If you’re nervous about Tolstoy’s longer works, and you’re not alone, why not start with a novella.
Tolstoy’s The Devil, translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude, clocks in at exactly 100 pages.
The Devil tells the story of an aristocratic landowner who is slowly overcome with sexual desire for one of his peasants, a story that may be based on events in the author’s life, according to the brief biography on the inside flap.
After his father’s death, Yevgeny Irtenev abandons the city and a promising career to take up residence on his family estate. His goal is to bring the family lands back to the status they once enjoyed as a successful farming enterprise. Unfortunately, there are no women in the village like there are in the city, women with whom Irtenev can have an on-going sexual affair.
He did not approve of having relations with a married woman or a maid in his own village. He knew by report that both his father and grandfather had been quite different in this matter from other landowners of that time. At home they had never had any entanglements with peasant-women, and he had decided that he would not do so either; but afterwards, feeling himself ever more and more under compulsion and imagining with horror what might happen to him in the neighbouring country town, and reflecting on the fact that the days of serfdom were now over, he decided that it might be done on the spot. Only it must be done so that no one should know of it, and not for the sake of debauchery but merely for health’s sake– as he said to himself. And when he had decided this he became still more restless. When talking to the village Elder, the peasants, or the carpenters, eh involuntarily brought the conversation round to women, and when it turned to women he kept it on that theme. He noticed the women more and more.
Irtenev discusses the issue with the one of his watchmen, Danila, who tells Irtenev that Irtenev’s father made arrangements through him to meet with local peasant women. Irtenev is shocked at this news, but soon sees things differently. Danila explains things:
“But what was bad in it? She was glad and Fyodor Zakharich was satisfied, very satisfied. I got ruble. Why, what was he to do? He too is lively limb apparently, and drinks wine.”
I admit, I was surprised but just how frank The Devil was about sexual desire. While not an erotic novel by any means, Tolstoy is quite open about sexual passion, what men and women did to fulfill it and how powerful its effect could be. Danila sets Irtenev up with a local peasant woman who is not just far beneath his social class but not at all the type of woman he would normally find attractive. Still, Irtenev continues to meet with her regularly even after he marries another, more suitable woman.
The respectability his new wife and his successful farm offer him are not enough. His desire keeps leading him back to the peasant-woman. Eventually his desire leads Irtenev towards a self-destructive path. By the end of the novella, I was starting to compare it to Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. Tolstoy wrote The Devil ten years before Chopin wrote The Awakening but his novella was not published until 1911, shortly after his death. I’m not arguing for influence–I find it difficult to imagine Tolstoy read The Awakening–but I do think the two books together would make for interesting reading as the each deal with very similar issues from very different points of view.
They’d make for a great book club meeting.