Updated on May 19, 2015
17. ‘The Devil’ by Leo Tolstoy
According to the dust jacket of this book, Tolstoy was so ashamed by his own manuscript, he thought it so scandalous, that he hid it in the lining of an armchair so that his wife wouldn’t find it, and he would not let it be published whilst he was still alive.
The main character, Yevgeny Irtenev, is a wealthy landowner with a promising career before him, who starts a casual affair with one of the peasants living on his land, Stepanida. Eventually a suitable match is found for him by his mother and he gets married, but it soon becomes apparent that he cannot forget his previous lover. What follows is a story of passion and obsession, as Yevgeny tries to put the woman from his mind, but finds it impossible.
I liked how Yevgeny’s character developed throughout the book – he starts off neat and organised, so much so that even his thoughts are carefully ordered, but by the end he has descended into such uncontrollable chaos that he’s almost an entirely different person. The emotions themselves are drawn quite quickly – they have to be, it is a novella after all – so Yevgeny is suddenly in love, then he is suddenly obsessed. This could seem a little oversimplified, but I think it shifts the focus of the story: the point isn’t how he falls in love, it’s simply that he does and what’s important is how he acts upon it.
In places, the narrative voice seems to take on elements of Yevgeny himself. There are so many lines of description about him not thinking about her and successfully putting her from his mind, that it seems like the narrator is trying to convince himself. Stepanida is clearly at the forefront of Yevgeny’s mind, but even the narrator won’t admit it.
The story has two endings because, apparently, Tolstoy himself couldn’t decide. As I’m sure you can imagine, both endings show Yevgeny getting over his obsession and reigniting his love for his virtuous wife… No, that’s clearly not the case, but they are both wonderfully shocking and I can’t choose which one I prefer either. Whichever ending you read, the story ultimately ends with this incredible quote:
“The most mentally deranged people are certainly those who see in others indications of insanity they do not notice in themselves.”
This is another novella courtesy of Melville House Publishing and, much to my shame, the first Tolstoy I have ever read. I bought ‘War and Peace’ a LONG time ago, and it’s been sitting on my shelves for many years. I will get round to it eventually!
Which ending do you prefer? Read the book and let me know what you think!