What Men Live By
Category: Short Stories
Level 6.38 1:00 h
"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 collection What Men Live By, and Other Tales, published in 1885.

What Men Live by

Leo Tolstoy

What Men Live By

What Men Live by

We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not his brother abideth in death. (First Ep. of John, iii. 14.)

But whoso hath this world's good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth, up his heart from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him? (Ib. iii. 17.)

My children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth. (Ib. iii. 18.)

Love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. (Ib. iv. 7.)

He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. (Ib. iv. 8.)

No man hath seen God at any time. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us. (Ib. iv. 12.)

God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him. (Ib. iv. 16.)

If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen. (Ib. iv. 20.)


A shoemaker was lodging with his wife and children at the house of a peasant. He had no house, no land of his own, and supported his family by his shoemaker’s trade. Bread was dear, but work was cheap, and he spent everything he made. The shoemaker and his wife had one fur coat between them, and even that was all worn to tatters; this was the second year that the shoemaker had been meaning to buy a sheepskin for a new fur coat.

Toward fall the shoemaker had saved some money: three roubles in paper lay in his wife’s coffer, and five roubles and twenty kopeks were outstanding in the village.

In the morning the shoemaker went to the village to get him that fur coat. He put on his wife’s wadded nankeen jacket over his shirt, and over it his cloth caftan; he put the three-rouble bill into his pocket, broke off a stick, and started after breakfast. He thought:

“I shall get the five roubles from the peasant, will add my own three, and with that will buy me a sheepskin for the fur coat.”

The shoemaker came to the village, and called on the peasant: he was not at home, and his wife promised to send her husband with the money, but gave him none herself. He went to another peasant, but the peasant swore that he had no money, and gave him only twenty kopeks for mending a pair of boots. The shoemaker made up his mind to take the sheepskin on credit, but the furrier would not give it to him.

“Bring me the money,” he said, “and then you can choose any you please; we know what it means to collect debts.”

Thus the shoemaker accomplished nothing. All he got was the twenty kopeks for the boots he had mended, and a peasant gave him a pair of felt boots to patch with leather.

The shoemaker was grieved, spent all the twenty kopeks on vódka, and started home without the fur coat. In the morning it had seemed frosty to him, but now that he had drunk a little he felt warm even without the fur coat. The shoemaker walked along, with one hand striking the stick against the frozen mud clumps, and swinging the felt boots in the other, and talking to himself.

“I am warm even without a fur coat,” he said. “I have drunk a cup, and the vódka is coursing through all my veins. I do not need a sheepskin. I have forgotten my woe. That’s the kind of a man I am! What do I care! I can get along without a fur coat: I do not need it all the time. The only trouble is the old woman will be sorry. It is a shame indeed: I work for him, and he leads me by the nose. Just wait! If you do not bring the money, I’ll take away your cap, upon my word, I will! How is this? He pays me back two dimes at a time! What can you do with two dimes? Take a drink, that is all. He says he suffers want. You suffer want, and am I not suffering? You have a house, and cattle, and everything, and here is all I possess; you have your own grain, and I have to buy it. I may do as I please, but I have to spend three roubles a week on bread. I come home, and the bread is gone: again lay out a rouble and a half! So give me what is mine!”

Thus the shoemaker came up to a chapel at the turn of the road, and there he saw something that looked white, right near the chapel. It was growing dusk, and the shoemaker strained his eyes, but could not make out what it was.

“There was no stone here,” he thought. “A cow? It does not look like a cow. It looks like the head of a man, and there is something white besides. And what should a man be doing there?”

He came nearer, and he could see plainly. What marvel was that? It was really a man, either alive or dead, sitting there all naked, leaning against the chapel, and not stirring in the least. The shoemaker was frightened, and thought to himself:

“Somebody must have killed a man, and stripped him of his clothes, and thrown him away there. If I go up to him, I shall never clear myself.”

And the shoemaker went past. He walked around the chapel, and the man was no longer to be seen. He went past the chapel, and looked back, and saw the man leaning away from the building and moving, as though watching him. The shoemaker was frightened even more than before, and he thought to himself:

“Shall I go up to him, or not? If I go up, something bad may happen. Who knows what kind of a man he is? He did not get there for anything good. If I go up, he will spring at me and choke me, and I shall not get away from him; and if he does not choke me, I may have trouble with him all the same. What can I do with him, since he is naked? Certainly I cannot take off the last from me and give it to him! May God save me!”

And the shoemaker increased his steps. He was already a distance away from the chapel, when his conscience began to smite him.

And the shoemaker stopped on the road.

“What are you doing, Semén?” he said to himself. “A man is dying in misery, and you go past him and lose your courage. Have you suddenly grown so rich? Are you afraid that they will rob you of your wealth? Oh, Semén, it is not right!”

Semén turned back, and went up to the man.


Semén walked over to the man, and looked at him; and saw that it was a young man, in the prime of his strength, with no bruises on his body, but evidently frozen and frightened: he was leaning back and did not look at Semén, as though he were weakened and could not raise his eyes. Semén went up close to him, and the man suddenly seemed to wake up. He turned his head, opened his eyes, and looked at Semén. And this one glance made Semén think well of the man. He threw down the felt boots, ungirt himself, put his belt on the boots, and took off his caftan.

“What is the use of talking?” he said. “Put it on! Come now!”

Semén took the man by his elbows and began to raise him. The man got up. And Semén saw that his body was soft and clean, his hands and feet not calloused, and his face gentle. Semén threw his caftan over the man’s shoulders. He could not find his way into the sleeves. So Semén put them in, pulled the caftan on him, wrapped him in it, and girded it with the belt.

Semén took off his torn cap, intending to put it on the naked man, but his head grew cold, and so he thought: “My whole head is bald, while he has long, curly hair.” He put it on again. “I had better put the boots on him.”

He seated himself and put the felt boots on him.

The shoemaker addressed him and said:

“That’s the way, my friend! Now move about and get warmed up. This business will be looked into without us. Can you walk?”

The man stood, looking meekly at Semén, but could not say a word.

“Why don’t you speak? You can’t stay here through the winter. We must make for a living place. Here, take my stick, lean on it, if you are weak. Tramp along!”

And the man went. And he walked lightly, and did not fall behind.

As they were walking along, Semén said to him:

“Who are you, please?”

“I am a stranger.”

“I know all the people here about. How did you get near that chapel?”

“I cannot tell.”

“Have people insulted you?”

“No one has. God has punished me.”

“Of course, God does everything, but still you must be making for some place. Whither are you bound?”

“It makes no difference to me.”

Semén was surprised. He did not resemble an evil-doer, and was gentle of speech, and yet did not say anything about himself. And Semén thought that all kinds of things happen, and so he said to the man:

“Well, come to my house and warm yourself a little.”

Semén walked up to the farm, and the stranger did not fall behind, but walked beside him. A wind rose and blew into Semén’s shirt, and his intoxication went away, and he began to feel cold. He walked along, sniffling, and wrapping himself in his wife’s jacket, and he thought:

“There is your fur coat: I went to get myself a fur coat, and I am coming back without a caftan, and am even bringing a naked man with me. Matréna will not praise me for it!”

And as Semén thought of Matréna, he felt sorry; and as he looked at the stranger and recalled how he had looked at him at the chapel, his blood began to play in his heart.

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