Broken Pots: Alyosha, Leo, George, and I

    I've been obsessed with a Tolstoy story, "Alyosha the Pot," since encountering it in George Saunders's wonderful book on the Russian short story and the art of reading, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain.  For those unfamiliar with this very short tale, here's my synopsis, with quotes from the Clarence Brown translation Saunders uses:

    Alyosha is a younger brother who has been nicknamed "the pot" after a childhood incident in which he tripped and broke a pot of milk.  An awkward, homely boy and slow learner, Alyosha faces dim prospects.  His father hires him out at age 19 to a merchant in town.  Despite the merchant's exploitation of his low station, Alyosha works tirelessly and cheerfully at whatever tasks he's given.  Alyosha's rewards and pleasures are few; when he's saved enough money to buy a new jacket he "[can't] keep a straight face" for his happiness.  Alyosha lives this way for a year and a half, and then a momentous thing occurs:  he and a cook in the merchant's house, Ustinya, fall in love.  It's the first time in his life that Alyosha has felt valued for himself and not for his usefulness to another.  He and Ustinya talk of marriage, but Alyosha's father, catching wind of their plans, shoots it down.  With Ustinya listening from behind the kitchen door he tells Alyosha he won't have him marrying "one of these town sluts."  Alyosha offers no resistance, and immediately gives up his plan, though he weeps, the one moment in the story when he shows his grief.  Alyosha doesn't mention marriage to Ustinya again, and one day, cleaning snow off a roof during Lent, falls and is fatally injured.  On his deathbed he thanks Ustinya for "being nice to [him]."  He continues, "it's better they wouldn't let us get married, it'd all be for nothing.  Now everything's fine."  He speculates that if one is good and hurts no one "down here . . . then it'll be good up there too."  He seems to glimpse something surprising and dies.

    Saunders expertly turns the events in the story over and over, viewing them from multiple angles.  Near the end of his ruminations, Saunders proposes that "Alyosha" either 1) "makes a beautiful case for cheerful obedience" or 2) "makes a beautiful case for the argument that making a beautiful case for cheerful obedience is a gift to tyrants."
    Inspired by Saunders, I'd like to do some ruminating of my own about this story, this deeply troubling, problematic story.
    Let's begin with the title:  "Alyosha the Pot."  Almost the first thing I notice in the story is that Alyosha is being identified with not simply a pot but with a broken pot.  That detail feels significant.  Broken in what way?  Alyosha appears throughout the story to be what we might consider pathologically accommodating, apparently unable to assert his own basic needs and desires.  Some core volitional part of him seems defective or missing.  As his nickname suggests, he's seen by others in strictly utilitarian terms, as a thing to be used.  He lacks the capacity to rebel against this ab-use or act decisively to further his own human happiness and fulfillment.
    In his commentary, Saunders cites as "one of the most painful things in the story" Alyosha's acquiescence to his father and especially his failure to defend Ustinya from his father's slander of her as a "town slut" which Ustinya overhears from behind a door.  Painful, indeed, and at this point the reader may want to throttle Alyosha almost as much as his crass, domineering father.
    It's tempting to read some human sympathy for Alyosha's thwarted marital prospects into this scene, but before we assume such, we'd better take a quick look at the later-life Tolstoy who wrote this scene.  
    Around age fifty Tolstoy underwent a crisis of conscience that resulted in a famous conversion to Christianity, after which he became elevated in the eyes of his followers to a guru preaching a radical Christ-inspired gospel of nonviolence, simplicity and voluntary poverty.  The dark side of Tolstoy's conversion was a puritanical joylessness that condemned ordinary pleasures, chief among them the pleasures of sex, even within marriage.  In 1889, sixteen years before "Alyosha the Pot," Tolstoy published a blatantly anti-sex, anti-marriage short novel called The Kreutzer Sonata, which drew widespread condemnation in the intellectual circles of his time for a perceived hostility toward life.  Worse, on a personal level, was Tolstoy's rejection of his wife Sonya, who'd borne his thirteen children, raised and educated the nine who survived, managed their household and hand-copied the massive War and Peace seven times.  In fact Tolstoy ignominiously died on the run from her in a station-master's house in Astapovo in 1910, five years after "Alyosha" was written.
    This later Tolstoy wrote in The Kreutzer Sonata:  "What I find more contemptible than anything else is the theory that love is something ideal and lofty in practice, love is vulgar and swinish."  These sentiments weren't just those of a character in a literary fiction -- they were Tolstoy's.  They led G. K. Chesterton to comment, "It is difficult in every case to reconcile Tolstoy the great artist with Tolstoy the almost venomous reformer."  As the psychologist Karl Stern notes in his study The Flight from Woman, Tolstoy espoused a more genuine Christianity before than after his conversion.
    Can we be sure we're reading Tolstoy's sympathies accurately?  Did he in fact view the quashing of Alyosha's marital desires as a bad thing?  Within the up-ended value system of The Kreutzer Sonata, such an intervention could be seen as a positive good.  Before Alyosha dies at the end of the story, he tells Ustinya:  "See -- it's better they wouldn't let us get married, it'd all be for nothing.  Now everything's fine."  Initially I heard that "it'd all be for nothing" as a bit of defeatist self-deception to rationalize the bad hand Alyosha had accepted, but now I'm less convinced of that.  If your view actually is that sex is wrong and that, as Tolstoy also ranted, "Children are God's blessing, children are a joy!  It's all a big lie...." it would follow that being compelled to forego the whole thing could be perversely viewed as "fine."  (Tolstoy continues the above passage:  "The joy which the baby gives to his mother, by his charm, by his tiny hands, his tiny feet, by his entire little body, means much less than the suffering caused, not only by sickness or loss of the baby but by mere apprehension at the possibility of sickness or death.")

