Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Tolstoy’s stories, especially his later ones, are very didactic in nature. He saw himself as a teacher, one whose task was to distill the truth as he found it so that it could be understood by people whose understanding was not as profound as his own. That is why he wrote “The Three Hermits” in a simple style, recalling the apocryphal religious legends of Russia’s earlier centuries. These legends are primarily an oral genre, rife with repetitions of detail and with a straightforward moral message that is clearly stated at the end.
The style relies heavily on the device of triplication: three old men, three reported descriptions of them from three different sources, one of whom is referred to in three different ways (little muzhik, peasant, and fisherman), and so on. Even the syntax reflects this device, with many sentences having a tertiary structure: “What could it be—a boat, or not a boat; a bird, or not a bird; a fish, or not a fish?” The true function of this stylistic device is mnemonic. A triple repetition of story elements on all levels ensures that the lesson transmitted by the story will be well learned. The story’s main stylistic device, then, fits well with Tolstoy’s perception of himself as a teacher of spiritual truth. This triplication, common in the telling of folktales and other oral narratives, reflects as well the trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that is central to Orthodox theology.