The Forged Coupon & Other Stories, by Leo Tolstoy

The Forged Coupon & Other Stories

The Forged Coupon & Other Stories is a collection of six short stories by Tolstoy, written late in his life. (This edition I have—with the publisher identified as “TARK Classic Fiction”—contains no information about the stories such as the date that they were written, but in doing a little research online I determined that one of the stories was written when he was in his 60s and four were written when he was in his 70s, leaving one for which I was unable to find any indication of when he wrote it, but presumably it was also from his later years.) The title story is by far the longest at 62 pages in this edition—it is sometimes described as a novella rather than a short story—while the other five range from just five to twelve pages long.

The stories are preceded by a long and fairly interesting Introduction. Unfortunately it seems to have been lifted verbatim from some other book. There are multiple references to the “volumes” it is intended to introduce, and insofar as it mentions specific stories, most of them are not even in this collection. Further, this introductory essay—which one can infer is from about the 1910s or 1920s—is written in the first person, but nowhere is it stated who its author is.

This book is kind of a slapdash effort in other words, a cobbling together of elements presumably old enough to now be in the public domain and thus available to any publisher who wants to stick them between two covers. But that doesn’t detract from the stories themselves, so let’s move on.

The stories are fairly simple, straightforward, competent, not flashy, with a moral message. I would say they are aimed more at thoughtful children and peasants, or whatever would be the equivalent today of the Russian peasants of Tolstoy’s time—adults who are not unintelligent, but who don’t have a lot of education and are kind of simple, literal, no nonsense folks.

The Forged Coupon tells of a chain of incidents, with the general idea being that when someone does something bad it has a tendency to influence those who are involved in it—as co-participants, victims, or observers—toward doing bad things themselves, whereas when someone does something good it has a tendency to influence those who are involved in it toward doing good things themselves. It’s kind of a “pay it forward” thing, where doing good to people encourages them to pass that along by doing good to others, but it adds the negative, flip side, to that.

I’m quite receptive to that message. I’ve always thought there was a lot of truth to that. I think the influence of any one act is very, very small (Tolstoy here wildly overestimates that influence by making individual acts consistently change people’s lives dramatically, as he’s constructing a simplistic fable, not a realistic story), but nonzero.

Let’s say what you do in a given interaction with someone constitutes something like 1/500th of all the genetic and environmental factors that shape the person they are. If you act toward them with love, kindness, honesty, empathy, forgiveness, etc., you move them that tiny, tiny, tiny increment in a positive direction; if you act toward them with anger, malice, impatience, dishonesty, contempt, etc., you move them that tiny, tiny, tiny increment in a negative direction. It’s overwhelmingly likely your little influence won’t make a difference. But once in a blue moon it’ll be what puts them over some tipping point. And it’s impossible to know if a given case will be one of those rare cases.

I volunteered in a prison on a weekly basis for several years, interacting with some pretty hard core criminals. Many people would be skeptical that something like that could possibly do any good, believing that people in prison are too far gone. In a sense I agree with such skeptics and in a sense I don’t. I think it’ll be far more the exception than the rule that my pitiful little efforts to deal with such people with respect as equals, to listen to them, to be available for a friendship with them, etc. will actually change one of them for the better. But it’s not impossible that it occasionally will. I think a huge factor in why most people who do horrific things do those horrific things is that they’ve been treated very shitty in life, often starting with a physically and sexually abusive childhood, and so it makes sense that treating people in non-shitty ways will have the opposite effect.

And even when one’s influence is almost immeasurably slight, isn’t it still better to try to make that influence a positive rather than a negative one? You do what you can do. For most of us most of the time—maybe for all of us all of the time—changing the world for the better in some dramatic, immediately obvious, way is not an option because it can’t be done. If you hold out for that kind of opportunity you’ll be waiting forever. So instead you do what you can do.

After the Dance is a powerful little story. The protagonist tells his friends of how in his youth one evening he experienced the ecstasy of falling in love with a beautiful woman at a ball, and the next morning he experienced the horror of witnessing a brutal beating of a soldier (described very skillfully and chillingly by Tolstoy) for desertion, with the latter experience largely negating the first and changing the course of his life forever.

I’m not sure what to make of Alyosha the Pot; I don’t know what Tolstoy’s point is here. Alyosha is a simple but good-hearted youth who is a very agreeable, very obedient sort. He obeys his father in all things, and when he is sent to the home of a merchant in town to be a live-in miscellaneous laborer he obeys the merchant in all things. He is a cheerful and efficient worker; his whole life consists in being useful. The cook is impressed with his goodness, and they strike up a friendship that ultimately leads to a marriage proposal. The merchant considers it inconvenient to have two of his servants married to each other, so he and Alyosha’s father forbid Alyosha to marry the cook. He immediately goes along with their wishes. Looking back when he is about to die he is convinced that that was the right decision, that doing what one is told and working hard is more important than getting married.