    Examining my first responses to "Alyosha," I see that I'm being too psychological, giving Tolstoy credit for a modern self-scrutiny of which he may not have been capable; his fanatical embrace of simplicity and purity strikes me as profoundly pre-psychological.  But what about the possibility of a psychological dynamic at play in "Alyosha" below Tolstoy's conscious threshold?  Tolstoy's personality was powerful and charismatic; obviously he had no difficulty in asserting his agency.  But as Jung knew, everyone has a shadow, and it seems likely to me that somewhere in that vastness of light and shadow that was Tolstoy, a "broken" Alyosha lurked.
    Such "minority" parts of ourselves develop cunning over a lifetime of masking.  Could it be that Tolstoy's personal "Alyosha," deeply secret, rose up in the writing process to claim for himself a little more sympathy than Tolstoy's dominant or "majority" personality intended?  These things happen while navigating that right-brain-left-brain storm called writing, and there's no reason to believe they don't happen to geniuses along with the rest of us.
    Saunders mentions that Tolstoy drafted "Alyosha" in a day, finally declaring the work "very bad," and never came back to it.  Could Tolstory have felt embarrassed at having to look at his inner broken person in the stark light of the story?  Alyosha is known to have been based on a real-life cook at Yasnaya Polyana.  I believe that Tolstoy very much wanted to elevate this simple person to an idealized Christ-likeness, but that something else in him set up the dissonance in Alyosha we feel between saintliness and debility.  
    I could suggest that Tolstoy ended up writing a different story than he'd set out to write, but I can't prove it.  I can only pay attention to the way the story acts on me personally with its shadows and tensions.  "Alyosha" riles and confuses me.  From the beginning I watch this good-hearted, hard-working kid in one pathetic situation after the next in which callous, cold-hearted people take advantage of his defenselessness to essentially treat him as a thing to be used instead of as a person.  Reading on into this escalating sequence of small and large cruelties, I watch my anger against Alyosha's oppressors grow.  I sense not morality but impairment at the heart of Alyosha's inaction.  By contrast, the Christ on whom Alyosha is supposedly modeled has volition in excess -- got any money-changers you'd like scourged from the temple?  For me the story becomes a little tango of anger and pity, in which these mixed emotions cloud like squid ink in water, obscuring from conscious view any clear picture of what I think Tolstoy might be wanting me to see.  
    In 1905, with revolution in the air, perhaps "Alyosha the Pot" was intended to function as a little pre-emptive sermon cautioning against violent revolt.  We moderns cherish a narrative in which an oppressed underdog finally casts off restraints and rises to grasp the golden ring of freedom.  For films, think Lasse Hallström's What's Eating Gilbert Grape.  An example from 20th century American literature is John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces, featuring one of the most liberating endings of any novel I know.  A breeze of sweet release blows through the stories we like to tell about redemptive freedom and our belief in its possibility for even the most downtrodden underdog.  "Alyosha the Pot" is not one of these, and therefore profoundly out of sync with our contemporary liberationist leanings.

