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Leo Tolstoy

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By Mirna Ezra

Leo Tolstoy is well known for his writing style because of the ease with which he makes his messages clear and concise, with a lucid style despite the abstractions or connotations through which the message is communicated. His works, especially his short stories, very often conclude with a moral lesson that Tolstoy extends to his audience through tales or stories told from different points of view. In his short story “A Grain as Big as a Hen’s Egg”, Tolstoy uses an old folktale and forms it into a parable, integrating his strong beliefs and clear style to communicate his message to his audience.

            The short story “A Grain as Big as a Hen’s Egg” is written from an objective, omniscient point of view, observing each event that led to the eldest man’s story without participation in the action or commentary on its own presence, remaining anonymous to the reader. Tolstoy’s diction is conversational, as if he was orally passing the story down to another person himself, and there are even colloquial phrases that are common to the time period during which it was written, around the late nineteenth century. An idiomatic phrase like “could not make head or tail of it” was a part of informal conversation in those times, and abbreviations like “till” show the colloquialism that Tolstoy incorporates into his work to make his style more accessible to a wider range of audiences, who can all learn form his message. This style is present in this excerpt from "A Grain as Big as a Hen's Egg":


            "And the King asked:'Tell me, grandfather, did you buy it anywhere, or did you grow it all yourself?'The old man smiled.'In my time,' he answered, 'no one ever thought of such a sin as buying or selling bread; and we knew nothing of money. Each man had corn enough of his own.''Then tell me, grandfather,' asked the King, 'where was your field, where did you grow corn like this?'And the grandfather answered:'My field was God's earth. Wherever I ploughed, there was my field. Land was free. It was a thing no man called his own. Labour was the only thing men called their own.''Answer me two more questions,' said the King. 'The first is, Why did the earth bear such grain then and has ceased to do so now? And the second is, Why your grandson walks with two crutches, your son with one, and you yourself with none? Your eyes are bright, your teeth sound, and your speech clear and pleasant to the ear. How have these things come about?'And the old man answered:'These things are so, because men have ceased to live by their own labour, and have taken to depending on the labour of others. In the old time, men lived according to God's law. They had what was their own, and coveted not what others had produced"


            Although Tolstoy’s writing in this story can be taken literally, much of it is connotative, since many of the figures in the story carry a suggested meaning, and the objects in it are symbolic. The title, for example, can be taken literally as a comparison of egg and grain, yet its origin shows that there is more meaning behind it, and that Tolstoy intended it that way. The title was taken from an old French fable, similar in message, and Tolstoy wanted to use it as a means of transforming his own beliefs into a parable that could be as easily communicated as old tales were by mouth. Moreover, in the eldest man’s recollections of his own past there are many connotative phrases that refer to abstract concepts, such as the man’s reference to property, “My field was God’s earth”, with the intent of helping the reader understand the greed and discontent that formed as time passed by through a lifestyle that existed previously.

            These abstractions and the pressing questions of the king create an anticipatory mood for the reader that leads right into the resolution clearly and smoothly. Tolstoy uses parallel structure in his representation of the inquiries the king and the responses of the men, so that they are flowing. Here, form follows content in that each situation, being similar, is also represented similarly by the syntax that the author chooses to use. The king’s queries at the end, for example, with the eldest man, begin with “Tell me,” and are followed by an introduction to the coming response by the narrator, “And the grandfather answered”, which continues for some many lines. This structure allows for conciseness in getting to the point of the story without being overly ornate, adding to Tolstoy’s clear and succinct style.

            This structure also helps build the anticipation that creates the mood of the latter half of the story, when the king asks the eldest man why the earth gave “such grain then and has ceased to do so now?” and why “your grandson walks with two crutches, your son with one, and you yourself with none?”, in a curious tone. This tone adds to the growing anticipation that is caused by Tolstoy’s appeal to the audience’s curiosity and intellect through his usage of imagery. Tolstoy uses imagery to depict each man’s physical state of health, describing the youngest as being “old and bent, ashy pale and “toothless”, and the eldest as “his eye was clear, his hearing good, and he spoke distinctly”, contrasting both in a way that creates an ironic way, presenting the eldest one as the healthiest, when it is expected to be the other way around. This contrast is made to create a desire in the reader to find out why this strange course of events has taken place. The final resolution of the eldest man is the point of release of this created tension, and realization for the reader.

            The syntax of the work also adds to this mood, as Tolstoy uses parallel sentence structures to establish patterns which add to the suspension that he creates in the story. Most of the sentences are either simple or complex, using sentence structures that are common in everyday conversation to add to Tolstoy’s intention of making it an easily communicated story that can reach a number of different audiences. The pattern of his sentences is also periodic, using a certain number of sentences in a certain order that is followed by one or two in a pattern, as demonstrated by the king’s inquiries, where the questions will be one line, beginning with “Tell me, grandfather”, followed by a one line response of the man’s reaction, such as “The old man smiled”, then followed by his two or three line responses. This pattern, again, builds on the anticipation that Tolstoy creates to push his readers into the message at the end.

            All of these different factors and devices form Tolstoy’s lucid and succinct style, which makes this parable clear to all who read it. The diction and syntax are used with the ultimate goal of emphasizing the final resolution which is established by the old man’s response. He says “Because men have ceased to live by their own labour, and have taken to depending on the labour of others”. The message here, although not stated directly, is one of humility and content with one’s life, an attempt by the author to make people realize how greed can overcome a person, affecting not only mental health, but physical health as well.

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