‘The Imp and the Crust’ by Leo Tolstoy: Short Story Analysis
‘The Imp and the Crust’ is a parabolic nineteenth-century fable penned in 1886 by the greatest Russian writer of all time, Leo Tolstoy. Through a straightforward but moralistic plot, it tells the evils of possessing wealth, power, and fame and how that can lead us to unleash our bestial nature upon our fellow men. When one remains in the mean or middle-class, one has enough and does not hanker after wealth or grumble that he is too poor. People like the poor peasant in the story when they live within their means, know the value of their money and have more empathy for those living in worse conditions than themselves. Tolstoy was trying to celebrate the stoicism of the middle-class section of society and their way of looking at life. It seems like Tolstoy was trying to tell us that one should neither be too rich nor too poor to be happy. Is it that he is condemning the economic classes and strata created in a Capitalistic stratified society? It seems so, and it seems that Tolstoy hoped that one day such divisions would end so that everyone would have ‘just enough’ and would not behave like beasts.
The story begins on a note of reality. There is a poor peasant out on work in the fields ploughing his bit of land. He has only one crust of bread for his breakfast, which is stolen by the Imp. It is very evident in the action of the Imp that Tolstoy wants to show us that the Imp first tried directly to get the poor peasant to sin. When he fails and gets a hiding from the Devil, he tries an indirect approach to get the peasant to curse God or, rather, be the epitome of what it meant to symbolize sin. The Imp wanted the peasant to curse God because his last crust of bread was stolen. Instead, the peasant blesses the person who stole it, saying that he might have needed it more than the peasant. This laid-back nature would be considered by moralists to be the very image of maturity and stoicism on the part of the poor peasant. But is it so? Is it not that lack of help and assistance given to society’s middle-class and poor strata makes this class passive towards their aggressors? We see around us a few specimens of the rich, the powerful, and the famous. If their crust of bread were stolen, many would come out to find it or replace it. Nobody cares for those lower down on the ladder. By the way, an imp is a small, mischievous devil or sprite. He was out to make the poor peasant sin by cursing God and instead call on the Devil. In the end, he would change the poor peasant into the very image of sin itself.
The short story is didactic more than just a parable. The socialist way of living practiced by the early church is directly and indirectly highlighted in this short story. The story was published in the year 1886. We know that in the 1870s, Tolstoy had a moral crisis in his life, after which he was highly influenced by the ethical teaching of the Gospels of Jesus Christ. There is a strong possibility that ‘The Imp and the Crust’ is not merely a cautionary short story of alcohol’s evils, but something far more profound and sociologically pervasive. The key to people not turning into first foxes, then wolves, and then swine because of alcohol is to keep them middle-class; that is what the story seems to say, but that is not the entire central content. The point is about empathy, human kindness, human goodness, and responsibility. If the peasant had realized that he had to be responsible for other needy souls after he had a lot of grain leftover, he wouldn’t have turned into the monster. Today, many people are wealthy, powerful, famous, and beautiful, but how aware are they of their responsibility towards others?
Coming back to the story, the Imp doesn’t succeed at first but returns disguised as a laborer to work alongside with the poor peasant. The poor peasant listened to the Imp’s advice and planted his corn first in a marshy place and then upon a hill. The peasant was not exactly wise to do so; he was highly suggestible. Look at the text carefully; there was no practical reason to state that the first year would be a dry one and the second year a wet one. The poor peasant gave into the Imp because he was merely highly suggestible. He was also suggestible when the Imp showed him how to mash his excess grain and turn it into liquor or alcohol. It was in the peasant’s hands not to listen to the Imp, but he did listen to him. He mashed his grain, filled his home with liquor, made his guests drink it as well, debased his wife for spilling some of the drink, and stayed aloof from another poor peasant who wanted a drink. He wanted to indulge himself, and the Imp let him do so. Thereby the bestial spirit (sorry for the pun) of the peasant came to the fore to such an extent that his pathetic situation made the Devil praise the Imp and promote him to a higher rank. In other words, the peasant was not taught to be responsible for his wealth. He quickly forgot the day he stoically accepted the loss of his only crust of bread, proving that it was not because he was a man of values but because a poor peasant like him could not take up the matter anywhere in the Russia of his time.
The changing of the drunk men into foxes, wolves, and then swine are stages in a self-indulgent person’s lifestyle. It is dependent on how indulgent he is and how frivolous he can be. He can, at first, be a cunning fox and a liar. If he indulges himself in his riches, he becomes ruthless and tries to overpower anyone who threatens him because he has the power and means to do so. Finally, when he is the richest, he must prove nothing to himself or anyone and thus leads a meaningless and sluggish life, devoid of anything human. That was what the peasant had become, a man smeared from top to toe in mud, grunting like a pig. He ruins himself. But that is not all. He will destroy himself because of alcohol and because he doesn’t have any semblance of morality and responsibility left in him. If he had regarded his excess grain as God’s gift and were responsible, he would not have turned into a pig. The more we allow people without morals and based on their fame, money, or power to come up and rule society, more swine is created worldwide, and more Imps will get promotions from the Devil.
One cannot ignore the Christian symbolism of the ‘crust’ as the body of Christ and the grain being mashed into alcohol as the blood of Christ. Even sacred symbols like these can be used by the Devil to bring out the beast in man. Must we allow this to happen, or should we take a more responsible stand on what is happening in our world these days? The beast in man can also come out in the form of religious bigotry, communalism, casteism, racism, and so many other ways that destroy the fabric of a civilized society. Must it be so? Let us change this. That is what Leo Tolstoy is trying to tell us today. And do not worry that you are alone or just one person. The poor peasant was at first only one person, but his actions made many other peasants become alcoholics. Even one person can be the reason for a better future or no future at all!
I always enjoy reading Leo Tolstoy’s works. I read this story when I was probably in the fourth grade. Even then, I could not digest that this short story could only be about alcohol. My teachers at school cut my marks because I wrote something similar to what I have penned in this blog today. I wrote it in a school girlish manner, of course. I then read more of Tolstoy in my school library, where I spent most of my twelve years at school than in the classroom. If you want to read about my life in books and with books, check out my memoir on this blog’s products page. The memoir is titled Scenes of a Reclusive Writer and Reader of Mumbai. I am sure you will like it. The book was a finalist in the 2020 DBW Awards; you can check that article on my blog.
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