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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Maksim Gorky (1868–1936)

Surgical Operation Upon a Human Heart

From “Adventures of a Devil”

IT was Twelfth Night, and Ivan Ivanovich Ivanov was sitting alone in his study. Judged by his mental qualities, he was an “intellectual person”; his aim, however, was to reach moral perfection, which he tried to acquire through discussions with friends and the reading of instructive books. He was meditating, on this eve of a solemn religious festival, over his doings of the past fortnight, and was so deeply absorbed in this pursuit that he failed to notice how a snowflake got into the room and changed into a small imp. A man examining himself resembles Narcissus and a fly stuck in a jar of honey as well.

With his eyes closed, Ivan Ivanovich tried to recall to his mind a picture he had recently seen in an illustrated periodical. It represented a huge octopus. “That,” reflected our pensive friend, “bears exactly on my own case. All my life I have been the victim of an octopus sucking out the essence of my soul. I do my utmost to free myself from the monster, to overcome my evil passions; but again and again I am seized by those dreadful tentacles, and drawn into vile debauches, where a man forgets every decent instinct and turns into a beast. I ought really to exert all my will and all my brain to develop into a perfect man. I ought to make a bold fight for my individuality. Yes, I really ought to. But, instead, what have I been doing this last fortnight? Three masked balls—a woman—beautiful, Lord! how beautiful! But still she is somebody else’s wife—a woman on whom I have no claim. Well, let me see, though. Hm—yes, I have a sort of claim. After all, Yegor being an old friend of mine, quite an intimate friend, and she being married to him—now that ought to make some difference. It ought to make my—ah—error not quite so—not quite so—pronounced. At any rate, it’s a good thing I always acknowledge my own faults; it gives me a better opinion of myself—raises me in my own estimation, as it were—which is highly gratifying. But, the devil take it! why can’t I tear those unruly passions out of my heart?”

“You might try,” he heard a voice observe, in a polite, pleasant tone. “If you would allow me, I might perhaps assist you.”

Ivan Ivanovich looked up, and quaked. One always quakes at the sight of a demon.

“I beg your pardon,” he addressed the visitor; “I was not aware you had come in. If I am not mistaken, I have the honor of speaking to——”

“Yes, precisely; and I beg you will not let me disturb you,” interposed the imp.

“Ah, indeed! and—hm—what may it be that procures me the pleasure of your visit?”

“I merely happened to be passing by. This is Twelfth Night, you know, when all we poor devils are kicked out from everywhere. It’s foggy and damp out-of-doors; in fact, we are having a bad winter this year; and you being known to me as a humane person——”

Ivan Ivanovich was embarrassed. He had never taken the existence of infernal spirits very seriously.

“I—I’m—ah—delighted!” said he, with a faint smile. “Perhaps you are not quite comfortably seated on the window-sill. Permit me to——”

“Oh, pray don’t apologize! Like yourself, I am used to adapting myself to any sort of situation, however undesirable it may be.”

“Very obliging, I’m sure,” said Ivan Ivanovich, while observing to himself how amiable the visitor was.

“You were expressing a wish, were you not, to change your heart in some way?”

“I was. You see, in spite of the great march of the human intellect, one occasionally finds oneself rather weak when assailed by one’s passions. But excuse me: if I understood you rightly, you—ah—offered me your assistance in this—this particular enterprise.”

“I certainly did, and repeat that it will be a privilege to afford you my help.”

“But would that not be contrary to your—hm—nature?”

“Dear me, Ivan Ivanovich!” exclaimed the devil, as he let his arms dangle to and fro, “do you think I am not tired of my nature?”

“Perhaps so.”

“Of course it’s so! A man, too, in time gets tired of doing nothing but evil, and sometimes even repents.”

“What if I accepted his offer?” soliloquized the other. “He has the power to do anything, and could make me morally perfect. How astonished my friends would be!”

“Well, you seem to have scruples,” remarked the demon.

“Hm—you see, I fancy the operation must be extremely painful.”

“Only to those who have stern hearts, those who are inflexible.”

“And what about me?”

“You—pardon me, I speak as a physician might—you have a pulpy, flaccid sort of heart, something like an over-ripe radish. If I were to remove the passions which incommode you from your heart, you would feel like a hen having feathers pulled out of her tail.”

Ivan Ivanovich pondered the matter for some time, and then resumed:

“Allow me a question: In return for this service, do you ask for my soul?”

The devil jumped down from the window-sill, began scraping the floor violently with his hoofs, and ejaculated:

“Your soul? Oh, no—not at all, I assure you! Why, what should I do with your soul, my dear sir? I mean—I beg your pardon—what use would it be to me? No, really, I assure you!”

Ivan Ivanovich observed that the devil was quite excited and annoyed.

“I only asked because I thought it was the custom.”

“So it was, a long time ago, when we could get healthy, strong souls.”

“Am I to infer that you have a poor opinion of mine?”

“Oh, certainly not! But I am asking for no remuneration at present. And then, of course, you will acknowledge my interest in a perfect individual.”

“Indeed? And—and you say the operation would be neither painful—nor—nor—dangerous?”

“Be easy on that point, my dear sir. You will have absolutely nothing to sacrifice through reaching perfection by my assistance. If you agree, I might take something out of your heart just by way of trial.”


