Life and Fate Read Along, Part 3 Chapter 55

This post, covering Part 3, Chapter 55 is part of The Slavic Literature Pod’s chapter a day read along of Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. Learn more about our project here.

We end Viktor Shtrum’s story in Life and Fate at one of his lowest moments, playing a part in sending two likely innocent men to an uncertain fate. It’s a betrayal not only of them, but also one of his own values. 

“And now he too had betrayed people,” Viktor thinks. “He was ashamed of himself; he despised himself. The house he lived in, its light and warmth, had crumbled away; nothing was left but dry quicksand.” 

Another author might offer Viktor absolution in this eleventh hour, but Grossman does not. Instead he gives Viktor this reminder: even after a terrible deed, one must still live day-to-day. This is a theme examined often throughout this book, perhaps in greatest detail throughout the German 6th Army’s encirclement. Our decisions make us who we are — and we never stop making those decisions. 

This is not an entirely optimistic point. Every decision we make is technically free. At the same time, we never possess perfect information; we are always influenced by our society, our friends and family, our economic situation, countless other factors; we may act blinded by hatred or love. Even as the narrative returns Bach’s humanity to him earlier in the novel, he thinks that there are other Wehrmacht officers too enraptured by the State to do the same. 

We can choose to do right; we can choose to do wrong. It’s not always clear which is which. We may know what is right and still not do it. You have knowingly done the wrong thing in matters big and small. So have I. I’ve done the wrong thing because it was more convenient or less embarrassing. Every day we make these choices. 

It’s terrible knowing that we will always have to make these decisions. None of us are good or bad people. We just do good and bad things. Doing one does not prevent anyone from doing the other.