God-Sees-the-Truth-But-Waits-Summary-and-Analysis-Grade-11-English-Section-II-Literature-Unit-1-Short-Stories
Grade 11: English_Section II: Literature

Unit 1 Short Stories

Lesson 3. God Sees the Truth but Waits by Leo Tolstoy.

God Sees the Truth, But Waits engages a subject that would have suited Dostoyevsky. But Dostoyevsky would have written it with a tone of fist-waving anger and frustration, while Leo Tolstoy wrote this story with an accepting, non-violent attitude toward the grievances described. The protagonist has been wrongly accused of murder, separated from his family for 26 years, and by circumstance meets the real murderer in Siberia. Meanwhile, he has gained an important role in the Siberian community and is trusted by the warden and prisoners alike. He spies the murderer trying to escape and is threatened, but still does not speak out when asked to by the warden. This profoundly moves the murderer, who seeks forgiveness from the protagonist, who says, “Only God can give forgiveness.” The murderer confesses, the protagonist exonerated and is ordered released from prison, but is found dead when the release notice comes - a classic Russian ending.

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God Sees the Truth, But Waits_Summary & Analysis.

Aksionov, a well-to-do young merchant from the town of Vladimir, prepares to set off for the commercial Fair at Nizhny. Aksionov’s wife urges him to say home, saying that she has had a bad dream in which his hair turned completely gray. Aksyonov assumes that she is worried he will drink too much (as he has a habit of binge drinking) and dismisses her concerns. He promises that he will “do some good business” at Nizhny and bring her back “expensive presents.”

(The young Aksyonov’s drinking and materialism (for example, his pursuit of business profits and “expensive presents”) establish him as a casually sinful person who has yet to recognize the primacy of faith and devotion. Additionally, the ease with which Aksyonov dismisses his wife’s concerns shows that he takes his family, home, and as perhaps his other social connections somewhat for granted.)

Halfway to Nizhny, Aksionov meets a merchant friend at an inn, where they have tea and spend the night in adjoining rooms. After leaving the inn and continuing his journey to Nizhny, Aksionov takes a break to rest, eat, and play his guitar. Suddenly, a district police inspector arrives with two soldiers, interrogates Aksionov as to his whereabouts and actions the previous evening, and then announces that Aksionov’s merchant friend has been found murdered at the inn.

(The district police inspector appears on the scene as an immediately intimidating figure, for he is accompanied by two soldiers who represent the threat of force. Known only by his title, the inspector symbolizes the impersonal, overbearing state power that underlies the criminal justice system.)

The police inspector orders a search of Aksionov’s belongings and discovers a bloody knife. The inspector formally accuses Aksionov of murder, and a terrified Aksionov stammers and quakes with fear. Aksionov is physically restrained and sent to jail.

(The inspector’s accusation and arrest of Aksionov illustrate the corruption of institutional justice. The inspector rapidly leverages state authority (and physical force) against Aksionov without irrefutable evidence that he is the murderer, and Aksionov is so overwhelmed that he is rendered unable to defend himself.)

Aksionov’s wife comes to visit him in jail. She collapses upon seeing her husband in prison clothes and fetters. After regaining her senses, she informs Aksionov that the last of his appeals—a petition to the Tsar—has been rejected, and she then shocks Aksionov by asking whether he actually committed the murder for which he was arrested. As a soldier separates Aksionov from his wife and children for the last time, Aksionov reflects upon his wife’s suspicion of his guilt and concludes that he can rely on God alone to know the truth and to offer mercy.

(The failure of Aksionov’s final appeal to the Tsar, along with his wife’s suspicion of his guilt, leads him to recognize God as the only entity who can be trusted to see the truth and deliver real justice. Aksionov realizes that he must pivot towards seeking God’s forgiveness by living a more spiritual life, and this change in focus is reinforced by Aksionov’s final physical separation from his family—his strongest earthly attachment.)

Aksionov is flogged and then sent to a Siberian labor camp. He remains here for 26 years, developing a stoop and losing his youthful gaiety. While incarcerated, Aksionov becomes devoutly religious. He prays frequently, reads religious literature, and sings in the church choir. Aksionov’s fellow inmates refer to him as “Grandpa” and “Man of God.”

