The Role of Money in “The Forged Coupon” by Leo Tolstoy


When one hears the name of Leo Tolstoy, the first thing that comes to mind is his great novels War and Peace or Anna Karenina. However, this famous Russian writer created more than 150 works, including short stories, autobiographical novels, and novellas. The Forged Coupon is one of the stories that was published after the author’s death as a part of Tolstoy’s collection. This novella was written in Russian and translated into many languages, including English, like The Forged Banknote or Coupon.

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It consists of two parts, and this division has a significant meaning for the reader. Being introduced as a complex story with many characters, The Forged Coupon contains one major lesson that every event has a consequence, and people do not have the powers to avoid or cheat on fate. The author’s plan is to demonstrate how a number of decisions made by people who do not even know each other may be interrelated and doomed. In The Forged Coupon, Tolstoy represents the worth of money and its relation to inauthentic human behaviours and the necessity to recognise the connection between reality and appearance or between actions and beliefs.

Main Characteristics of Tolstoy’s Writing

Any person who has faced at least one work written by Leo Tolstoy would admit that it is not always easy to read his stories. Still, as soon as the tone and intentions are understood, a variety of positive emotions and important lessons can be obtained. It is a well-known fact among many students and researchers that Tolstoy spent more than six years creating his War and Peace. Similar information about his other projects is hard to find. Still, as The Forged Coupon was published after his death, it could be assumed that the author was not able to manage all possible corrections and succeed in editing to its full extent.

Therefore, the plot and the presence of many characters in the novella may confuse the reader and make some notes to memorise all the people and events. At the same time, when the last page of The Forged Coupon is read, many controversial issues become clear, and the essence is revealed. Tolstoy did not create his works just to be written and published but focused on the themes that were urgent for society and future generations.

Forged Coupon as a Metaphor

Usually, an acquaintance with a story begins with reading its title and understanding the essence. In the majority of cases, it is not difficult to understand the title and predict the possible development of the events. In the case of Leo Tolstoy, everything is not as simple as it seems to be. On the one hand, The Forged Coupon implies be a story about a person who creates, finds, or sells counterfeit currency. On the other hand, the same title may depict a situation when this financial fraud is defined, and a person is punished.

Another situation includes a coupon and its presence in human life and its impact on different people. Tolstoy did not like to choose between several options and tried to unite a number of events, people, and outcomes in one story. Despite the fact that “it was a very wicked thing to do”, meaning forging a coupon, “to deny the crime is still worse” (Tolstoy 107). In this novella, a forged coupon is not an ordinary action or subject but a strong metaphor for human behaviour that is developed around currency.

As well as any event, a forged coupon has a precedent, a story of creation, and an outcome (in this story, multiple outcomes). The beginning was “something quite simple” when a boy, Mitia, deprived of his father’s support, tried to pawn his watch but instead agreed to “put one before the 2.50 [coupon] and it will be 12.50” (Tolstoy 68). As soon as they cashed the coupon, it gained some power and started changing the lives of many people, unintentionally. First, it was a family of a shop owner who demonstrated his passion for money and the intentions to earn as much as possible without thinking about consequences.

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Then, the coupon touched upon the lives of peasants, bailiffs, and ordinary families with their problems and dreams. The coupon was not just a piece of paper but a sign that the darkest thoughts and behaviours could be revealed soon.

Application of the Forged Coupon in the Story

The peculiar feature of the forged coupon is that it applies to characters, their actions, and relationships in different ways, both directly and indirectly. There are more than 20 characters in the story, and the effect of the forged coupon was critical for any of them. For example, there was a poor peasant who wanted to “buy a good strong horse, which he would want in the spring for work in the fields and for driving on the roads” (Tolstoy 78).

The presence of the forged coupon in his life made him an alcoholic, a criminal, and a horse-theft, who was killed by a group of people. He did not ask for a better fate but tried to work and earn a living. Still, the coupon offered a new opportunity and showed that earning a living can be honest but time-consuming or fast but sneaky.

Compared to the former character, the coupon was characterised by certain positive effects, for example, in Czar’s case. Although the outcome was indirect, it helped the Czar to understand his duties and his role in society. By an unpredictable line of events, the same coupon changed the life of a rich Czar who “had ever thought of the responsibilities which weighed on him” (Tolstoy 198). He was not bad or good, but he was not able to realise that his decisions should have nothing in common with his own demands and needs but those of his people.

Appearance vs Reality and Actions vs Beliefs

Along with the question of fate and decision-making, The Forged Coupon perfectly describes the connection that exists between human actions and beliefs, deceptive appearance and reality. Among the offered examples and characters, the Sventizky family can be used to understand the ambiguity of the chosen relation. Before the coupon, the life of Peter Sventizky and his wife was successful and well-planned.

Despite multiple opinions of his friends about the cruelty and greed of peasants, Peter preferred not “oppressing the peasants, but, on the contrary, by the extreme fairness of his dealings with them” (Tolstoy 94). He believed that it was possible to earn money and stay honest with himself and other people. Unfortunately, the coupon changed the attitudes of several peasants who were not satisfied with their working conditions; as a result, Peter changed his relationships with them, which resulted in conflict and his death.

