Leo Tolstoy is one of my favorite authors because he writes frankly about what it means to be human. We fall in love, we die, we kill, and we make sacrifices, and Tolstoy doesn’t shy away from the amalgam of emotions involved in each of these things. Instead, he holds up a mirror, showing the reader his or her own humanity with nonjudgmental accuracy. And he does it with less rambling than Dostoevsky.
The first short story, “Family Happiness,” is a chick flick, but one with a significantly different message. Marya and Sergey fall in love, get married, begin a cycle of fighting and attempting reconciliation, and pop out a few kids along the way. The gooey romantic bits of their relationship inevitably dissolve, but instead of having his lovebirds split up at the end of the story, Tolstoy throws out a refreshing ending with a wise bit of advice in it: Friendship is what lasts, not romance.
After this very nice, warm-fuzzies story, comes “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” which is much gloomier. This story has the best example of Tolstoy’s candid expression of human nature: When Ivan Ilych’s coworkers— one of whom knew him since childhood— find out that he has died, each of them think first of the possibility of their own promotions now that his position is open. “It is he who is dead and not I,” they all think, as any of us would. Tolstoy felt no need to romanticize the self-centeredness of humanity.
The third story in the collection is the photographic negative of the first. A diatribe against love, marriage, and procreation, “The Kreutzer Sonata” tells the story of Pozdnyshev, who ends up killing his wife because he suspects her of unfaithfulness. The author never makes it clear whether Pozdnyshev’s lady actually cheated on him or not; Pozdnyshev’s actions were the product of a truth he created for himself.
“Master and Man” has the weakest plot of the four. A man and his servant ride around in the snow for dozens of pages until their horse dies. The men curl up together to keep warm, the master dies, and the servant is found barely alive at dawn. The point of the story could have been the act of sacrifice or it could have just been that Russia is really fucking cold. I’m not sure. Even Tolstoy was only human, though.