“There Are No Guilty People” Explained (Sort of)

We Present the first chapter of Leo Tolstoy’s short story, There Are No Guilty People, alongside a short introduction and a link to the full work.

Why Present a Single Chapter From Leo Tolstoy’s There Are No Guilty People?

I get the impression that the first chapter of this story was written in isolation. The start of an epic story that was never finished, or a glimpse of a brilliant idea that never fully materialized.

The story, like all Tolstoy’s work (at least what I know of it) is better than most others, and there is probably other works I could have presented in that respect.

However, the first chapter of There Are No Guilty People is likely less known that a work like War and Peace, and thus it is likely more useful to call attention to (and shorter for the reader).

It speaks to a modern human sentiment the upper-classes feel in modern society (with its politics and inequalities), and bridges the gap between empirical philosophy, moral philosophy, and fiction all in just over 600 words (the length of an average blog post).

I won’t go on, as that would ruin the main idea, which is that what Tolstoy says, he says so well, that not even he could find more words to adequately pair with it.

Free from desire for self-vindication, free from fear of an emancipated people, free from that envy and hatred which the oppressed feel for their oppressors, I am in the best possible position to see the truth and to tell it. Perhaps that is why Providence placed me in such a position. I will do my best to turn it to account.

FACT: “Leo Tolstoy’s” name was actually Lev Nikolajevič Tolstoj. He was Russian, he is also considered one of the greatest authors of all time. Read more about Leo, or um Lev, on Wikipedia.

NOTES: I broke up some paragraphs below for the modern reader. Our ancestors used to write in long paragraphs, today we write and read in blips. Here is the blip version.

There are No Guilty People Leo Tolstoy, Chapter I

MINE is a strange and wonderful lot!

The chances are that there is not a single wretched beggar suffering under the luxury and oppression of the rich who feels anything like as keenly as I do either the injustice, the cruelty, and the horror of their oppression of and contempt for the poor; or the grinding humiliation and misery which befall the great majority of the workers, the real producers of all that makes life possible.

I have felt this for a long time, and as the years have passed by the feeling has grown and grown, until recently it reached its climax.

Although I feel all this so vividly, I still live on amid the depravity and sins of rich society; and I cannot leave it, because I have neither the knowledge nor the strength to do so. I cannot.

I do not know how to change my life so that my physical needs — food, sleep, clothing, my going to and fro — may be satisfied without a sense of shame and wrongdoing in the position which I fill.

There was a time when I tried to change my position, which was not in harmony with my conscience; but the conditions created by the past, by my family and its claims upon me, were so complicated that they would not let me out of their grasp, or rather, I did not know how to free myself. I had not the strength.

Now that I am over eighty and have become feeble, I have given up trying to free myself; and, strange to say, as my feebleness increases I realise more and more strongly the wrongfulness of my position, and it grows more and more intolerable to me.

It has occurred to me that I do not occupy this position for nothing: that Providence intended that I should lay bare the truth of my feelings, so that I might atone for all that causes my suffering, and might perhaps open the eyes of those — or at least of some of those — who are still blind to what I see so clearly, and thus might lighten the burden of that vast majority who, under existing conditions, are subjected to bodily and spiritual suffering by those who deceive them and also deceive themselves.

Indeed, it may be that the position which I occupy gives me special facilities for revealing the artificial and criminal relations which exist between men — for telling the whole truth in regard to that position without confusing the issue by attempting to vindicate myself, and without rousing the envy of the rich and feelings of oppression in the hearts of the poor and downtrodden.

I am so placed that I not only have no desire to vindicate myself; but, on the contrary, I find it necessary to make an effort lest I should exaggerate the wickedness of the great among whom I live, of whose society I am ashamed, whose attitude towards their fellow-men I detest with my whole soul, though I find it impossible to separate my lot from theirs.

But I must also avoid the error of those democrats and others who, in defending the oppressed and the enslaved, do not see their failings and mistakes, and who do not make sufficient allowance for the difficulties created, the mistakes inherited from the past, which in a degree lessens the responsibility of the upper classes.

Free from desire for self-vindication, free from fear of an emancipated people, free from that envy and hatred which the oppressed feel for their oppressors, I am in the best possible position to see the truth and to tell it. Perhaps that is why Providence placed me in such a position. I will do my best to turn it to account.

In Conclusion

The story isn’t that much longer, in fact it only has one single chapter after this, and that chapter itself contains some magic. However, there is something special about reading the introduction but getting no further clues.

Sort of like reading Kafka’s Castle (which ends with abruptly with no conclusion and leaves the reader still wanting to find the Castle).

But the point I think is, Franz didn’t know exactly where the Castle was, he just had a faint vision of how to look for it.

Likewise, Tolstoy is looking toward a Castle, and begins to illustrate it in chapter II, but never really shows us what the castle looks like, he just offers us glimpses.

The work ends like this:

Here is a bachelor grown old, the owner of thousands of acres, who has lived a life of idleness, greed, and over-indulgence, who reads The New Times, and is astonished that the government can be so unwise as to permit Jews to enter the university. There is his guest, formerly the governor of a province, now a senator with a big salary, who reads with satisfaction that a congress of lawyers has passed a resolution in favor of capital punishment. Their political enemy, N. P., reads a liberal paper, and cannot understand the blindness of the government in allowing the union of Russian men to exist.

Here is a kind, gentle mother of a little girl reading a story to her about Fox, a dog that lamed some rabbits. And here is this little girl. During her walks she sees other children, barefooted, hungry, hunting for green apples that have fallen from the trees; and, so accustomed is she to the sight, that these children do not seem to her to be children such as she is, but only part of the usual surroundings — the familiar landscape.

Why is this?

And thus it ends, not with a conclusion, but with a metaphor and a single question asked by an old man.

Read the rest of There are No Guilty People here.

LITERATURE: Leo Tolstoy.

"Tolstoy’s There Are No Guilty People" is tagged with: Economic Inequality, Happiness, Liberalism and Conservatism, Morality, Russia