Literary scholar Ernest Simmons writes that “during the last thirty years of his life Tolstoy labored mightily toward the realization on earth of the kingdom of God, which for him meant the kingdom of truth and good.” This belief is in truth and goodness is represented in his story “What Men Live By.” In this story, Tolstoy portrays Simon the shoemaker as one who possesses a rather enigmatic character. He does not seem to follow the usual rules and his personality appears to be different from other men who live in his community.
In fact, his actions prove to be different from what the typical man would do in situations like the ones he faces. Though he is not always content with every aspect of his circumstances, he displays enough overall contentment to cause the reader to wonder if he is in possession of higher knowledge. The reader is disgruntled by some things that he does, yet in the end his actions seem to work for the best.
It appears that while Michael has been searching for “what men live by,” Simon seems to already be in possession of that knowledge.
Simon appears at first to be a soft and naïve person who is constantly duped into being generous, but who can never get generosity from anyone in return. He gives credit to persons for whom he makes shoes, and then when he attempts to get payment from them at a much later date, no one is willing to pay. Yet these same persons refuse to give him bread or sheepskin on credit, though he is clearly starving and cold. His persistence in being kind to these people despite their consistently ungrateful behavior renders him in possession of a secret of giving that few other people know.
His generous and gentle spirit is demonstrated in his actions immediately following his disappointment by those neighbors to whom he had gone to collect the payment due him. Instead of cursing and vowing never to commit another kind act, he buys some vodka (which warms him) and goes home in silence. This gentleness of spirit also cannot be mistaken for mere simple-mindedness, as the reader is aware from listening to his thoughts that he has full understanding of the dilemma in which he has found himself.
Yet, though he is downhearted at first, he quickly motivates himself: “’I’m quite warm,’ said he, ‘though I have no sheep-skin coat. I’ve had a drop, and it runs through all my veins. I need no sheep-skins. I go along and don’t worry about anything. That’s the sort of man I am! What do I care? I can live without sheep-skins. I don’t need them’” (Tolstoy, par. 6). He declares that he is the sort of man who knows that what men live by is not sheepskins or rubles.
This knowledge of what men live by is demonstrated in his actions toward the stranger he finds on his way home on this disappointing day. Though at first his cares and fears threaten to overwhelm his and derail his positive course, he overcomes this and offers to Michael the tattered coat and shoes that represent all he has. He gives to him, though he is in no position to do so, and this represents another way in which he shows his awareness that men live by something that transcends the material realm.
Simon knows that he does not live by the coat that is on his back, and he endures the cold to give warmth to the body of the naked and freezing Michael. We find that “when he thought of his wife he felt sad; but when he looked at the stranger and remembered how he had looked up at him at the shrine, his heart was glad” (Tolstoy, par. 17) Even though he knows he would be in trouble with is wife, the gratitude Michael shows for his kindness more than compensates.
Simon is trusting of Michael and allows him into his home, teaching him the shoemaking trade and allowing him to stay for years. It is when Michael arrives at Simon’s house that the reader even finds out that Simon and his wife have children—yet even without thought of the children, his life seems difficult.
It is also remarkable that he offers food to Michael, though Simon himself has nothing left for a meal the following day. His discussion with his wife about giving food and shelter to Michael demonstrates his determination concerning his beliefs—concerning what he knows men to live by. He convinces her that what he has done (things that might be considered irresponsible in light of his responsibilities as a husband) is the godly thing. He also manages to talk her into changing her heart toward the stranger.
Throughout the years that follow, Simon’s continued kindness is rewarded, as Michael’s skill brings bounty to his business. This outcome demonstrates that all along the unpopular actions that result from his knowledge have been evidence of his understanding of what men live by. Michael finally mouths the words that have always been in Simon’s heart. Men live by love, Michael declares, and close attention to Simon’s track record will give evidence to the fact that he has been living by this creed.
Simmons, Ernest. “Religious, Moral, and Didactic Writings.” Introduction to Tolstoy’s Writings. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968. http://www.ourcivilisation.com/smartboard/shop/smmnsej/tolstoy/index.htm
Tolstoy, Leo. “What Men Live By.” What Men Live By and Other Stories. 2003. University of Adelaide Etext Collection. http://etext.library.adelaide.edu.au/t/tolstoy/leo/t65wm/chapter1.html