Tolstoy at Home
While Mr. and Mrs. F. doubt the advisability of educating the child at home, Tolstoy seems to be
of a different opinion, and it may be of interest to repeat here a story which shows his manner of
giving moral instruction to his own children. When I visited him at Yasnaia Poliana in 1894,
there was a Swiss governess living with his family who was charged with the education of the
younger children. I am very sure that Tolstoy does not approve of governesses QUA
governesses. A governess is a luxury, and it is only in her character as a human being that she
can find justification, and I take it for granted that the existence of a governess in the Tolstoy
household was a concession to the Countess. It must be remembered that Tolstoy is a
"non-resistant," and when his wife wishes things to be thus and so, his principles force him to
(Would it not be a good plan everywhere to require that in all marriages one of the contracting
parties should be a "non-resistant"? and would not this party invariably be the husband? But this
is a digression.)
The essential fact is that there was a governess in the house, a strict Calvinist from Geneva, who
watched the little Tolstoys day and night lest they might follow the heretical ways of their father.
She could not quite understand the Count. She admitted to me that he was a saint. He produced
good fruit, she could not deny it. But was it possible for a thistle to bring forth figs? and that he
was at heart a thistle seemed evident from his absolute detachment from the sound roots of
"He must be a better Christian than he thinks he is," she whispered to me knowingly, and she
laboured sedulously that her youthful wards might not only be Christians, but know that they
were. It is, however, simply as a source of information, and not as a worthy representative of
Presbyterianism that we have to do with the governess. It is not always easy to ask a man's sons
and daughters for information about him, and still less to catechise him about himself, but
governesses are doubtless provided by providence for the purpose of telling true stories to
inquisitive visitors, and in fulfilment of this important function the governess in question told me
Only two or three days before my arrival, she said, little Sasha, the pretty, sturdy ten-year-old
daughter of the Count, had been playing in front of the house with a peasant boy from the
village. They quarrelled, as children do, and the lad in his anger picked up a stick and hit her
with it on the arm. It was a hard knock, and the child rushed crying into the house, exhibiting an
ugly black and blue mark below the elbow. She had evidently not read her father's books, for she
ran at once to him and besought him in the midst of her sobs to come out and punish her
assailant. Here was an opportunity for the governess to observe how the Count would apply his
doctrines in his own home, and she listened attentively.
Tolstoy took the child gently on his knee, wiped away her tears and examined the bruise. They
are too far off for us to hear the conversation, but we can easily reconstruct it from the tenor of
his many writings on the subject of punishment.
"Why, Sasha," said the father," what good would it do for me to whip the boy? It wouldn't make
your arm hurt any the less."
"Yes it would. Boo-hoo-hoo. He's a naughty, bad boy, and you must whip him! Boo-hoo--"
"Now just think a minute, Sasha. Why did he hit you? It was because he was angry with you,
wasn't it? That is, because he hated you? Now if I whip him, won't he hate you a great deal more,
and hate me too? It seems to me that the best thing for us to do is to make him love us instead,
and then he will never hit you again. But if we make him hate us, he may go on hating people all
his life long."
By this time Sasha had stopped crying, for her arm pained her no longer, and her thirst for
vengeance had consequently become less acute.
"I tell you what I would do, dear, if I were you," the Count went on to say. "You know there is
some of that raspberry jam in the pantry left over from supper yesterday. If I were you I would
get some in a saucer and take it out to your little friend."
This advice must have startled Sasha. Why was it that she followed it? for she did. Perhaps it
was her wish to please her father, whom she loved dearly -- perhaps it was curiosity to see what
the young man would do, and perhaps the suggestion appealed to her sense of humour. However
that may be, she went to the pantry, and the governess who saw her go lives to tell the tale. She
got the jam and she took it out to her enemy.
There is one weak point about this story, and that is that all the rest that I know of it is that the
boy ate the jam.