“That’s capital, now! Tell me, what feeling is it that troubles you most?”

The patient of the infernal physician reflected. It is difficult to decide which of one’s passions one would be most willing to expel. At last he replied:

“Let us begin with the least conspicuous.”

“All the same to me. What is your disorder, then?”

Another silence. Although Ivan Ivanovich was an adept at self-inspection, or because that very process tended to internal chaos, he could make nothing out of the actual state of his heart. It was all muddle and confusion. However much he probed, he could not find a single positive, direct emotion with an independent, uncolored existence. Meanwhile the proposition came from the other side:

“Supposing we remove ambition from your heart. You have little of that, I believe?”

“Very well,” came the reluctant answer; “pull it out.”

The imp approached him and touched his breast with his hand, which he withdrew sharply. Ivan Ivanovich experienced a vivid yet not unpleasant twinge, analogous to that accompanying the extraction of a splinter from one’s finger.

“Why, that scarcely hurt at all!” he exclaimed, in a tone of relief. “Will you please let me look at my ambition?”

The devil held out his hand. On it lay a minute, crumpled-up object, in color and texture very much like a rag long in use for wiping dust off furniture. Its former possessor gazed at it, and sighed. “When I remember,” said he, “that it is really a piece of my heart, I feel sorry for it.”

“Would you not like me to pull out your compassion?”

“But how am I to do without it?”

“What use is it to you?”

“Well, it—it gives one a comforting—ah—pleasant sort of sensation, you know.”

“What about malice, then?”

“Oh! out with it, by all means! To the devil with it! I beg your pardon—I didn’t mean—I——”

“No, not at all—don’t apologize.” And the minister of darkness once more touched the breast of the mortal, who again felt the same kind of twinge. And, as before, the devil held something resembling a rag in his hand. Only it diffused a rancid smell.

“So that is what my malice looks like?”

“There is a considerable mixture of cowardice in it.”

“You don’t say so! But tell me, why are my emotions so flabby?”

“Made that way,” replied the fiend, as he contemptuously flung a bit of the heart into a corner.

“I am beginning to feel quite peculiar,” the patient went on.


“I feel lighter, easier, about the chest.”

“Shall we continue with the operation?”

“Yes, certainly.”

“What else is the matter with you?”

“Oh, all sorts of things! All the usual things.”

“Anger, for instance?”

“Of course—yes. Anger—well—I mean—it’s not only that, but there is also nervousness, irritability, an uncertain state of temper.”

“Shall I take it out?”

“If you please. But I must beg you to be careful. You see, things are rather mixed up inside me. Now, while you were taking out my malice, I experienced a sensation like shame.”

“Natural enough,” was the satanic comment. “Even I blush for you at the sight of your feelings. You keep your heart in very bad condition.”

“Is it my fault?” asked Ivan Ivanovich. “A heart is not a set of teeth. You cannot keep it clean with brush and powder.”

“True, true. But do you wish me to go on? Shall I free you from your nervousness?”

“Yes, that would suit me very well.”

When the messenger from below held out his palm for the third time, there lay on it a small spongy lump of indefinite composition. It had no particular shape, sent forth an odor of putridity, and was of double hue: one color was a grayish green, like unripe fruit, the other a greenish brown, like decaying fruit. The demon inspected the quivering, gall-like substance with much curiosity, endeavoring to determine its character. “Now,” said he, “I have taken something out of you, and have no idea what it is. Such treasures as you have garnered up in your heart during your thirty years of life! This specimen would be too much for a chemist. But I assume that now, being relieved of all that muck, you are as pure as an angel. What a prime surgeon I am! I never suspected myself of such proficiency. I congratulate you, my friend, on your clean heart, and on your moral perfection, or whatever you call it. I hope that you have now reached the perfection of perfectibility.” Upon which the devil threw away what he had in his hand.

But Ivan Ivanovich had utterly collapsed. There he sat, weak, limp, doubled up, as though there was not a single bone in his body, his mouth agape, and an expression of unspeakable bliss fixed on his face, such as may frequently be observed on the countenances of born idiots.

“Don’t you hear me?” asked the imp.


“What is the matter with you?”


“Do you feel anything queer?”


“Are you ill?”


“Why,” exclaimed the evil spirit, “this is like magic! I wonder if I have actually pulled his whole substance out of him?—Listen to me, I say!”


“Astonishing! Nothing left but a few feeble sounds without any meaning! What shall I do with him?” And he tapped Ivan Ivanovich on the chest, the result being a dull rumble, as of an empty barrel.

“So this is a perfect man! Well, well—poor creature! Quite void—quite hollow! I had no idea he was so full of badness. But the question is, What can be done with him now?”

The devil became absorbed in thought, while continuing to gaze upon the settled smile of transfiguration proper to one whose aim was reached.

“Aha!” suddenly ejaculated the imp, “I know! A fine inspiration! And it will please my friends too. First, I’ll hang up this specimen of perfection to dry, and then I’ll shake some peas into it. That will make a nice rattle for the small fry at home to play with.”

Whereupon the devil lifted Ivan Ivanovich from the chair, folded him up, clapped him under his arm, and vanished into the night.