A Confession | Study Guide

Leo Tolstoy

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A Confession | Symbols


The Dragon and the Traveler in the Well

Leo Tolstoy offers three extended metaphors to better describe his personal struggles with finding life's meaning. The first metaphor is based on an Eastern tale, the second is a figurative story created by Tolstoy, and the third is based on a dream he had in 1879.

In Chapter 4 Tolstoy relates an Eastern tale that symbolizes his dilemma regarding death. In the tale a traveler is chased by a ferocious beast. The traveler spies a well and leaps in, hoping to escape his pursuer. The well is dry; the only thing that prevents the man from falling to the bottom is a single branch which he grabs hold of on the way down. The beast waits above, momentarily robbed of its quarry but unwilling to abandon the chase. For a brief moment the man thinks he will be able to outlast the beast and emerge from the well once it has gone.

Then the man looks below and sees a dragon coiled at the bottom of the well. Like the beast above, the dragon cannot reach him, but all it has to do is wait for the man to fall. Two mice, one black and one white, come out and begin chewing on the branch. The man accepts that the branch will break in due time, and he will be devoured by the dragon. He licks the branch's sweet sap to distract himself from his inevitable doom.

In this extended metaphor, the mice represent days and nights passing by. The branch is life, and its sap symbolizes the fleeting joys life can bring. The dragon is death. Throughout the rest of his memoir, Tolstoy uses the terms "death" and "dragon" interchangeably, such as in the following quotes: "the dragon of death was inevitably awaiting me"; "I could not tear my eyes from the mice and the dragon"; "No sweetness of honey could be sweet to me when I saw the dragon." Tolstoy reminds readers of his predicament with each reference to the dragon, the honey, and the mice. His situation is as hopeless as the traveler stuck in the well. He cannot forget that death is waiting for him, no more than a man can ignore a dragon snapping at his toes. If Tolstoy wants to survive, he needs to conquer the dragon or at the very least conquer his fear of it.

The Man in the Boat

Tolstoy feels adrift like many people struggling with depression. Instead of keeping this feeling to himself, he decides to explain it through a symbolic story. When telling the story of the dragon, Tolstoy prefaced the tale by sharing its origin. This time, though, Tolstoy drops directly into his story. He offers only the short phrase, "What happened to me was something like this," to signal that he is moving from reality into a metaphor. He shows increasing trust in the reader to tell when he is being literal and when he is being figurative.

Tolstoy compares himself to a man in a boat trying to row across a river. The river is so vast that from the middle of its expanse neither bank can be seen. Tolstoy loses his sense of direction as a result. He is surrounded by other boats which are heading in multiple directions. He first follows a large group of boats that seem to be drifting along together. The people in the boats seem completely at peace. Tolstoy fortunately notices that the boats are bound for deadly rapids before it is too late to change direction. He begins following other boaters who are determinedly rowing across the river instead of following its current. Using their direction as a guide, he reorients himself toward the shore.

The boaters Tolstoy originally follows represent his friends from the artistic and scientific community. They occupied themselves by debating matters of little import, all the while neglecting the fact that they were headed toward destruction. The second group Tolstoy follows are believers set on reaching God, even if the effort completely exhausts them. Tolstoy then goes on to explain the other symbols, writing, "That shore was God; that direction was tradition; the oars were the freedom given me to pull for the shore." He saw himself as fighting against a current that threatened to pull him under or drag him into the rapids. Even though he could not see the shore, just as humans cannot see God, he trusted that the beliefs of past generations were reliable enough to point him in the right direction.

The Pillar

The final symbolic story occurs in the final chapter. Tolstoy wrote this chapter some time after completing the rest of his memoir, but he believed it merited a place in his book because it encapsulated his search for purpose. In the dream Tolstoy finds himself lying on a bed made of ropes, suspended high in the air. The space below him and above him stretch out in equal infinities. He tries to change his position so he is more comfortable.

At this small movement the ropes begin to slip from beneath him. A sudden terror overwhelms him. Tolstoy writes, "I felt that I should at once slip from the last support and perish." All his efforts to save himself only result in more ropes slipping away. It becomes clear to him that he cannot rescue himself, despite all his intelligence and ingenuity. Just as he is about to consign himself to death, he realizes that a solid pillar rests beneath his head. Combined with the pillar, the single rope that remains is sufficient to keep him aloft.

Tolstoy offers the least amount of explanation for this story out of the three stories covered in his memoir. He believes his readers are capable of interpreting his dream on their own. When Tolstoy's trust in science, his friends, and organized religion failed him, his belief in God proved to be enough. Therefore, the pillar in his dream is God. Tolstoy once doubted God's importance to his life. Now God has become the only enduring support left in his life. His faith is anchored to God and therefore unshakeable. He does not need to fear the infinity stretching out around him.

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