Book Review, Classics

The Devil – by Leo Tolstoy

…When you’re in the mood for a very short classic, filled with inner struggles.

Tolstoy is well known for “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina”, two wonderful masterpieces. However, in 1889, he wrote a lesser known novella, which was published after his death, in 1911. It seems he was very embarrassed of what he had written and hid it while alive. If you’re intrigued and looking for a quick weekend read, this article might be just for you.

Small Summary

“The Devil” is about Eugene Ivanich Irtenev, a young man who inherits a farm from his father. After he settles most of his dad’s debts, he decides to move to the farm with his mother and try to make it profitable. After little time alone, he starts an affair with Stepanida, a peasant girl, already married, on his estate.

When the time comes for him to marry as well, he chooses Liza, whom he doesn’t really know, but falls in love with. This makes him break all ties with Stepanida and settles for a time in a happy, comfortable married life.

Tolstoy is graciously describing his every day small problems – the farming difficulties, mother-in-law’s bickering, as well as the joys of married life: the love between him and Liza seems pure and genuine. I loved this part of the story – it seemed such an ordinary, peaceful life!

However, after one year of marriage, Stepanida is employed in his house to help with cleaning. This is how his tormenting hell begins.

But I say unto you, that every one that looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.
And if thy right eye causeth thee to stumble, pluck it out, and call it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not thy whole body be cast into hell. And if thy right hand causeth thee to stumble, cut it off, and call it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not thy whole body go into hell.

Matthew v. 28, 29, 30.

Main Theme

As it is obvious from the religious quote, the main theme explored here is guilt. Though Eugene remains faithful for a while, he often thinks about Stepanida, and, as he is very devoted, the guilt he feels is terrible. He has no peace of mind. The novella describes his misery very well, it even manages to induce you a state of uneasiness. We root for him to remain faithful, we witness his thoughts, his struggle. We applaud his attitude when he tries everything to keep away, even confessing his suffering to others. We feel sad when Liza notices his change in moods, as she is unaware of what is causing everything.

Will Eugene find the strength to resist the devil’s temptations? How will he do it? I think the “How” is the most important question. I like the fact the he tries. I like how he understands what’s right and wrong and he does anything to preserve his marriage. Also, the way we see his thoughts, I find it all very intimate, it reminded me a lot of Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” in his obsession.

Autobiographical Elements

As I said in the beginning, Tolstoy himself was embarrassed of writing this story as he himself had a child with a peasant girl on his estate. He was afraid that publishing the story would reignite his wife Sofya’s hurt feelings. For me, this only seems to add authenticity to the story and an understanding of how Eugene’s thoughts seem so real.

I loved this story and I hope you do too. It’s perfect for your weekend reads and I hope it will spark interesting conversation ideas!

Instead of a Conclusion – More Questions (perfect for book club discussions)

If you’re considering Leo Tolstoy’s “The Devil” for your book club, here is a list of conversation starters surrounding it:

  1. Did you know the book has alternate endings? Which do you prefer?
  2. Does guilt make us better people?
  3. In real life, Tolstoy made his wife, Sofya, read all his journals of previous affairs. He did this for full disclosure before their marriage. Given that he did not publish this story during his lifetime makes it seem like he later regretted it. Should Eugene have done the same? Should we?
  4. Eugene chooses life in the country, he follows his grandfather’s way of life. The author states: “It is generally supposed that Conservatives are usually old people, and those in favour of change are the young. That is not quite correct. The most usual Conservatives are young people ; those who want to live but who do not think, and-have not time to think, about how to live and who therefore take as a model for themselves a way of life that they have seen.” Do you agree? Is tradition kept only because young people don’t think about how to live?
  5. Finally, do you think the obsession Eugene had was a sign of a psychotic illness or was he simply consumed by guilt and the inability to satisfy all his desires while keeping his morality?

P.S. If you prefer a video format, try my Youtube channel:

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