    We can agree that no matter what position you take on this story, Alyosha is an underdog, though probably not a consciously motivated Christ-figure.  My feeling for Alyosha reaches its peak intensity when, dying, he tells Ustinya, "Thanks ... for being nice to me...."  That's the point where my anger yields completely to pity and I want to cry.  Poor Alyosha!  Did it really have to be this way?
    No matter what Tolstoy's conscious agenda may have been in writing this story, he must have clearly felt the utter pathos of this scene.  How could he not have been touched by the loneliness and sadness in what he was writing?  While pity may not have been his intended emotional focus in recording Alyosha's last moments, pity is what spikes above the saw-toothed constant of my anger at Alyosha's abusers.
    Pity is a complex matter.  No emotionally healthy person wants to be an object of pity, not least because hardly anyone wants to suffer enough to inspire pity.  And there is often an element of superiority on the part of the pitier.  Webster notes as a connotation of the word pity a "sometimes slightly contemptuous sorrow for one in misery or distress."  Pity descends through the Middle English pite, from the Latin pietas, piety.  Some in-built piousness in pity tends to keep the pitier on a higher level than the pitied sufferer.
    I realize, along with Saunders, that part -- perhaps most -- of the story's power depends on Tolstoy's refusal to declare his intentions outright.  I still believe Tolstoy may have judged the story unsatisfactory because he'd let slip a little too much of an Alyosha in him that he'd kept under wraps.
    Isn't it likely that we each have an Alyosha somewhere inside us?  Part of the story's value may be to help us see that one more clearly so as to know his or her struggles and sufferings and then, ideally, to treat more kindly and compassionately the Alyoshas of the world, who include ourselves.
    Thinking a step beyond this, what if there's an Alyosha in our past -- and given the cruelty of childhood, isn't that probable? -- whom we used in some heartless way so as to treat them as a thing?  Maybe in grade school, say, or high school?  "Alyosha the Pot" may cause the memory of our neighborhood Alyoshas and our dishonorable behavior toward them to surface, and, for all I know, Tolstoy might have anticipated and approved such a response.
    In the end I'm left to wonder whether, in its author's eyes, "Alyosha" is tragedy or comedy.  Clearly, the story has gotten under my skin as a kind of moral or spiritual irritant.  If the main point here is that Alyosha has been systematically deprived of his birthright of love and an ordinarily happy/sad human life, I'd say tragedy.  If on the other hand Tolstoy wants us to mainly see the salvific tale of a holy fool rescued from the "whole catastrophe" of life, then we'd have to say comedy.  As repugnant as that feels to us, this latter might really have been Tolstoy's point.  Conflicted and confused, we may find ourselves admitting, with Chesterton, "We know not what to do with this small and noisy moralist who is inhabiting one corner of a great and good man."

(Note:  George Saunders's A Swim in a Pond in the Rain:  In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life was published by Random House in 2021, enjoying time on the New York Times bestseller list for nonfiction.  Besides Tolstoy, Gogol, Chekhov and Turgenev are also represented with marvelous stories and close readings by Saunders that encourage the reader to live them more deeply and discover their true richness.  Writers in any genre can benefit from this brilliant "master class."  Thanks, George, for showing me the way in to my own deeper reading of Tolstoy.)



Recent Entries

Broken Pots: Alyosha, Leo, George, and I
    I've been obsessed with a Tolstoy story, "Alyosha the Pot," since encountering it in George Saunders's wonderful book on…
The Strange Genius of Dr. Evermor
On Monday, March 30th, one of Wisconsin's great strange geniuses passed away in a nursing home in Sauk City, the…
"By the Time We Got to Woodstock": After Fifty Years
    Fifty years ago this August, I and five other intrepid adventurers climbed into a Chevy II Nova and drove…