The reality was revealed – respect and deals between a peasant and an owner were impossible. The desire to believe that fair treatment would result in fair relationships was broken, and the only truth was that all peasants were “worse than wild beasts” (Tolstoy 101).

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It was necessary to control people, and money became the factor that divides people into those who rule and those who obey. “Flogging is the only way to keep them in order”, many rich people believed and were right because they stayed alive, whereas Peter and his fair treatment resulted in death. Another significant outcome in this family was the reaction of the wife, Natalia, whose sensation of horror and despair was quickly replaced by “a feeling of joy at her deliverance from the tyrant” (Tolstoy 183). The reality differed from beliefs and appearance as there was no place for grief or regret, and the money was the major cause.

Inauthentic Behaviours in The Forged Coupon

In fact, the examples of inauthentic behaviours in the novella are numerous, starting with the father’s unwillingness to help his son and repay the debt and ending with multiple murders. In his intentions to teach the son and control his life, Fedor Mihailovich, failed to clarify the reasons for his son’s debt. He became one of the first inauthentic characters and the “guilty one” in the line of the events that happened due to the emergence of the forged coupon (Tolstoy 209).

Being a wealthy president of the tax department, he was the root of a catastrophic tangle of events based on the money need (Tolstoy 60). The coupon was the result of his wrong decision not to give money, thus promoting the inauthentic being spread through society in a variety of forms. A rich landowner bribed a peasant to lie at the court, an honest stableman became a theft, and a military servant who examined the court case turned into a murder of six innocent souls. One forged, inauthentic coupon revealed the worst human qualities and proved that even the kindest intentions cannot prevent from the already defined fate.

Human Actions and the Worth of Performance

When people decide to be inauthentic and ignore social norms, they should think about the details not to be caught and be exposed. In Tolstoy’s novella, money is a synonym for inauthenticity as the desire not to lose profits or become richer makes people act in the most profitable but never noble way. A rich shop owner, Eugene, offloaded the forged coupon on a poor man who did not believe that a gentleman could offer bad money (Tolstoy 83).

To hide his crime and not to lose his noble face in society, Eugene succeeded in play-acting and proved that he had nothing in common with an inauthentic and poor Ivan. It was expected that Eugene did not confess but continued lying. His performance was an obligation because of the impossibility to be authentic from the very beginning. A similar performance is made by Natalia (who had to grieve because of her husband’s death), Stepan (who killed because he could), or Vassily (who lied because he was paid). Unfortunately, not a single person thought about the consequences of their play-acting and the future that was based on lies, fake performance, and inauthenticity.

Part I and Part II

As well as any human decision, action, or desire, a forgery has its consequences. Part I and Part II are not just the chapters in the story with different plots and goals. This division is properly planned by the author to demonstrate the transition from inauthentic behaviours to authentic ones, from delusive appearance to reality, from naïve human beliefs to harsh and necessary actions. During the first part, the characters demonstrate how powerful the role of money in their lives could be.

People like Stepan, Vassily, or Ivan, are ready to steal and cheat just in order to get some money, either good or bad. Some characters like Maria Vassilievna or Maria Semenovna preferred to work hard and earn a living in an honest way. In all these cases, money was compared to power, and it was the purpose of the first part to demonstrate how power was gained. The second part was also about the worth of power in human life. However, this time, power was not focused on money but on forgiveness and mercy. Despite the existing belief, it is easy to kill a person than to gain forgiveness.

The End that Matters

The second part of The Forged Coupon demonstrates how people with their sins and regrets continue living. Stepan, who always believed that his murders made sense, re-considered his attitudes towards his role in this world through the Gospels. The lesson of the first part was an understanding of the nature of sin. Maria Semenovna begged Stepan to “have mercy” on himself because, when he destroyed somebody’s soul, he did much worse – he destroyed his own soul (Tolstoy152).

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Part II restores the authenticity of human behaviours and shows the way of how people could gain forgiveness. The end is not when someone’s life is over, but when no mercy and regret are in the human soul. Tolstoy teaches that “the merciful will go to Heaven, and the unmerciful to hell, meant that everybody ought to be merciful, and the malefactor having been forgiven by Christ” (p. 166). The end of the story impresses and fascinates many readers. Stepan, who killed six people because of the indirect and direct impact of the forged coupon but became a holy man, met Mitia, who created the coupon, and treated him like his own child.


The complexity and involvement of The Forged Coupon prove the mastery of Leo Tolstoy. He did not use some fantastic elements, scientific methods, or abstruse words. He wrote about human life and the relationships that people like to create. Money is a constant that determines the quality of living, but humans should never overestimate its worth. Despite multiple intentions to improve their lives, houses, and people around, the characters of The Forged Coupon confirm their weakness and helplessness in regard to fate and death.

Instead of trying to use money and social inequality as the power in human relationships, Tolstoy suggested forgetting about diversity and simplify all those concepts and attitudes around. It does not matter if a person is a hangman, an official, a widow, or a son of a rich landowner, mercy is equal for everyone, and one should use a chance to obtain forgiveness. Life is too short, and people must stop wasting their time finding malefactors, causes, or alternatives. Simplification and authenticity are the two main ingredients of human happiness for all time.

Work Cited

Tolstoy, Leo. The Forged Coupon and Other Stories. Web.

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