The Devil by Tolstoy

Choosing to entitle his tale of sexual obsession The Devil, Tolstoy signifies that our sympathy should not lie with aristocratic landowner Yevgeny Irtenev. As a young man of “twenty-six, of medium height, strongly built […] fullblooded and his whole neck very red,” Irtenev moves from Petersburg to the country, to restore his family’s fortune. Unable to cope with sexual self-restraint, Irtenev engages his aristocratic privilege with a “tasty morsel” of a girl from a peasant family. Slowly his physical urges become compulsion:

It is simply necessary for my health,” thought Yevgeny, “I grant it is not right, and though no one says anything, everybody, or many people, know of it. The woman who comes with her knows. And once she knows she is sure to have told others. But what’s to be done? I am acting badly,” thought Yevgeny, “but what’s one to do? Anyhow it is not for long.”

Marriage and fatherhood appears to offer Irtenev respite, until he bumps into his peasant mistress, whereupon his compulsion develops into obsession. Recognising the risk to his reputation and marriage he resolves to kill his mistress, or his wife, or himself. The story is presented with a choice of two endings.

Both endings feel compressed, the story itself feels like a draft, fascinating as a study of sexual obsession, but lacking cohesion as a story.

Tolstoy’s descriptions are enjoyable, of Irtenev above, or contrasting his wife: “Liza was tall, slender, and long. […] The colour of her face was very delicate, creamy white and delicately pink…,” with his mistress Stepanida, with her “bright, black eyes, […] deep voice” and a “scent of something fresh and strong.” It isn’t subtle.

[Read as part of Frances’s and Melville House’s The Art of the Novella Reading Challenge.]

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