What Men Live By Summary – Leo Tolstoy

What Men Live By Summary - Leo Tolstoy
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What Men Live By is a short story written by the Russian author Leo Tolstoy in 1885. It is one of the short stories included in the book titled What Men Live By, published in 1885.

Summary Of What Men Live By

One day, Simon, a kind, humble, and poor tailor, goes out to buy sheepskin to make a winter coat to share with his wife. Simon usually spends the little money he earns on buying food for his family. However, Simon decides he needs to collect five rubles and twenty kopecks owed to him by his customers to afford the skins.

As he sets out to collect the money, Simon also borrows a three-ruble banknote from his wife’s savings box. While collecting money, he manages to gather only twenty kopecks and, disappointed by not getting the full amount, impulsively spends the twenty kopecks on vodka, becoming drunk and staggering home, cursing the coat seller and lamenting that it’s impossible to endure winter without a fur coat.

As he nears the chapel at the end of the road, Simon stops and notices something huddled against the chapel that looks gaunt. On closer inspection, he realizes it’s an unhealthy-looking man. Initially suspicious and assuming the man might have ill intentions if in such a condition, Simon, presuming the man is drunk, passes him by. But when the man raises his head and looks at him, Simon, after a moment’s reflection, feels ashamed of his indifference and goes back to help the man.

Simon takes off his own cloth coat and wraps it around the stranger. He also gives him an extra pair of boots he had been carrying. They walk together towards Simon’s home, but the stranger hardly speaks and Simon asks him how he came to be in such a state. The only answers the man gives are “I cannot say” and “God has punished me.”

Meanwhile, Simon’s wife, Matryona, considers whether to bake more bread for dinner so there will be enough for breakfast the next morning. Upon seeing them approaching the house, she is displeased to see Simon with the stranger and accuses Simon of being drunk, calling them both asses and berating Simon for not bringing the fur coat.

After the tension subsides, she invites the stranger to sit down and eat with them. As the stranger takes a bite of the bread on his plate, he winces slightly and betrays pain, which Simon notices. When the stranger realizes this, his gloomy expression immediately brightens, and he smiles momentarily. After hearing the story of the stranger’s kind treatment from Simon, Matryona brings out more old clothes and gives them to the stranger.

The next morning, Simon approaches the stranger and asks his name. The stranger reveals that his name is Michael. Simon explains that Michael can stay in his house as long as he helps him with his tailoring work. Michael accepts these conditions and stays on as a faithful assistant for several years.

One winter day, another customer arrives. This customer is a woman with two crippled daughters. She explains that she can order a pair of leather boots for each girl and requests another pair of boots for the lame girl’s crippled foot. As they begin to prepare the order, Michael intensely looks at the girls, which piques Simon’s curiosity about his behavior.

As Simon takes the girls’ measurements, he asks the woman if the girls are her own children and how the lame-footed girl became crippled. The woman explains that they are not her own children and reveals that the real mother accidentally crushed the lame girl’s leg on her deathbed. She expresses her unwillingness to leave them in a safe home or orphanage and instead adopted them as her own children. When Michael hears this, he smiles for the third time during his stay.

When the woman and the two girls finally leave, Michael approaches Simon and bids him farewell, telling him that God has finally forgiven him. As he does so, a celestial light begins to surround him, and Simon realizes he is not an ordinary man.

Simon asks him why he radiates light and why he smiled only three times. Michael explains that he needs to find the answers to these questions in order to become an angel again: that “love” is within a person, “knowing one’s own needs” is what isn’t given to a person, and people live not by taking care of themselves but by living with “love.” Michael concludes, “Now I understand that although people think they live by caring for their own needs, in fact they live only by love. Whoever loves is in God and God is in him, because God is love.” As Michael finishes his speech, wings appear on his back, and he ascends into heaven.

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