"After the Ball" by Leo Tolstoy
Ivan Vassilievich claims that everything in life depends on chance, as he recalls how the direction of his own life changed one night after a ball. He left the ball intoxicated with love after dancing with Varenka, the beautiful daughter of a colonel, most of the night. Unable to sleep, Ivan wandered towards Varenka's home. Near her house, he saw a military procession and heard the sounds of a fife and drum, evil and ominous. A runaway Tartar was being mercilessly beaten under the supervision of Varenka's father. Filled with anguish at what he had witnessed, Ivan questioned what the colonel knew that he did not. Ivan decided not to do any of the things that he had planned to do in the future. His love for Varenka subsided and ultimately came to nothing.
This story addresses
- the vagaries of chance,
- the difference between following one's orders and one's conscience,
- corporal punishment.
To encourage students to
- analyze their beliefs about chance and its effect on their lives,
- evaluate the difference between obeying orders and following conscience,
- consider the efficacy of corporal punishment.
Ask students to write their definitions of chance. Have them focus on whether or not they think it affects their lives. Read the story aloud. Pause to address issues as they arise. After reading, ask students to define Vassilievich's idea of chance. Have them compare their definition to his and identify the similarities and differences.
Use the following questions as springboards to solutions:
- Vassilievich thinks everything depends on chance. Why? Do you agree or disagree? Explain.
- He says his whole life was changed by the events of one morning. Have you experienced similar life-altering events? Explain.
- At first Vassilievich is amused by the colonel's boots. He assumes the colonel wears the old boots so his daughter can enjoy new ones. What does this imply about our judgments based on appearance alone?
- Vassilievich dresses as Pride at the ball. How does this relate to the outcome of the story? Is his pride constructive or destructive? Explain.
- Why does Vassilievich not interfere with the beating of the Tartar? What does this suggest about his pride?
- Why does the colonel refuse to recognize Vassilievich? Why is the colonel so brutal in his punishment of the Tartar? Why does he threaten to beat the soldiers if they do not carry out his orders? Why do the soldiers comply? Would you have done likewise?
- When does one's conscience override one's duty? Can a soldier defy an order on conscientious grounds? Explain.
- Vassilievich assumes the colonel knows something he doesn't. Why? What could the colonel know that would justify or mitigate his actions?
- Why does the colonel's behavior influence Vassilievich's emotions for Varenka? Is this fair to Varenka? Why/Why not?
- Have you judged one person based on your knowledge of another? Is this fair or rational? Explain.
Have student groups debate the influence of chance or fate. Ask them what may have happened if Vassilievich had not seen the beating. Encourage them to extrapolate the possible outcomes of the story to their own lives. Has chance altered the course of their lives?
Ask each student to write a personality profile for a character in the story. Have them focus on the life events that lead the characters to develop as they do. Encourage them to incorporate details from the story. Share the profiles with the class.
Ask students to identify difficult decisions they've made based on conscience. If they have not made such decisions, ask them to identify a character from a movie or TV who made a difficult decision because of his or her principles. Have them identify reasons for doing so. Ask students to explain whether or not conscience makes decision-making easier or more difficult.
Real World Connection
Corporal punishment is mandated in many nations. Ask students to analyze their opinions about the effectiveness of corporal punishment. Then instruct them to research both sides of the issue. Following the research, ask students to write an explanatory essay in which they explain whether or not the research altered their original opinions. Share the essays with the class.