What Men Live By

"What Men Live By" is a short story written by Russian author Leo Tolstoy in 1885. It is one of the short stories included in his collaboration called "What Men Live By, and other tales" published in 1885. The collaboration also included the written pieces "The Three Questions", "The Coffee-House of Surat", and "How Much Land Does a Man Need?".

The story is referenced in Solzhenitsyn's "Cancer Ward".


A humble shoemaker called Simon goes out one day to purchase sheep-skins in order to sew a winter coat for his wife and himself to share. Usually the little money which Simon earned would be spent to feed his wife and children. Simon decided that in order to afford the skins he must go on a collection to receive the five roubles and twenty kopeks owed to him by his customers. As he heads out to collect the money he also borrows a three-rouble note from his wife's money box. While going on his collection he only manages to receive twenty kopeks rather than the full amount. Feeling disheartened by this Simon rashly spends the twenty kopeks on vodka and starts to head back home.

On his way home he rants to himself about the little he can do with twenty kopeks besides spend it on alcohol and that the winter cold is bearable without a sheep-skin coat. While approaching a holy shrine, Simon stops and notices something pale looking leaning against it. He peers harder and distinguishes that it is a naked man who appears poor of health. At first he is suspicious and fears that the man has no good intentions if he is left in such a state. He proceeds to pass the man until he feels that for a second the man lifted his head and looked toward him. Simon debates what to do in his mind and feels shameful for his disregard and heads back to help the man.

Simon gives the articles of clothing he can and wraps around the stranger. He aids him as they both walk toward Simon's home. Though they walk together side by side, the stranger barely speaks and when Simon asks how he was left in that situation the only answers the man would give was: "I may not tell" and "God has punished me." Meanwhile Simon's wife Matryona debates whether or not to bake more bread for the night's meal so that there is enough for the following morning's breakfast. She decides that the loaf of bread that they have left would be ample enough to last till the following morning. As she sees Simon approaching the door she is angered to see him with a strange man who is wrapped in Simon's clothing.

Matryona immediately expresses her displeasure with Simon, accusing him and his strange companions to be drunkards and harassing Simon for not returning with the sheep-skin needed to make a new coat. Once the tension settles down she bids that the stranger sits down and has dinner with them. After seeing the stranger take bites at the bread she placed for him on his plate, she began to felt pity and showed so in her face. When the stranger noticed this his grim expression lit up immediately and he smiled for one brief moment. After hearing the story from the stranger how Simon had kindly robed the stranger after seeing him in his naked state Matryona grabbed more of their old clothing and gave it to Simon.

The following morning Simon addresses the stranger and asks his name. The stranger answers that his name is simply Michael. Simon explains to Michael that he can stay in his household as long as he can earn his keep by acting as an assistant for Simon in his shoemaking business. Michael agrees to these terms and for a long period of time remains a very faithful assistant. One day a customer who was a nobleman came in their shop. The nobleman outlined strict conditions for the construction of a pair of thick leather boots will not lose its shapes or become loose at the seams for a year or else he would have Simon arrested. When Simon gave the leather that the nobleman had given them to use to Michael, Michael appears to stare beyond the nobleman's shoulder and smiled for the second time since he had been there.

As Michael sews the leather to construct the boots he does so in a fashion that makes them soft leather slippers rather than thick leather boats. Simon is too late when he notices this and cries to Michael asking why he would do such a foolish thing. Shortly later a messenger arrives at their door and gives the news that the nobleman has died and if they could change the order to slippers for him to wear on his death bed. Simon is astounded by this and watches as Michael gives the messenger the pre-made leather slippers. Time continues to go by and Simon is very grateful for Michael's faithful assistance. One day another customer comes in who happens to be a woman with two girls, one of which was crippled. The woman requested if she could order a pair of leather shoes for each of the girls but to only three shoes since they both share the same shoe size with the exception of the crippled girl's lame foot. As they are preparing to fill the order Michael stares intently at the girls and Simon wonders why he is doing so. As Simon takes the girls' measurements he asks the woman if they are her own children and how was the girl with the lame foot crippled. The woman explains that she has no relation to them and that the mother accidentally crushed the leg of the crippled girl. She expresses that she could not find it in her heart to leave them in a safehome or orphanage and took them as her own. When Michael heard this he smiled for the third time since he had been there.

After the woman and two children finally left Michael approached Simon and bid him farewell explaining that God has finally forgiven him. As Michael did this he began to be surrounded by a heavenly glow and Simon acknowledged that he was not an ordinary man. Simon asked him why light emits from him and why did he smile only those three times. Michael explained that he is an angel who was given the task to take away a woman's life so she can pass on to the next life. He allowed the woman to live because she begged that she must take care of her children for no one other than their mother could care for them so. When he did this God punished him for his disobedience and commanded that he must find the answers to the following questions in order to be an angel again: "What dwells in man?", "What is not given to man?", and "What do men live by?" When Michael returned to earth to take the woman's soul, he realized that the woman's lifeless body rolled over and crushed the leg of the now crippled girl. Michael's wings had left him and he no longer was an angel but naked and mortal. When Simon rescued him he knew that he must begin finding the answers to those questions. He learned the answer to the first question when Matryona felt pity for him, thus smiling and realizing what dwells in man is "love". The answer to the second question came to him when he realized that the angel of death was looming over the nobleman, thus smiling and realizing what is not given to man is "to know his own needs." Lastly, he comprehended the answer to the final question when he saw the woman with the two girls from the mother he previously did not take the soul of, thus smiling and realizing that regardless of being strange or relation to each other what men live by is that "love exists in man." When Michael finished he sang praise to God as wings appeared on his back and he raised to return to heaven.

ee also

* Bibliography of Leo Tolstoy
* List of Famous Short Stories

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