(Aksionov’s flogging and the breakdown of his body (for instance, his development of a stoop) during his incarceration highlight the focus of institutional justice on bodily punishment. Along with highlighting the brutality of the criminal justice system, this contrasts with God’s judgment of the soul. Through his religious activities in prison, Aksionov transforms into an ideal holy man, or a model for readers’ emulation. Like many Christian saints, Aksionov responds to his earthly persecution and suffering by strengthening his faith, or by trusting that real justice comes from God, and not from any source on Earth.)

During Aksionov’s 26th year at the Siberian prison, a new group of convicts arrives. One of them, Makar Semyonich, has been imprisoned for allegedly stealing a horse from a sledge. He says he comes from Vladimir, and Aksionov asks for news of his family. Makar says that he has heard of Aksionov’s family as prosperous merchants whose husband (or father) is locked up in Siberia. Makar asks Aksionov why he was imprisoned, but Aksionov will say only that his 26 years of penal servitude have been payment for his sins.

(Aksionov’s instinctual questioning of Makar about his wife and children shows the power of family as a source of earthly attachment that keeps Aksionov’s thoughts on the world, rather than on God. At the same time, however, Aksionov’s insistence that he is paying for his sins enhances his image as a model “Man of God.” Aksionov treats his earthly suffering as inspiration to atone for his spiritual transgressions (or to seek God’s forgiveness) and as a test through which he can prove himself worthy of salvation.)

Other inmates tell Makar about the merchant’s murder and Aksionov’s wrongful arrest. Makar’s reaction to this information leads Aksionov to suspect that it was Makar who framed him for murder. Aksionov is overwhelmed with anger at Makar, and he thinks longingly of his family. Aksionov becomes so depressed that he considers either attacking Makar or committing suicide.

(The anger Aksionov feels towards Makar indicates that Aksionov’s path towards becoming an ideal “Man of God” is not without its setbacks and its trials: the actions Aksionov contemplates—suicide or a violent assault on the man who framed him—would both amount to a terrible regression into sin. Additionally, that Aksionov’s thoughts rush to his family shows that even despite Aksionov’s intense devotional activities in Siberia, he has a hard time letting go of his most powerful worldly or societal attachments—attachments that might jeopardize his fulfillment of a purely spiritual life.)

One night, Aksionov discovers Makar digging an escape tunnel. The next day, the authorities discover the hole, and the Governor arrives on the scene to question the prisoners as to who was trying to escape. Reasoning that he does not wish to see Makar flogged (and that his suspicion of Makar for the merchant’s murder may be misplaced), Aksionov tells the Governor that he knows nothing about who dug the tunnel.

(Like the district police inspector who accused Aksionov of murder, the Governor is a state official known only by his title; he serves as a symbol of institutional justice. Aksionov’s desire to spare Makar from flogging—and his decision to blatantly lie to the Governor—represent a rejection of the state justice system that the Governor represents. Importantly, forgiveness of Makar does not factor into Aksionov’s reasoning; Aksionov’s actions are principally a rejection of the Governor’s authority.)

The following night, Aksionov finds Makar sitting at the foot of his bunk. Makar, overwhelmed by Aksionov’s goodness in protecting him from the Governor, confesses to having framed Aksionov for murder 26 years earlier and begs his forgiveness. Makar offers to admit his guilt to the authorities and thereby exonerate Aksionov. 

(Makar seeks Aksionov’s forgiveness as a way of easing the burden (or moral imbalance) he feels for having done harm to a man who has done good to him. Moreover, Makar hopes to acquire Aksionov’s forgiveness as part of a negotiated exchange; if Aksionov will forgive him, Makar promises, he will exonerate Aksionov by sharing his confession with the authorities. This suggests that true forgiveness for one’s sins is more fulfilling and meaningful than falsely asserting one’s innocence.)

Aksionov responds to Makar’s confession with indignation, claiming that even if Makar were to help him secure his release from prison, he would have no home or family to which he could return. However, Makar continues to seek Aksionov’s forgiveness and breaks down sobbing. Aksionov is moved by Makar’s genuine guilt and pain, and he too breaks down in tears.