Alyosha manifests Tolstoyan principles in some respects—I’m not surprised Tolstoy would favor duty and service over a matter of personal happiness like marriage, for instance—but I find it peculiar that Tolstoy would seemingly endorse blind obedience to authority.

In My Dream (I don’t know how that title fits the story, by the way), a father is placed in the morally painful position of being challenged to continue to love his daughter and think in terms of what is best for her after she, as he perceives it, betrays him and humiliates him in the eyes of society by leaving home and having an affair with a married man that leaves her pregnant.

It’s a touching story, one of my favorites in this collection.

There Are No Guilty People isn’t much of a story, per se. Tolstoy provides a brief sketch of a few characters, not so much to tell a story as to provide a contrast between the lives of the haves and the lives of the have-nots. The poor and their suffering, he notes at the end, are largely invisible to those with plenty. He concludes with a simple “Why is this?”

I too have always been struck by how few people are troubled by gross inequality and social injustice. I mean, people of the left are so troubled of course, pretty much by definition. But why is that fundamentally left worldview controversial rather than just blatantly obvious and morally compelling to all?

What a story like this makes me think about is how ideology, often based on religion to some degree, is used to smooth things over when people do in fact notice what at least prima facie constitute cases of injustice where a small minority of people are living high on the hog by exploiting others, and other people are doing almost all the work and leading miserable lives.

“Don’t worry about it; they deserve their lot” is basically the defense of the suffering of the poor in almost all societies, but the rationalizations offered for just why they deserve their lot differ.

A system of reincarnation with karma works nicely, in that however people suffer can be justified with metaphysical notions that, being part of religion, don’t even need to be rationally defensible. In a similar vein, in some societies the haves preying on the have-nots is justified in terms of it somehow being most appropriate and stable for people to have their basic roles and duties set by heredity, by what class they are born into—e.g., a nobleman’s duty is to do the things a nobleman is supposed to do, and a peasant’s duty is to do the things a peasant is supposed to do. I suppose some primitive societies led by warlords and such would offer a “might makes right” justification, that if the people at the bottom don’t like being at the bottom maybe they should have been more effective and ruthless warriors and earned their way to the top through their martial prowess.

Capitalism, especially a capitalist democracy, is especially dependent on ideology, because if the 99% ever voted their self-interest the gravy train for the 1% would end immediately. So we’re taught that capitalism is some sort of fair competition, that everyone has the opportunity to advance as far as their willingness to work and manifest virtues such as delayed gratification takes them, and that therefore the people at the bottom are lazy losers who lacked the merits of those hard-working folks at the top.

The slightest glance at the evidence indicates that all these defenses of inequality are complete bullshit—Really? Poor people on the whole don’t work as hard as rich people on the whole?—but I guess the people at the top and their lackeys have to say something.

The Young Tsar is reminiscent of A Christmas Carol. Months after taking office, a reasonably well-intentioned but clueless new tsar has a strange dream. (Incidentally, this edition of Tolstoy’s short stories uses the “czar” spelling in some stories and the “tsar” spelling in others. I’m reminded of the line from Woody Allen’s A Brief, Yet Helpful, Guide to Civil Disobedience: “The Russian Revolution…simmered for years and suddenly erupted when the serfs realized that the Czar and the Tsar were the same person.”) In the dream, he is guided to many, many scenes of human suffering by an unidentified figure who is presumably Christ.

He makes some effort to rationalize what he sees. Initially his guide contradicts him (at a prison, he remarks: “They are all here under lock and key by your order. They have all been sentenced in your name. But far from meriting their present condition which is due to your human judgment, the greater part of them are far better than you or those who were their judges and who keep them here”), but most of the way he remains silent in the confidence that the Tsar’s rationalizations will be overcome by the evidence of his own senses.

The Tsar is quite shaken by this dream. He tells his young, liberal wife about it, as well as an elderly advisor (though actually he’s evidently still dreaming during these conversations). The advisor basically tells him to disregard it, to not let it generate any self-doubt in him as he is a fair and wise ruler governing a just system. His wife advocates transitioning to more of a constitutional monarchy where a lot of governmental authority will fall to elected representatives of the people, with the society they rule not being radically different.

In his head the Tsar then hears the voice of the guide from his dream: “You have more immediate duties not by any means to be disregarded; human duties, not the duties of a Tsar towards his subjects, which are only accidental, but an eternal duty, the duty of a man in relation to God, the duty toward your own soul, which is to save it, and also, to serve God in establishing his kingdom on earth.”

This story, and the book, conclude with these words from Tolstoy: “Which of the three courses the young Tsar chose, will be told in fifty years.”

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