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In the story, Tolstoy tells us that
In prison Aksionov learnt to make boots, and earned a little money, with which he bought The Lives of the Saints. He read this book when there was light enough in the prison; and on Sundays in the prison church he read the lessons and sang in the choir; for his voice was still good.
Tolstoy means to contrast for his readers the difference between the old Aksionov and the new Aksionov. The old Aksionov is attached to his wealth, material possessions, and his family. In the beginning of the story, he is described as a virile, confident, and happy-go-lucky character; he is a successful businessman and contented family man. After he is framed for a murder he is innocent of, he is sentenced to life in prison.
By the time he buys his book above, we are told that Aksionov has served 26 years in a Siberian prison. By now, his mirth and youthful nonchalance have deserted him. He is now a man of prayer, and one of his nicknames is 'The Saint.' The author relates that he is a trusted figure among his fellow prisoners. Tolstoy mentions the book to highlight the change in Aksionov from indulgent secularist to religious devotee. It is also no secret that Tolstoy himself experienced a religious awakening in his later years. For years, he had struggled to reconcile his deeply religious nature with his sensual inclinations. He later denounced his rank and wealth in exchange for a pauper's life.
For Tolstoy, literature becomes the vehicle for transmitting an impeccable morality he deems essential to salvation. Thus, Aksionov demonstrates Tolstoy's implicit faith in the way to achieve personal peace: the denunciation of all material things and familial attachments.
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