Literary scholar Ernest Simmons composes that “during the last thirty years of his life Tolstoy labored mightily towards the awareness in the world of the kingdom of God, which for him suggested the kingdom of reality and excellent.” This belief is in truth and goodness is represented in his story “What Guy 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 normal rules and his character appears to be different from other guys who live in his community.
In reality, his actions prove to be various from what the common male would carry out in scenarios like the ones he faces. Though he is not always content with every element of his circumstances, he displays enough general contentment to trigger the reader to wonder if he is in possession of higher understanding. The reader is disgruntled by some things that he does, yet in the end his actions seem to work for the very best.
It appears that while Michael has been searching for “what males live by,” Simon appears to currently be in ownership of that understanding.
Simon appears at very first to be a soft and naïve individual who is continuously deceived into being generous, however who can never get kindness 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 prepared to pay.
Yet these exact same persons refuse to offer him bread or sheepskin on credit, though he is plainly starving and cold. His persistence in being kind to these people in spite of their consistently ungrateful behavior renders him in possession of a trick of considering that few other individuals understand.
His generous and gentle spirit is shown in his actions right away following his frustration by those neighbors to whom he had actually gone to gather the payment due him. Instead of cursing and promising never to commit another kind act, he purchases some vodka (which warms him) and goes house in silence. This gentleness of spirit likewise can not be misinterpreted for simple simple-mindedness, as the reader is mindful from listening to his ideas that he has full understanding of the dilemma in which he has discovered 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