Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy

Great Russian writer

"Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself"

What is Childhood about?

The short story Childhood is Leo Tolstoy’s first work. First published in 1852.

Genre: autobiographical novel. The story is told on behalf of Nikolai Irteniev, an adult who recalls the individual events and deep experiences of his childhood.

The main idea: the basis of the character is laid in childhood, a person strives to improve himself. To get acquainted with the characters of the story and the main events, it is worth reading the summary of Tolstoy’s “Childhood” chapter by chapter.

The main characters

Nikolenka Irteniev is a boy from a noble family. He tries to understand his feelings, to find an explanation for people’s actions. He has a sensitive nature.

Other characters

Nikolenka’s family – his mother, father, brother Volodya, sister Lyubochka, grandmother.
Natalia Savishna, the housekeeper, is unselfishly and tenderly attached to Nikolenka’s mother and her entire family.
Karl Ivanovich is a house teacher. He is a kind and loving person to the Irteniev family.
Mimi is the Irtenievs’ governess.
Grisha, a fool. Visited the Irtenievs’ house.
Sonyechka Valakhina – Nikolenka’s first love.
Ilenka Grap is an object of mockery by his peers.

Executive Summary

Chapter 1: The Teacher Karl Ivanich

A few days after his tenth birthday Nikolenka Irteniev, on whose behalf the story is told, was awakened early in the morning by his teacher Karl Ivanovich. Dressed and washed, the hero and his brother Volodya, accompanied by Karl Ivanovich, go “to greet the mother.

Chapter 2: Maman

Remembering his mother, Irteniev imagines her luminous image, her smile and the wonderful events of his childhood associated with her.

Chapters 3-4: Dad. Classes

Coming to say hello to their father, the children hear that he has decided to take them with him to Moscow to study. Nikolenka was worried about parting with all the loved ones that were dear to him.

Chapters 5-6: The fool. Preparations for the hunt

The foolish Grisha came to the Irtenievs’ house for dinner, and the head of the family was dissatisfied with his presence. On the eve of their departure the children asked their father to take them on a forthcoming hunt. In the afternoon the family leaves for the hunt.

Chapter 7: Hunting

The father sends Nikolenka to one of the glades to hunt a hare. The hounds chase the hare away, but in their excitement the boy loses the beast and is worried about it.

Chapter 8-9: Games. A kind of first love

The hunt was over, the whole company was resting in the shade. The children – Nikolenka, Volodya, Lyubochka and Mimi’s daughter Katenka – had gone off to play Robinson. Nikolenka watched Katenka’s every movement fondly with a feeling similar to that of first love.

Chapter 10: What kind of man was my father?

Telling of his father, the grown-up Irteniev speaks of him as a man who had “the elusive nature of chivalry, enterprise, self-confidence, courtesy and debauchery.

Chapters 11-12: Classes in the study and drawing room. Grisha

In the evening at home the children were painting, the mother was playing the piano. Grisha came out for supper. The children wanted to see the chains he wore on his feet and sneaked into his room. Hidden away, they listened to the prayers of the returning wanderer, and their sincerity amazed Nikolenka.

Chapter 13: Natalia Savishna

The narrator warmly remembers the devoted family housekeeper Natalia Savishna, whose whole life “was love and self-sacrifice”.

Chapter 14-15: Separation. Childhood

The morning after the hunt, the Irteniev family and all the servants gathered in the drawing room to say goodbye. It was “sad, painful and frightening” for Nikolenka to part with his mother. Remembering that day, the hero reflects on his childhood. It is at the time of his childhood that “innocent merriment and the boundless need to love are the only motives in life”.

Chapter 16: Poems

A month after moving to Moscow, the Irteniev brothers, living with their father in their grandmother’s house, congratulated her on her name day. Nikolenka wrote his first poems for the birthday girl, which she was delighted to read out loud

Chapter 17-18: Princess Kornakova. Prince Ivan Ivanovich

Guests began to arrive at the house. Princess Kornakova arrived. Nikolenka, finding out that she punishes the children with a rod, was deeply shocked. Her old friend Prince Ivan Ivanovich also arrived to congratulate the grandmother. On hearing their conversation, Nikolai was deeply perturbed: his grandmother had told him that his father did not appreciate and understand his wife.

Chapter 19: Ivina’s

The Ivins brothers, relatives of the Irtenievs, and Ilenka Grapp, son of a poor foreigner, an acquaintance of Grandmother’s, came to the birthday party. Nikolenka was very fond of Seryozha Ivin, he wanted to be like him in everything. During mutual games Seryozha hurt and humiliated the weak and quiet Ilya, and this left a deep mark in Nikolenka’s soul.

Chapters 20-21: The guests gather. Before the mazurka

In the evening the ball was packed with guests, among whom Nikolenka saw the “lovely girl”, Sonechka Valakhina. The protagonist fell in love with her and was happy, dancing with her and having fun. “I could not recognise myself: where did my courage, confidence and even audacity come from,” he recalls.

Chapters 22-23: Mazurka. After the Mazurka

Nikolenka is dancing a mazurka with the Princess, he stumbles and stops. The guests look at him and he becomes very embarrassed. After dinner, Nikolenka dances with Sonja again. She suggests we address each other “you”, as close friends.

Chapter 24: In bed

Remembering the ball and thinking of Sonya, Nikolenka cannot sleep. He admits to Volodya that he is in love with Sonya.

Chapter 25-26: Letter. What awaited us in the village

One day, almost six months after grandmother’s birthday party, father dropped in on the children during school time with the news that they were going to the village, home. The reason for their departure was a letter from their mother: she was seriously ill. The children found their mother already unconscious and she died on the same day.

Chapter 27: Grief

On the day of the funeral, Nikolenka bids farewell to his mother. Looking at the face, once beautiful and tender, the boy realises the “bitter truth” of his beloved´s death, and his soul is filled with despair.

Chapter 28: Last sad memories

“The ‘happy time of childhood’ has come to an end for Nikolenka. Three days passed and everyone moved to Moscow. Only Natalia Savishna is left in the deserted house, but she too soon falls ill and dies.  The grown-up Irteniev, when he comes to the village, always visits the graves of his mother and Natalia Savishna.