What Men Live By: MBOSE Class 12 English Supplementary notes

What Men Live By
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Get summaries, questions, answers, solutions, notes, extras, PDF of Class 12 Voices (English Supplementary reader textbook) chapter What Men Live By by Leo Tolstoy which is part of the syllabus of students studying under MBOSE (Meghalaya Board). These solutions, however, should only be treated as references and can be modified/changed.

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Simon, a shoemaker, lived with his wife, Matrena, and children in a peasant’s hut. He had no property and earned his living through his work. Despite working hard, Simon struggled to afford basic necessities. One winter, he saved a small amount of money to buy sheepskins for a new coat, as the only coat they had was worn out.

One day, Simon went to the village to collect the money owed to him by his customers and buy the sheepskins. However, he was unsuccessful in collecting the debts and ended up spending the little money he had on vodka to warm himself against the cold. On his way back home, Simon saw a naked man sitting near a shrine. Initially afraid and reluctant to help, Simon’s conscience eventually compelled him to return and assist the stranger. Simon gave him his coat and brought him home.

Matrena was initially angry and suspicious of the stranger, fearing Simon had squandered their money and brought home a vagrant. However, she softened when the stranger, Michael, thanked them and showed genuine gratitude. Simon offered Michael shelter and food, and Michael began working with Simon as a shoemaker. Michael proved to be an excellent worker, quickly learning and excelling at the craft.

Over time, Michael’s presence brought prosperity to Simon’s household. One day, a wealthy gentleman ordered a pair of boots from Simon, demanding that they last a year without losing shape. Michael seemed to foresee the gentleman’s death, and instead of making boots, he made soft slippers. The gentleman indeed died that evening, and his servant came to collect the slippers for the corpse.

Years passed, and one day, a woman visited Simon’s hut with two little girls, one of whom was lame. The woman wanted shoes for the girls. Michael was deeply moved upon seeing them. The woman explained that the girls were orphans she had adopted and raised as her own after their parents died shortly after their birth. The lame girl had been injured when her mother died.

After the woman and the girls left, Michael told Simon and Matrena who he truly was. He revealed that he was an angel sent by God to learn three truths: what dwells in man, what is not given to man, and what men live by. Michael explained that he had disobeyed God by refusing to take the soul of the twins’ mother, moved by her plea to care for her children. For this, he was punished and sent to live as a human until he learned the three truths.

Michael learned the first truth when Matrena pitied him and gave him food. Initially, when Simon brought Michael home, Matrena was suspicious and hostile. She was upset with Simon for bringing a stranger into their home, especially one who appeared to be a vagrant. However, upon seeing Michael’s vulnerability and genuine gratitude, her heart softened, and she offered him food and shelter. This truth, “what dwells in man,” is revealed through Matrena’s act of compassion. It signifies that the core of human nature is love and compassion.

Michael learned the second truth when he saw the gentleman planning for a future he did not have. The wealthy gentleman ordered boots that should last a year, not knowing that he would die that very day. Michael, with his angelic insight, saw the angel of death behind the gentleman, indicating his imminent demise. The second truth, “what is not given to man,” emphasises the uncertainty of life and the limitations of human knowledge. It teaches that humans cannot foresee their future or determine their fate.

Michael learned the third truth when he witnessed the woman’s love for the orphaned girls. The woman had no biological connection to the children, yet she raised them with immense love and care, treating them as her own. Her selfless act of nurturing and loving the children revealed the essence of what sustains human life. The third truth, “what men live by,” is encapsulated in the concept of love. It asserts that love is the fundamental force that sustains life. Humans do not live by their own efforts alone but thrive through the love and support of others.

With his mission complete, Michael revealed his true nature and ascended back to heaven. Simon and Matrena, awestruck, understood that love is the essence of life and that it is through love that people live and thrive, as it embodies God’s presence in the world.

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Textual questions and answers

Answer these questions briefly

1. What did Simon set out to buy with the money he had saved?

Answer: Sheepskins for a winter coat.

