God were open to people who became in their hearts, simple and humble like little children. Through the story of little Malasha and big Akoulya, Leo Tolstoy wants to highlight that children are a reflection of what we must be if we’re going to be in God’s favor and one day enter the Kingdom of God in heaven. That does not mean that one should act immaturely. It means that one should forgive easily, not take differences between each other seriously, be humble, and not hold grudges against people. Malasha and Akoulya get into a sort of disagreement but forgive each other easily. In contrast, the frustrated Russian villagers who had encountered their dispute use the little girl’s issue to settle old scores. The adults of the village think that what happened between Malasha and Akoulya was a discredit or a demeaning of themselves for which they were ready to come to blows.
Leo Tolstoy wants to show us through this short story that it is in children that we see qualities that Lord Jesus taught his disciples and whoever else cared to listen during his three year ministry. Leo Tolstoy wants to show us the wisdom of the two girls who knew that what had happened between them was a mistake, a trifling issue. They felt that such an issue should not affect their new friendship, and they should continue to be friends; something as banal as the unintentional splashing of mud on new Easter clothes was not something to take so seriously. There is a reason, however, why the adults took the whole issue seriously. In fact, there are many issues, but the prime one is poverty. In Leo Tolstoy’s time, the Russian villagers were impoverished. If the little girls had indeed got new clothes for Easter, it indicated that their parents had worked very hard and spent a lot of money on their clothes. The other reasons why the villagers must have got into the fray are noted below:
- They were frustrated because of the hardship they had to go through daily and were ready to get at each other on the slightest pretext.
- They could not take out their frustration on the ‘haves’ or the ruling classes, and so they took it out on each other.
- They were villagers, so they had old scores to settle with each other and thought the issue between Malasha and Akoulya was an excellent way to do so.
- They were living on the edge, wondering where their next meal would come from and how they were going to survive. Therefore, it was easy to irritate and anger such villagers who always were on the brink of anxiety.
But Malasha and Akoulya teach these villagers a lesson in forgiveness. Malasha unintentionally splashes and dirties the older girl Akoulya’s yellow printed dress, angering her. But the two join up together after a while. What is more, they try to find a solution to the dirty puddle problem where the whole mess began. They create with a bit of stone and a chip of wood a canal so that the puddle’s filthy water could flow into the main road and prevent clogging. This indicates that as adults, we tend always to act aggressively when an issue pops up for our scrutiny. We still like to play the blame game by blaming each other for the problems we witness around us. We don’t sit together to find solutions; we fight, not what we should be doing. We should be like Malasha and Akoulya and find solutions to a problem rather than exacerbate a problem. It is Akoulya’s grandmother who brings this fact home to the villagers. Most probably, the wisdom and maturity that we see in Akoulya are what she must have received from her aged grandmother. It is Akoulya’s grandmother who shames the villagers who have assembled near the puddle to denounce each other during the first week of Easter. Ironically, these villagers call themselves devout worshippers of the Risen Christ, but they do not follow his tenets mentioned in the Gospels. What is the point in worshiping with all pomp and ceremony something vague, like the Resurrection, but ignore the principles of the religion that made the Resurrection meaningful: that is the Good News of Christ? This is something to ponder about. Also, coming to the theme of forgiveness, the Lord Jesus had mentioned forgiveness several times in the Gospel, and while he was being scourged and killed on the cross – that is, during his Passion. This is the same Passion that ends with Easter, which the Russian villagers have come back from church celebrating and observing. The irony of it was that even though these villagers had spent forty days of Lent in penance, prayers, and good acts, they were still unaware of the central core of the Gospel.
Here are some of the few words of the Lord Jesus in the Bible that one can dwell on. Note that Leo Tolstoy used to advocate the ethical teachings of the Gospel of Christ after his moral crisis period.
For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.—Matthew 6:14
Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.—Luke 6:37
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.’’—Matthew 18:21–22
Thus, despite their poverty, the village adults should have known better than to fight each other during the blessed Easter week. Coming now to the topic of children: It is a fact that Leo Tolstoy and many Russian writers have used parables and stories of children to bring out hidden messages to educate their readers. Here, Leo Tolstoy stresses Lord Jesus’ words as mentioned in the last part of the text, which is a direct reverence to Matthew Chapter 18:3 that so called wise man can never enter the kingdom of heaven if they do not become as little children. Here is the entire text in the Gospel related to children as spoken by Lord Jesus:
At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”—Matthew 18: 1–6
For the Lord Jesus and Leo Tolstoy, real wisdom in this world is seen in little children’s lives. These days, many people are trying to save children from the world’s snares and traps, even if that child is the one residing within them, an adult. The Lord Jesus implores us not to forget our innocence, humility, and simplicity like when we were children. For it is only when we think and act humbly like children that we shall be true followers of the Way. Children teach us in very innovative ways how to get around or even sometimes solve a problem, like the children in this story did. That is because children are innocent and are not encumbered by the cares and worries of the world. They think ‘out of the box’, and that is what the Lord Jesus and Leo Tolstoy want to focus upon. Tolstoy also wants us to forgive quickly. Forgetting is difficult, but one must try and forgive another so that one day in another realm where we are not our own masters, someone greater than you or I will forgive us our sins.
The poverty and degradation are evident in this short story titled ‘Little Girls Wiser Than Men’. Yet, even here in pre-Soviet and pre-revolution Russia, we can see the uncertainty of this country. We see the poverty that would later become so cumbersome that a reigning monarchy would be overthrown, and the world would not be the same anymore.
I enjoyed reading and analyzing this short story by the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. I have his entire literary collection and hope to read it sometime soon to review it for you here on my blog. I have reviewed several parabolic short stories of Leo Tolstoy in the past, which you can check out here. I hope to read more short stories by Leo Tolstoy soon.
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