(Aksionov imagines that the social life—life outside prison—would not be worthwhile if he did not have his family. The extent to which he values his family during his imprisonment contrasts with his attitude at the beginning of the story, when he seemed to take his wife somewhat for granted. Aksionov continues to withhold forgiveness from Makar, as he judges the terms of exchange Makar offered him—confession and exoneration in return for forgiveness—to be inadequate. Aksionov does, however, cry in sympathy with Makar, a reaction that portrays him as somewhat of a forgiving, Christlike figure. Aksionov begins to feel solidarity with his fellow prisoner as he recognizes their shared pain and common situation as sinners desperate for forgiveness. Aksionov, of course, is seeking the forgiveness of God.)

Aksionov tells Makar that God will forgive him. Aksionov feels a weight off his shoulders and no longer “pines” for his freedom or for his family. Instead, Aksionov thinks only of his “last hour.” 

(Aksionov finally orients himself fully towards God and the afterlife. He does so in two key steps. First, he recognizes that only God can forgive, thus easing the burden of anger that he previously felt towards Makar and relieving his uncertain thoughts over justice on Earth (for example, his deliberations as to whether Makar deserves his forgiveness). Second, Aksionov at last jettisons (abandons) all earthly attachments, including his aspiration for freedom in the outside world (beyond the walls of the prison) and his fixation on his family—his strongest social bond.)

Makar confesses to the authorities that it was he who murdered the merchant, not Aksionov, and Aksionov is officially exonerated. However, by the time permission arrives for him to be released from the labor camp Aksionov has passed away.

(Makar, unlike Aksionov, continues to buy into the legitimacy of institutional justice (rather than waiting for true justice from God) and confesses to the authorities that he set Aksionov up for murder. Aksionov’s resulting exoneration—an attempt at official justice by the state—proves utterly meaningless as Aksionov has already died. All that matters after Aksionov’s passing is God’s judgment; Tolstoy uses the final lines of the story to emphasize the total superiority of divine judgment to corrupt earthly attempts at justice. Aksionov finally achieves his status as a true spiritual icon, or “Man of God,” by passing away, having shed all of his worldly concerns (including thoughts of family and freedom) and given full attention to the fate of his soul.)

Forgiveness_Theme_Analysis.

In “God Sees the Truth, But Waits,” forgiveness emerges as a central concept in the story’s project of edifying readers. By showing the repeated failure, incompletion, or withholding of forgiveness in earthly (or social) contexts, Tolstoy suggests that the only ultimately reliable and worthwhile form of forgiveness is that of atonement from God, in which Aksionov learns to trust. Importantly, Tolstoy never explicitly narrates the fulfillment of Aksionov’s spiritual forgiveness; he simply presents a protagonist (Aksionov) who embodies deep faith that this forgiveness will arrive and who understands that true, meaningful forgiveness can only be sought from God. While all worldly attempts at forgiveness in the story fall short, Tolstoy ultimately suggests that one must overcome the thought that forgiveness is an empty idea and learn to trust, along with Aksionov, that “God Sees the Truth But Waits” and will eventually forgive those who live a life of devotion.

The story’s major reflection upon the idea of forgiveness occurs in Aksionov’s interactions with Makar Semyonich, who frames Aksionov for murder and ends up incarcerated in Siberia alongside Aksionov some 26 years later. Tolstoy devotes much of the narrative to an encounter between Aksionov and Makar after Aksionov, who suspects Makar for having set him up, nonetheless declines to turn Makar into the authorities for digging an escape tunnel. Tolstoy makes it clear that Aksionov’s decision to protect Makar does not amount to forgiveness: Aksionov thinks, “Why should I forgive the man who ruined me […] ? […] Let him pay the price for all my suffering.” Aksionov protects Makar because he does not wish to see anyone flogged and realizes that “my suspicions [of Makar] may be wrong.”

Makar becomes desperate to obtain forgiveness from Aksionov, and this desperation emanates from a sense of extreme moral imbalance between him and Aksionov; Aksionov has done good to him, whereas he has done harm to Aksionov. The type of worldly, interpersonal forgiveness that Makar seeks hinges on righting this moral disparity and easing Makar’s guilt; as a result, Makar’s begging for forgiveness is paired with a promise that he will confess to the authorities for the original murder, thereby (hopefully) bringing about Aksionov’s official exoneration. In other words, the forgiveness Makar seeks rests upon an exchange—confession and apology for the erasure of Makar’s moral debts. Makar confesses to Aksionov in unambiguous terms: “I murdered the merchant. I planted the knife on you.” Moreover, to reciprocate the grant of forgiveness that Makar hopes to obtain from Aksionov, Makar intends to share his confession with state officials so that “they’ll grant you [Aksionov] a pardon.” Makar’s reasoning in these lines emphasizes the tangible benefit that Aksionov would receive as compensation for his forgiveness.