2. What thoughts went through Simon’s mind when he first saw the stranger? Why did he come back for him?

Answer: Simon was initially terrified, thinking someone had killed and stripped the man. He was afraid to get involved. He came back because his conscience smote him, and he realised the man might be dying of want.

3. What was Matrena’s initial reaction to the stranger? Why did she change her mind? Why did Michael smile at Matrena?

Answer: Matrena was angry and suspicious, thinking Simon had been drinking and brought home a bad man. She softened when she saw the stranger’s pain and exhaustion. Michael smiled because Matrena showed him pity and compassion by giving him food and drink.

4. How did Simon teach Michael to make a living?

Answer: Simon taught Michael by showing him how to twist yarn, sew, and make boots.

5. How was the gentleman who came in the carriage different from Simon, Matrena and Michael? What did he ask for?

Answer: The gentleman was large, burly, and intimidating. He was much wealthier than Simon and his family. He wanted boots made from expensive German leather, and warned Simon that if the boots didn’t last a year, he would put Simon in prison.

6. What message did the man on horseback bring?

Answer: The gentleman had died suddenly on his way home. His wife wanted Simon to make soft slippers for the corpse using the leather he had brought.

7. What was the relationship between the lady who called on Simon and the two little girls?

Answer: The lady had adopted the two little girls after their parents died, although they were not her biological children.

8. What happened as soon as the lady left? What did Simon realise?

Answer: Michael smiled and shone with light. Simon realized that Michael was an angel, sent to earth to learn about humanity.

9. Who was Michael? Why had he come to Earth?

Answer: Michael was an angel. God had sent him to fetch a woman’s soul, but he disobeyed God. As punishment, he was sent to Earth to learn three truths: What dwells in man, What is not given to man, and What men live by.

10. Why did Michael say that he had smiled three times in all the while that he had been with Simon and Matrena?

Answer: Michael smiled each time he learned one of the three truths. He smiled at Matrena when he understood that Love dwells in man. He smiled again when he learned that it is not given to man to know his own needs. He smiled for the third time when he realized that men live by love, not by care for themselves.

Answer these questions in context

1. ‘Work was cheap but bread was dear.’ Explain Simon’s living conditions.

Answer: Simon, a shoemaker, lived in poverty, earning little from his work and spending most of his earnings on food. He and his wife shared one tattered sheepskin coat for winter, highlighting their dire financial situation.

2. ‘We know what debt-collecting is like.’ Who said these words to Simon? Why did Simon have to agree with him?

Answer: The dealer said these words to Simon. Simon had to agree because he understood the difficulty of collecting debts, as he too was struggling to collect money owed to him by customers.

Answer these questions in detail

1. Describe all the emotions that Simon felt when he first saw Michael near the shrine.

Answer: Simon felt a range of emotions when he first saw Michael near the shrine. Initially, he was seized with terror, thinking that someone had killed the man, stripped him, and left him there. Simon’s conscience smote him as he walked away, feeling ashamed for being afraid and thinking of the possibility that the man might be dying of want. This inner conflict led him to turn back and approach Michael.

2. Was Matrena justified in being angry with her husband Simon, when he returned home with Michael? Give reasons.

Answer: Matrena was initially justified in being angry with Simon. She was disappointed that he had not bought the sheepskin coat and thought he had spent the money on drinking. She also believed Simon had irresponsibly brought home a naked, good-for-nothing vagabond, adding a burden to their already struggling family. Her anger was fueled by concern for their financial struggles and her own safety. However, her anger subsided when she saw the condition of Michael and realized Simon’s good intentions.

3. How do we know that both Simon and his wife Matrena were kind-hearted people and that they believed in God?

Answer: Simon and Matrena were kind-hearted people who believed in God. Simon felt compelled to help Michael when he saw him suffering and did not hesitate to give him his coat and boots, saying to his wife, “It is a sin. Remember, we must all die one day.” When Matrena saw Michael sitting silently with his head drooping as if in pain, her heart softened towards him, and she prepared supper for him. She also gave him a shirt and trousers to wear, despite worrying about their own lack of food and clothes. Matrena understood the proverb, “One may live without father or mother, but one cannot live without God,” when she heard the story of the lady and the twins. Their willingness to help a stranger in need, despite their own hardships, showed their compassion and faith in God.

