Study Guide

The Penitent Sinner

by Leo Tolstoy

The Penitent Sinner Summary

Extended Summary

Leo Tolstoy’s story “The Penitent Sinner” (1886) is preceded by a Biblical quotation. One of the two sinners hanging on a cross next to Jesus when all three are being crucified asks Jesus to remember him when Jesus enters his kingdom. Jesus promises him that later that day, the penitent sinner will be with him in paradise (Luke xxiii. 42, 43).

The story itself opens with the narrator reporting that once upon a time there lived a man who was seventy years old and had been a sinner for his entire life. He became sick but even then did not express sorrow for his sins. However, in his final minutes, as life was leaving his body, he cried and asked God to forgive him, as God had forgiven the penitent sinner on the cross.

As this plea issued from his lips, his spirit departed from his flesh. His spirit, experiencing love for God and trust in God’s forgiveness, ascended to the gates of heaven and prayed to be admitted into them. He then heard a voice from inside: “Who is knocking on the gates of heaven, and how did he conduct himself when he was alive?” And the “voice of the Accuser” responded, listing all the man’s sinful actions, not mentioning even one virtuous action.

The voice from inside the gates of heaven replied: “Those who sin are not permitted to come into the heavenly kingdom. Depart!” The sinner, however, responded by saying that although he could hear God’s voice, he could not see God’s countenance, nor did he know God’s name. The voice replied: “I am the apostle Peter.” The sinner then said:

Show me mercy, Apostle Peter! Recall the weakness of humanity and the forgiveness of God. Were you not one of Jesus’s followers? Did you not listen to his lessons as he spoke them himself, and did you not have him as a model in your very presence? Therefore, recall how he was mournful and was pained in his soul, and how he thrice asked you to stay awake and worship, and yet you slept because you were tired, and three times he found you asleep. The same thing happened to me. Recall, as well, how you swore to follow him even if doing so meant dying. Nevertheless, thrice you denied knowing him when he was brought before the high priest. The same thing happened to me. And recall also how, when the cock...

(The entire section is 938 words.)