Aksionov replies to Makar’s statements with anger, as he insists that the exchange of forgiveness for confession (and probable exoneration) that Makar has proposed would not actually right the moral imbalance that exists between the two men: “It’s easy enough for you to go and tell them, but just think what I’ll have to endure! Where shall I go? My wife’s dead, my children will have forgotten me.” Aksionov’s response shows that he, too, buys into the expectation that forgiveness of one individual by another (that is, worldly, social forgiveness) requires appropriate terms of exchange for the one of whom forgiveness is requested. Aksionov suggests that his compensation from the deal (forgiveness for confession) would be inadequate.

The sort of social, interpersonal forgiveness that is contemplated between Aksionov and Makar—forgiveness that relies upon terms of exchange, such as the trade of forgiveness for confession and exoneration—stands in contrast to the ultimate promise of divine forgiveness and salvation offered by God to the devout. The back-and-forth between Aksionov and Makar ends abruptly with Aksionov’s declaration, “God will forgive you.” With this, Aksionov effectively informs Makar that forgiveness is not his to give, but God’s. In a sense, the moral scales are suddenly rebalanced; Makar’s debt to Aksionov vanishes momentarily as Aksionov and Makar both appear as sinners standing before God. “Perhaps,” Aksionov tells Makar, “I’m a hundred times worse!” And “when Aksionov heard Makar Semyonich weeping he too wept,” a display of sympathy and solidarity. Ironically, Makar continues to see his situation in more conventional, worldly terms: he “ignored what Aksionov had said and he confessed” to state officials. Tolstoy wraps up the story by rejecting this decidedly earthly, institutional confession (as opposed to religious confession or atonement) as ineffectual or irrelevant: “when official permission finally came for Aksionov to return home he had passed away.” What might be seen as the forgiveness of the state (exoneration) is unimportant; it is the judgment of God alone that matters.

Although Aksionov ultimately declines to give Makar his forgiveness, the fact that Aksionov is able to overcome his rage at Makar and even consider forgiving him underlines Aksionov’s Christian virtue. At one point, Aksionov was “so furious with Makar Semyonov that he could have attacked him on the spot, and taken his revenge.” Moreover, when Makar first approaches Aksionov for forgiveness, Aksionov is skeptical of his sincerity. Makar exclaims, “Forgive me!” and Aksionov challenges him, “Forgive you for what?” Even after Makar elaborates, confessing to the murder, Aksionov angrily reminds Makar that would benefit little from official exoneration, as he would have no home. However, Makar soon shifts gears in his reasoning for why Aksionov should forgive him. Whereas before Makar tried promising Aksionov a confession as compensation for forgiveness, Makar now gives up on this exchange and simply expresses his honest guilt over having framed Aksionov for murder: “Forgive me! The flogging they gave me was easier to bear than looking at you now!” This pivot convinces Aksionov of Makar’s sincerity and allows Aksionov to view Makar as a fellow sinner at God’s mercy, similarly aware of his wrongs on earth. Aksionov is moved by Makar’s tears, which appear to convey a deep (and genuine) guilt.

Institutional Justice vs. Divine Judgment_Theme_Analysis.

Composed as a parable, or didactic moral tale, for children, “God Sees the Truth, But Waits” follows the false accusation and imprisonment of a merchant named Aksionov for a murder that he did not commit. As state officials—a police inspector, soldiers, and even the tsar—participate in Aksionov’s wrongful punishment, a brutal flogging followed by 26 years of hard labor in Siberia, Tolstoy sets up a highly visible contrast between the state institutions of law and justice that strip Aksionov of his liberty and the ultimate, reliable moral judgment of God. As Aksionov’s appeals to state authorities fail, he increasingly turns towards a life of religious devotion, trusting (as Tolstoy puts it in the title) that God sees the truth of his innocence and will eventually reward his steadfast faith by restoring moral order. With this, the story suggests that while earthly justice may fail, one should place his or her hope in divine justice. 