4. ‘God had sent me to learn three truths.’

a. What three aspects of man’s nature did God want Michael to learn about?

Answer: God wanted Michael to learn the following three truths:

  • What dwells in man.
  • What is not given to man.
  • What men live by.

b. Describe each aspect of man’s nature in relation to the incident described in the text.


  • What dwells in man: This was revealed to Michael when Matrena showed pity on him. The answer is love. Despite her initial anger, Matrena’s compassion and kindness towards Michael demonstrated that love dwells in man.
  • What is not given to man: Michael learned this truth when he saw the angel of death standing behind the rich man who was ordering boots. The answer is that it is not given to man to know his own needs or future. The rich man made plans for a year, not knowing he would die that same day.
  • What men live by: Michael understood this truth when he saw the love and care of the woman who raised the orphaned twins. The answer is that men live by love. The woman’s selfless act of nurturing children who were not her own showed that love is what sustains human life.

c. What are your views on these three aspects of man’s nature? Are they important in a man’s life? Why?

Answer: These three aspects of man’s nature are profoundly important in human life. Love is the fundamental force that binds people together and drives acts of kindness and compassion. The uncertainty of knowing one’s future emphasizes the need for humility and the importance of living in the present. Understanding that men live by love highlights the significance of relationships and the impact of selfless acts on the well-being of individuals and society as a whole. These truths foster a sense of interconnectedness and reinforce the value of compassion and empathy.

5. After reading the story, do you realise the relevance of these three ‘truths’? Are they relevant to you? Give an example from your own life related to these experiences.

Answer: The three truths are highly relevant to me and to everyone. In my own life, I have experienced the importance of love and compassion, especially in times of need. For instance, during a difficult period when I was struggling with personal issues, the support and love from friends and family were crucial in helping me through it. Their acts of kindness, much like Matrena’s, made a significant difference, reaffirming the belief that love is a powerful force that sustains and enriches human life.

6. How has the author narrated the story? Do you think the story can be read as an allegory?

Answer: The author, Leo Tolstoy, has narrated the story in a simple, yet powerful and deeply philosophical way. The language is straightforward and easy to understand, making the story accessible to a broad audience while conveying profound spiritual messages. The story can be read as an allegory because it uses symbolic characters and events to represent deeper moral and spiritual truths about human nature and the essence of life. For example, Michael’s journey as an angel who learns about human life and love can be seen as a metaphor for the spiritual journey of every individual. The simple setting and actions of the story allow the reader to focus on the profound themes and messages about the nature of humanity and the power of love.


1. He who has love is in God and God is in him, for God is love. Using the instances from the text or from your own experiences in life, write an essay on the central theme of the story.


Love is the Essence of Life

In Leo Tolstoy’s story “What Men Live By,” we see the power of love, not just as a feeling, but as the very force that sustains life. The story centers around Michael, a fallen angel sent to earth to learn what it means to be human. Through his experiences, we see that love is the answer to the question of “What men live by.”

The story begins with Michael, stripped of his angelic form, cold and hungry, alone in a harsh world. He encounters Simon, a simple shoemaker, who, despite fear and hesitation, acts out of compassion, giving Michael his coat and bringing him home. This selfless act of love from a stranger is what saves Michael from perishing.

The presence of love transforms the people around Michael. Initially, Simon’s wife, Matrena, is filled with anger and judgment towards Michael. But when Simon speaks of God, she softens and eventually offers Michael food and shelter. It is love that melts her initial resistance and allows her to see past appearances and recognize Michael’s need.

As the story progresses, Michael witnesses the transformative power of love in other situations. The rich gentleman who orders the boots is consumed by his own self-interest, but it is love that binds the lady who adopts the orphaned girls, even though they are not her own.

The climax of the story comes when Michael realizes the final truth: “All men live not by care for themselves, but by love.” This revelation is borne out of the actions of both Simon and the lady, who, despite their own needs and struggles, act out of love and compassion. This selfless love is what truly sustains life, not just for individuals, but for entire communities.

