The Three Questions

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Introduction

"The Three Questions" is a short story by Russian author Leo Tolstoy first published in 1885 as part of the collection What Men Live By, and other tales. The story takes the form of a parable, and it concerns a king who wants to find the answers to what he considers the three most important questions in life.

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About the Author

Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy ,9 September [O.S. 28 August] 1828 – 20 November [O.S. 7 November] 1910), also known as Leo Tolstoy, was a Russian writer, philosopher and political thinker who primarily wrote novels and short stories. Tolstoy was a master of realistic fiction and is widely considered one of the world's greatest novelists. He is best known for two long novels, War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877). Tolstoy first achieved literary acclaim in his 20s with his semi-autobiographical trilogy of novels, Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth (1852-1856) and Sevastopol Sketches (1855), based on his experiences in the Crimean War. His fiction output also includes two additional novels, dozens of short stories, and several famous novellas, including The Death of Ivan Ilych, Family Happiness, and Hadji Murad. Later in life, he also wrote plays and essays. Tolstoy is equally known for his complicated and paradoxical persona and for his extreme moralistic and ascetic views, which he adopted after a moral crisis and spiritual awakening in the 1870s, after which he also became noted as a moral thinker and social reformer.

His literal interpretation of the ethical teachings of Jesus, centering on the Sermon on the Mount, caused him in later life to become a fervent Christian anarchist and anarcho-pacifist. His ideas on nonviolent resistance, expressed in such works as The Kingdom of God Is Within You, were to have a profound impact on such pivotal twentieth-century figures as Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and James Bevel.

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Concept Map

Summary of the Prose

The thought came to a certain king that he would never fail if he knew three things. These three things were:

  • When is the best time to do each thing?
  • Who are the most important people to work with?
  • What is the most important thing to do at all times?

Many educated men attempted to answer the king's questions, but they all came up with different answers. The king decided that he needed to ask a wise hermit in a nearby village. The hermit would only see common folk, however, so the king disguised himself as a peasant, left his guards behind, and went to see the hermit. The hermit was digging flower beds when the king arrived. The king asked his questions, but the hermit went on digging rather laboriously. The king offered to dig for him for a while. After digging for some time, the king again asked his questions. Before the hermit could answer, a man emerged from the woods. He was bleeding from a terrible stomach wound. The king tended to him, and they stayed the night in the hermit's hut. By the next day the wounded man was doing better, but was incredulous at the help he had received. The man confessed that he knew who the king was, and that the king had executed his brother and seized his property. He had come to kill the king, but the king's guards had wounded him. The man pledged allegiance to the king, and he went on his way. The king asked the hermit again for his answers, and the hermit responded that he had just had his questions answered.

  • The most important time is now. The present is the only time over which we have power.
  • The most important person is whoever you are with.
  • The most important thing is to do good to the person you are with.

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Text of the Prose

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