The process by which Aksionov is accused of murder and loses his freedom revolves principally around an encounter with an unnamed “district police inspector” who acts as a symbol of state authority and reveals institutional justice to be deeply flawed. At first glance, this inspector’s handling of Aksionov appears to follow the outlines of a legitimate investigative-legal procedure. He begins with an interrogation, conducts a search of Aksionov’s possessions, levels an accusation of guilt, and finally orders the arrest of his subject. Upon closer inspection, however, Tolstoy uses the inspector to represent a system of institutional justice—in contrast to the higher divine judgment that becomes Aksionov’s focus during his imprisonment—that can be reduced to physical and psychological force and to the leveraging of state power against an effectively defenseless individual subject. The inspector arrives on the scene accompanied by two soldiers, and although Aksionov responds fully and truthfully to all of the inspector’s queries, the inspector nevertheless cuts short his dialogue with Aksionov and invites the intervention of the soldiers, pivoting towards the exercise of force. He asks Aksionov to “show me your belongings,” but before Aksionov has a chance to oblige him, the police inspector commands the soldiers to “search him!” The soldiers’ intervention, along with the shock of seeing the bloodstained knife (which Tolstoy’s audience knows to be a planted piece of evidence), abolishes Aksionov’s voice and with it his capacity to mount a defense: “his voice kept breaking, his face was ashen and he was quaking all over with fear, just like a guilty man.” Having reduced Aksionov to a state of physical paralysis, the inspector now cites the very symptoms of fear that he and his soldiers have induced as evidence of Aksionov’s guilt: “I can see you’re guilty from your face.”

In the moments following his formal accusation of Aksionov, the inspector rapidly escalates his use of force, “order[ing] the soldiers to tie [Aksionov] up and take him to the cart.” Aksionov can no longer speak at all; he expresses his grief through the nonverbal gestures of “cross[ing] himself and burst[ing] into tears.” Now under the absolute physical control of state officials, Aksionov is shipped off to be flogged—a corporal punishment so destructive, Tolstoy notes, that Aksionov must be given time to heal before he can be transported to Siberia.

As Aksionov ages in Siberia (acquiring the moniker of “Grandpa,” as well as of “Man of God”), he turns away from the world, realizing that true justice revolves around faith and the fate of the soul, rather than the physical control and punishment that defines institutional justice and authority. The opposition of institutional versus divine justice—and the total superiority of the latter—is stated perhaps most explicitly in Aksionov’s reasonings after his disturbing meeting with his wife, in which she questions his innocence and informs him that his appeals to the authorities have failed: “He told himself, ‘Obviously, no one except God can know the truth…only from Him should I ask for help, from Him alone can I expect mercy.’ And from that time onwards Aksionov stopped sending in petitions, stopped hoping and simply prayed to God.” With this, Aksionov fully internalizes the flawed, flimsy nature of earthly justice, realizing that he can trust only God to see his innocence.

Towards the end of his life, in Siberia, Aksionov catches his fellow prisoner Makar Semyonich digging an escape tunnel. Aksionov recognizes Makar as the actual perpetrator of the murder for which he was imprisoned; nevertheless, Aksionov chooses not to turn Makar in to the authorities. This decision can be seen as a rejection of earthly justice and punishment, symbolized (as with the police inspector) by a state official known only by his title—the Governor. Tolstoy makes it clear that Aksionov has not completely forgiven Makar by the time the Governor asks him, “Who was trying to dig a tunnel?” Yet Aksionov decides to answer untruthfully (“I saw nothing, and I know nothing”) after reasoning not just that his suspicion of Makar might be misplaced, but that “they’re bound to flog him if I testify against him.” In other words, even if Makar is the one who “ruined” Aksionov, the official punishment of flogging to which Aksionov himself was subjected would be (in Aksionov’s mind) unjust and unacceptable under any circumstances.

In a private moment after the Governor has gone, Aksionov assures Makar that “God will forgive you.” This statement, together with Aksionov’s deceitful response to the Governor, serves as a rejection of (and act of resistance to) the very idea of the Governor’s authority—an affirmation that delivering true justice is a prerogative of God’s upon which no human has the right to impinge. And although Makar confesses to the murder for which Aksionov was jailed, by the time “official permission finally came for Aksionov to return he had passed away,” leaving the state’s jurisdiction and moving into the afterlife, where God ultimately dispenses rewards and punishments.

- ©drg/Indra Bhusal

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