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Reprinted from Studies in Short Fiction 3(1975):261-69



A STRUCTURAL ANALYSIS OF

LEO TOLSTOY'S "GOD SEES THE

TRUTH, BUT WAITS"



GARY R. JAHN



It is well known that in the late 1870's Tolstoy passed through a spiritual crisis which led, inter
alia, to a renunciation of his highly successful career as an author of "literary" pretensions. Less
well known are two earlier abdications from this role. In the early 1860's Tolstoy abandoned
literature in order to establish a school for the peasants living on his estate and to publish a
journal explaining his pedagogical methods.[1] In the early 1870's, having returned to literature
long enough to write War and Peace, he once again abandoned it for the sake of pedagogical
work. The scope of his efforts on this occasion was national rather than local, and he devoted
some four years to the writing of a series of primers for use in elementary schools.



In connection with this project, Tolstoy wrote a large number of stories, sketches, and articles to
form the bulk of the practical matter in a course in the elements of literacy which he had
designed. Among these are two stories which he, in his tractate on aesthetics, What is Art,
excepted from the general repudiation of the fiction which he wrote prior to the crisis and
conversion of the late 1870's.[2] These were "The Prisoner of the Caucasus" and "God Sees the

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while at the end of the second half he is joyful, calm, and contented.



The symmetry of the structure of the story is further reinforced by a number of verbal echoes in
its two halves. Immediately on either side of the structural mid-point of the story there is a
similar prepositional phrase. The first half of the story ends with the words ". . . to Siberia" and
the second half begins "In Siberia . . ." (xxi, 249) When Aksenov is threatened by the police
inspector in the first half of the story, he is described in the words "He was shaking all over with
fear." When, in the second half, he is threatened by Makar, "He began to shake all over with
fury." (xxi, 248, 251) The first line of the first half of the story reads "In the city of Vladimir
lived a young merchant, Aksenov." Compare the first



264



line of the second half of the story: "In Siberia, at forced labor, Aksenov lived for twenty-six
years." (xxi, 246, 249) In the confrontation with the police inspector in the first half of the story
". . . [Aksenov] couldn't get out a single word." In the confrontation with the warden in the
second half ". . . he couldn't for a long while get out a single word" (xxi, 247, 252) .



The symmetry of plot and verbal texture has two primary functions. First, it draws attention to
the two main events in the protagonist's life as climactic situations resulting in a profound change
in both the outward and inward character and progress of his life. Second, it organizes the
representation of the life of the protagonist in such a way that two distinct schemes of
development become apparent. The outward and material development of Aksenov's life is
presented by what might be called a structural anaphora. This line of development is the specific
function of the symmetry of like to like in the story. Summarizing this line in brief, one may say
that the protagonist passes from worldly success to worldly wretchedness in the first half of the
story, and in the second half this process is repeated more intensely as he passes from
wretchedness to death. Aksenov's inward and spiritual development, on the contrary, is presented
as forming an antithetical pattern, and the representation of this line of development is the
specific function of the symmetry of opposites. Summarizing again, the protagonist passes from
light-hearted self-satisfaction to despair and resignation in the first half of the story, but in the
second half the process is reversed as he passes from resignation to contentment and joy.



The presence of two variants of the symmetry that dominates the structure leads to a tension
within the story itself. The account of Aksenov's life contains two lines of development that are

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Closely related to the symbol of Aksenov's home is that of the prison. Since the prison replaces
the home as the center of Aksenov's material existence, it is natural to look upon it as a contrast
to the home. That was precisely what Aksenov did. The prison was the setting of his tragedy and
grief, while home was the object of his longing and desire. This opposition is maintained until
the act of forgiveness that is the climax of the story. After that, prison and home are no longer
opposed but are rather joined in relation to a third and more important consideration. "And he
ceased longing for home and no longer wanted to leave the prison, and he only thought about his
final hour." Aksenov's ceasing to distinguish home and prison has come about through a
transference of his attention from the material sphere in general to the spiritual one. He began to
think only of his "final hour," his complete departure from the material world into that of the
spiritual. "God Sees the Truth, But Waits" portrays the spiritual development of the protagonist in
material terms. The relationship between these two planes of existence is wholly symbolic; the
spiritual does not emerge as a directly stated phenomenon.



In the story the "truth /justice" of the title has real meaning only in terms of the spiritual plane of
existence. Hence its proximity to God in the title of the story. While Aksenov is a victim of
injustice on the material plane, he is treated with great mercy on the spiritual plane, for he is led
willy-nilly to the fruits of spiritual triumph. God is part of this story as more than an incidental
element of the proverb that serves as the title. Like other aspects of the spiritual plane of the
work, however, the presence of God is implied rather than stated.



That the total disregard for material values which characterizes Aksenov at his death is a
desirable quality is a hard lesson to teach.[6] It seems to confront reason and human nature with
hostility. To avoid this hostility the spiritual plane of the story and the lesson that it suggests are
masked, but in such a way that they can be discovered. The narrative, by including no specific
mention of the spiritual plane or lesson, masks their existence. The structure of the narrative,
however, produces a tension in the story that can be resolved only by discovering what has been
hidden.



6. The idea amounts to philosophic dualism; see G. W. Spence, Tolstoy the Ascetic (New York: Barnes and Noble,
1967) . In Spence's view this dualism is a weakness underlying all of Tolstoy's later philosophy.



268



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