A quick summary of the story would be thus. Martuin Avdyeitch, a shoemaker, falls into despair but rises out of his despair when he follows a friend’s advice to read the New Testament. The more he read, the more engaged he became and in time had what might be called a religious conversion out of his despair. One night while dozing he heard a voice that said He was coming the next day. Martuin took that voice to be Christ, and so he awaited Him by having tea and food ready. The next day on separate occasions, he came to the aid of needy people (an old man, a woman with child, and an old woman robbed by a street urchin) with hospitality. Still no Christ arrived by the end of the day. As he goes to bed he hears a voice asking if he recognized Him. Upon inquiring, out of the shadows steps the old man, the woman and child, and the old lady and street urchin. You can read the Wikipedia entry on this story here.
You can read the entire story at Project Gutenberg, here.
There’s not all that much to analyze. It’s a simple story. The transitions of the story can be seen with the transitions in Martuin’s internal state. (1) Despair, which is further developed by the death of Martuin’s remaining child. (2) Desire to learn Christ’s message, inspired by an old man paying Martuin a visit, and developed by Martuin unable to put down the Gospels. (3) Joyful, as a result of the change in Martuin’s life from the gospel message. This joyful state leads Martuin to compassionately aid the three needy people passing by his shop. (4) Surprise with the epiphany that those needy people were all Christ, and that He had paid him a visit.
Martuin was already a good man before his last child died, and he was already on a path toward embracing religion.
Avdyeitch had plenty to do, because he was a faithful workman, used good material, did not make exorbitant charges, and kept his word. If it was possible for him to finish an order by a certain time, he would accept it; otherwise, he would not deceive you,—he would tell you so beforehand. And all knew Avdyeitch, and he was never out of work.
Avdyeitch had always been a good man; but as he grew old, he began to think more about his soul, and get nearer to God. Martuin's wife had died when he was still living with his master. His wife left him a boy three years old. None of their other children had lived. All the eldest had died in childhood. Martuin at first intended to send his little son to his sister in the village, but afterward he felt sorry for him; he thought to himself:—
“It will be hard for my Kapitoshka to live in a strange family. I shall keep him with me.”
And Avdyeitch left his master, and went into lodgings with his little son. But God gave Avdyeitch no luck with his children. As Kapitoshka grew older, he began to help his father, and would have been a delight to him, but a sickness fell on him, he went to bed, suffered a week, and died. Martuin buried his son, and fell into despair.
A faithful workman who didn’t deceive people in search of God, Martuin may well have been on a path to religiosity. If hospitality is one of the themes, we see it here with deciding not send off his son. And Martuin buys that shop on account of keeping his son. The love for his son and its subsequent hospitality we see sets up the conditions for the main part of the story.
The old man who comes to visit Martuin is also another example of hospitality. There seems to be a lot of old people in this story. That old man is given some mysterious details. He comes from Troïtsa, a monastery, so he’s a religious man. He had been “wandering about” for seven years. Is this another Christ figure? I would consider it so.
I love the gradual change in Martuin as he reads the Gospels culminating with his conversion.
And the more he read, the clearer he understood what God wanted of him, and how one should live for God; and his heart kept growing easier and easier. Formerly, when he lay down to sleep, he used to sigh and groan, and always thought of his Kapitoshka; and now his only exclamation was:—
“Glory to Thee! glory to Thee, Lord! Thy will be done.”
And from that time Avdyeitch's whole life was changed. In other days he, too, used to drop into a public-house as a holiday amusement, to drink a cup of tea; and he was not averse to a little brandy, either. He would take a drink with some acquaintance, and leave the saloon, not intoxicated, exactly, yet in a happy frame of mind, and inclined to talk nonsense, and shout, and use abusive language at a person. Now he left off that sort of thing. His life became quiet and joyful. In the morning he would sit down to work, finish his allotted task, then take the little lamp from the hook, put it on the table, get his book from the shelf, open it, and sit down to read. And the more he read, the more he understood, and the brighter and happier it grew in his heart.
Martuin’s conversion seems to parallel Tolstoy, who he too fell into despair but was pulled out of it by his understanding of Christ. Even Martuin now sitting and working at his craft gives me an image of Tolstoy sitting and writing.
I would say that concludes the first half of the story. The second half of the story is Martuin putting his new found faith into action. We see Martuin feeling compassion for the three separate needy people. Each of the needy people seem to have their personal weaknesses. Martuin provides hospitality by giving them tea and food, and in the case of the old woman and the urchin serves as a peacemaker. The three episodes read like a folk tale. In each episode Martuin applies Christian principles to bring about harmony. Each person Martuin helps gives him a blessing in some way. As the title of the story stipulates, where love is, Christ is there too.
Some other thoughts. Is the fact that Tolstoy makes him a shoemaker or shoe repairer have any significance? Taking care of other people’s feet suggests a humility. It recalls Christ washing the apostle’s feet or the sinful woman washing Jesus feet with her tears. Martuin knowing the shoes of all the people in town seems to suggest a humble servant.
Perhaps the most striking detail in this story is how Martuin’s shop is below ground and that he is looking upward out of the window to the street. Is he looking heavenward? Does it emphasize humility again? Does it suggest death, as in being buried? Perhaps all, perhaps none. I’m not sure. It’s a wonderful detail though.
Excerpts from our discussion at Goodreads Catholic Thought Book Club.
I've been thinking if I have ever seen a "basement" shop here in the US, where you have to go down a few steps from street level to enter. And I don't recall.
To me this detail invokes a sense of being sheltered, a place to retreat, almost a burrow. You only exit when necessary. Martuin, for the most part, doesn't leave. In this sheltered place is where his battered heart seeks refuge. He doesn't see beyond his own pain. Then Christ generates a rebirth. First very subtly by giving him the desire to read the Gospels, and his first venture into the outside world is to purchase a New Testament. And like a seed ready to germinate he drinks in the living waters of the Word and he opens up. Instead of only noting inanimate boots belonging to a person passing by his window he actually looks further, sees and recognizes their faces. He grows beyond himself and sees their struggles and is no longer imprisoned by his own. He is now ready to bring Christ to the people around him. He rejoins the community.
I have seen them here in NYC.
Interesting thought. It does suggest rebirth, perhaps resurrection. I had not thought of that.
I definitely sense a theme of rebirth in the story. But, also, I wondered if Christ's message would have reached someone who wasn't as good a man as Martuin. His foundation is strong, it isn't on sand. And I'm trying to determine the significance of the story's emphasis on shoes, feet, walking, etc. Perhaps metaphors for life's journey? Martuin's limited line of sight also stands out to me. When he looks out that window, he can only see feet/shoes. He has to go out of his way to bend and look up enough to see the passerby's face or to see what's going on in the street. It's only when he makes that effort that he begins to see the Christ-figures that are visiting him.
Yes, Gerri that limited line of sight caught me eye too. I like the way you stated it. Perhaps that's it in itself: limitation of sight. And I like the thought of being buried below ground too.
Lawanda remembered hearing a Johnny Cash song having a very similar story line. And she found the song, “The Christmas Guest.”