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The Forged Coupon by Leo Tolstoy

The Forged Coupon (1911)

by Leo Tolstoy

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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The stories of Leo Tolstoy are linked by what the French scholar and translator Michel Aucouturier calls Tolstoy's "gift of concrete realisation", and an ever-restless breed of philosophical inquiry – a combination that could produce works of an intensity that surprises even after repeated readings.
Tolstoy's greatest short story, The Death of Ivan Ilyich revolves around the eponymous judge discovering, as he slowly, painfully expires, that his entire life has been a sham, built on bourgeois trivialities and bereft of love. Even at his end his family cannot comfort him – "he saw that no one would feel sorry for him, because no one even wanted to understand his situation" – leaving him to receive succor from Gerasim, the butler's helper. Tolstoy himself often contemplated suicide throughout the latter half of his life, but his fear of death was greater even than his suspicion of the meaninglessness of existence. It has been suggested that Tolstoy calmed himself by reading the Scriptures. Apprehending this adds another layer to the terrifyingly powerful climax of Ivan Ilyich, in which Ivan's rapture ("There was no more fear because there was no more death") does not convince, but jars against his earlier, terrible description of death as "that black sack into which an invisible, invincible force was pushing him".

Tolstoy's understanding of death, informed by his wartime experiences in Silistria and Crimea, seems to me unique in literature. Both visceral and meditative, it attains a sort of frozen horror when he describes the thought processes of serial killer Stepan in The Forged Coupon. This story is divided into two parts. In Part I, schoolboy Mitya is in desperate need of money to repay a debt, but his father angrily denies him assistance. Dejected, under the instigation of a friend Makhin, Mitya simply changes a 2.50 rouble bond coupon to read 12.50 roubles, but this one evil deed sets off a chain of events that affects the lives of dozens of others, when his one falsehood indirectly causes a man to murder a woman at the end of Part I, and then seek redemption through religion in Part II.

Having written the novella in his dying years, after his excommunication, Tolstoy relishes the chance to unveil the "pseudo-piety and hypocrisy of organized religion." Yet, he maintains an unwavering belief in man's capacity to find truth, so the story remains hopeful, especially in Part II, which shows that good works can affect another as in a domino effect, just as evil does in Part I. The depiction of Stepan is particularly fascinating as his character reminds the reader of other Tolstoyan characters who are changed by the power of scripture. His story and the fate of Mitya are keen moments in this set of chain-like stories.
The novella is sometimes translated with the title "The Counterfeit Note" or "The Forged Banknote." Whatever its name this is a powerful tale that features fascinating characters, each given a brief moment in the story, and a thought-provoking depiction of the power of fate. ( )
  jwhenderson | May 16, 2015 |
I really enjoy Tolstoy, however, this was so wrapped up in spirituality, or more specifically Christianity, that I disliked it. ( )
  ChewDigest | Sep 12, 2014 |
I really enjoy Tolstoy, however, this was so wrapped up in spirituality, or more specifically Christianity, that I disliked it. ( )
  ChewDigest | Sep 12, 2014 |
The Forged Coupon is a two-part novella that skilfully explores the intertwined lives of more than a dozen characters that are connected by one seemingly harmless, but evil deed.

Tolstoy's moral/thesis is that salvation is within us all and that it can be gained through a personal reading/relationship with the Bible. For him, church and state complicate life and impede salvation. Tolstoy knew this personally, for he was excommunicated by the Orthodox Church a year before he started this late novel. The bureaucracy is corrupt, it has no true sense of justice, and it sits around only to imprison and execute. The clergy is full of phonies who don't believe and who don't care about the suffering masses. Together, church and state work together to the turn people away from God and to create a society of selfish, solipsistic individuals that go around cheating, killing, and pissing each other off. However, all is not lost for Tolstoy.

Redemption is still possible, for Tolstoy, through religion, the renunciation of violence, and the dedication of one's life to works of good corporal mercy.

The Forged Coupon is a good, comforting novel that champions good hearts and good people. It's a nice read, but there's a certain unrealism in the latter half, an unrealism that is comforting, yet, it doesn’t fully satisfy humanist scepticism. Secular humanists, of course, would not be satisfied with the story since it’s resolved through Tolstoyan spiritual virtue. Religion, regardless of its name, would be a crutch that coddles individuals instead of liberating them.

Then again, this is just a story, and any reader of Tolstoy should expect that his unique spirituality is there in the printed page, whether we agree with it or not.

Minor nitpick: Page 96, in the W. W. Norton English translation (1985), features a spelling mistake in an otherwise fine translation. (Remember) in the second last paragraph is missing a "b."
  GYKM | Dec 10, 2011 |
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Leo Tolstoyprimary authorall editionscalculated
Aplin, HughTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Fyodor Mikhailovich Smokovnikov, the President of the Provincial Revenue Department, a man of crystalline honesty and proud of it, a gloomy liberal, and not only a freethinker, but a hater of any manifestation of religious sentiment, something he considered a vestige of superstition, returned from the Department in the worst possible frame of mind.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0393303004, Paperback)

IN an age of materialism like our own the phenomenon of spiritual power is as significant and inspiring as it is rare. No longer associated with the «divine right» of kings, it has survived the downfall of feudal and theocratic systems as a mystic personal emanation in place of a coercive weapon of statecraft.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:02 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Tolstoy's final novella, 'The Forged Coupon' is an ingenious and tightly-knit study of the destructive powers of evil and the possibility of redemption set against a brilliant snapshot of Russian life.

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