This message resonates deeply with me. We often get caught up in our own worries and ambitions, forgetting that love is the foundation of a meaningful life. Like Michael, we are reminded that true joy and fulfillment come not from pursuing self-interest, but from extending love and kindness to others.

In our own lives, we see how love can heal, inspire, and bring communities together. Even small acts of love, like a kind word or a helping hand, can have a profound impact on those around us. “What Men Live By” encourages us to seek love in our interactions with others, to recognize that it is love that makes life worth living. By embracing love, we not only find our place in the world but also embody the spirit of God within us.

2. Imagine you are Michael. Write a diary entry about the day you were found by Simon near the shrine, naked, cold and hungry. Write about your emotions before meeting Simon, during the meeting and after reaching his home.

Answer: The cold bites deep, seeping through my bones despite the meager shelter of the shrine. It’s a wretched existence, this being a man. I ache, I hunger, and the wind whispers cruel taunts of my lost wings. I yearned for God’s forgiveness, but He has sent me to learn instead. To learn the ways of mortals, their needs and their frailties. The weight of my earthly form is a burden, a constant reminder of my fall.

Then, a sound. A man, walking down the road. I flinched back, afraid. A man’s face, so different from the heavenly ones I’d known, filled me with terror. His voice, coarse and full of earthly concerns, filled my ears with his mundane anxieties: Of keeping warm, of feeding his family. I longed for his pity, but doubted he would offer it. I felt alone, forgotten, a shell of my former self.

He passed, but then, mercifully, he returned. As he drew closer, I saw a shift in his face, a softening, a spark of something I could not name. He looked at me, not with fear, but with compassion. Hope, fragile but real, bloomed within me. He took off his coat, a gift of warmth and mercy, and his touch, though rough, held no malice. The weight of his touch was a surprise, a new experience, but one that felt oddly comforting.

His home was a simple place, filled with the scents of earth and hearth. The woman, his wife, was at first harsh, filled with fear and anger. Yet, when her husband spoke of God, she softened, her voice losing its harsh edge. And when she offered me food, I saw the grace of God reflected in her actions. My first smile on this earthly plane was for her, for her simple act of kindness.

The darkness has settled, and my soul finds a measure of peace. I am still an angel, though fallen, and this experience has already begun to teach me. I am humbled, but I am also filled with hope. God has brought me here for a reason, and I will learn. I will learn the way of mortals, and perhaps, I will learn the way of God.

Extra fill in the blanks

1. Simon, a shoemaker, lived with his wife and children in a ________ hut. (Small/Peasant’s)

Answer: Peasant’s

2. Simon wanted to buy ________ for a new coat. (Sheepskins/Cloth)

Answer: Sheepskins

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54. Michael was finally ________ by God. (Blessed/Forgiven)

Answer: Forgiven

Extra true or False

1. Simon was a shoemaker who lived in a peasant’s hut with his wife and children.

Answer: True

2. Simon had both a house and land of his own.

Answer: False

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49. Matrena gave the stranger an old shirt and a pair of trousers.

Answer: True

Extra questions and answers

Q. What was Simon’s occupation?

Answer: Simon was a shoemaker.

Q. What did Simon plan to buy with his saved money?

Answer: Simon planned to buy sheepskins for a new winter coat.

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61. In what ways does the story “What Men Live By” challenge readers’ perspectives on love, compassion, and human interconnectedness?

Answer: “What Men Live By” challenges readers’ perspectives on love, compassion, and human interconnectedness by presenting a narrative that emphasizes these virtues as fundamental to human existence. Through the experiences of Michael, Simon, Matrena, and other characters, the story illustrates that love and compassion are essential for survival and fulfillment. It challenges readers to reflect on their actions and relationships, questioning whether they prioritize material concerns over acts of kindness. The story suggests that true happiness and meaning come from helping others and forming connections based on empathy and love. It also highlights the limitations of human foresight, urging readers to embrace the uncertainty of life with a compassionate and interconnected approach. By presenting these themes through relatable characters and situations, the story encourages readers to adopt a more altruistic and compassionate perspective in their own lives, recognizing the importance of love and empathy in fostering a harmonious and fulfilling existence.

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