Years have passed away, and he may have poisoned his grandmother and committed all the
crimes in the decalogue since that day. The daring experiment in penology may have proved an
utter failure. But I have often thought lovingly of this story even in its truncated state. It is as
beautiful to me as the Venus de Milo, and I am content to let my imagination complete the
outline. I am sure that there was a better chance for that boy after swallowing the raspberry jam
than there would have been if he had received the beating which he richly deserved.
Is it not true that the removal of hatred is the highest aim of reform, and that forgiveness and
affection are the surest means of accomplishing this result? The raspberry jam was the earnest of
a fund of love which no insult nor injury could diminish, and in the face of such an overflowing
store of goodness how mean and small and petty the lad must have felt his anger and hatefulness
Put yourself in his place for a moment. He is still hanging about near the house, but not too near
the door. After a while he sees it open, and he makes ready to take to his heels, expecting to see
an irate father with a stick. But, lo and behold! it is his erstwhile playmate, smiling through her
tears, and bringing, of all things in the world, a plate of raspberry jam! How he must have tried
to steel himself to the point of rejecting the enticing sweetmeat with disdain! But the temptation
was too great. Little peasant boys do not have raspberry jam every day of the week, and at last he
is sheepishly advancing.
He grabs the plate and gulps down its contents without a word, and with his eyes fixed on the
ground. Then he slinks down the hill, and if the human race had not frittered away their tails by
overmuch sedentary life, he would have carried that useful and expressive member well between
his legs. If he had been whipped he would have gone down the hill to the village swearing at all
the Tolstoy family, with the rest of creation thrown in. As it is, his thoughts are confused, but the
prevailing one is that he has acted like a naughty boy and a fool in the bargain, and that these
loving, forgiving people are a great deal better than he is. If there was a spark of good in that boy
-- and there is such a spark in all boys -- it must have been kindled into a flame by the plate of
I am aware that everybody will not agree with me. I told this story once to an audience in New
Jersey. They have some queer people over in Jersey, and one of them was there that night, and
he took advantage of the discourteous and disconcerting custom of asking the lecturer questions
after he had finished his discourse, a sort of baiting by which his hearers take vengeance upon
him for having to sit still under him so long. He was a venerable and kindly old gentleman with a
white beard, and he got up in the back of the hall and said --
"I know what that boy would do."
"What?" I asked.
"He would come up to the house the next day and hit her on the other arm!"
I do not know to this hour whether the old gentleman meant what he said or not. But here we
have the two opposite theories, that of the old gentleman of New Jersey and that of the old
gentleman of Russia, and between them lies all the debatable land of human conduct. Which of
the two was more deeply versed in the nature of man, and is jam or the stick, forgiveness or
punishment, vengeance or love, the better civilizer? There is certainly an element of beauty in
the little incident, and can there be beauty without truth? And if there is truth in the Russian
point of view, is it not a truth which can be applied far more frequently in our daily lives and in
the institutions which express them? This is a matter for teachers to consider.
And I must add a confirmatory anecdote which a friend of mine, having read the jam story, sent
me from Illinois --
"I am prompted to tell you a little experience of my boy Howard," he writes. "He is seven years
old, has never had any quarrels that I know of, and, I think, has a very kindly, peaceable
disposition. But one day last summer he came in from school much disturbed. A family had just
moved in across the street, and the boy (about Howard's age), on the way home from school, had
stoned him, throwing stones in a wicked sort of way. Our landlord's daughter, four years older,
confirmed Howard's story, was incensed, and called his assailant a little 'rough,' and suggested
that Howard should go to school under her care and protection. But I thought it a good time to
follow Jesus' plan, and after talking to my little man somewhat after the manner you imagined
Tolstoy did to his little one, I suggested that he immediately take over to the stone-thrower a
sample of some fine peaches that we had just received. My part, to talk -- to suggest this -- was
easy, but the divine doing he was ready for -- bless the lad! He picked out one of the finest
peaches and was off. I watched him from behind a curtain march without fear or hesitancy across
the street and into the garden and up to his enemy. The peach was accepted. The enemy was thus
at small cost killed, so to speak, and a lasting lesson of the uses and powers of love was left in
the mind of my boy. He has no enemies now, and needs no protection."