Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The Snow-Storm” is based on an actual event from Tolstoy’s life. While traveling in the Caucasus in 1854, Tolstoy became lost and had to spend the night in a snowstorm. He gives a fictional account of his ordeal in the present story two years later.

“The Snow-Storm” is Tolstoy’s Russian version of the classical mythic theme of exile and travel. The story is very topical and specific in regard to time and place. Nevertheless, the narrator, whose experiences the story describes, can be seen as a kind of universal hero or Everyman. The journey thus becomes life; the snowstorm, life’s unpredictable mortal dangers that must be faced. Tolstoy goes on to elaborate the conceit on a symbolic level. The powerful snowstorm begins suddenly and without warning. It is a force of nature against which a human being, alone or in congregation, becomes vulnerable. It is sheer good fortune that permits one person to survive while another perishes. This is why Tolstoy has the characters in the story exhibit a kind of Oriental fatalism toward the snowstorm and the danger it represents. Like so many implacable, impersonal misfortunes to which human beings are subject, the snowstorm renders philosophy and religion, as well as human strength and cunning, useless at a moment of great peril.

Russian snowstorms have a special place in Tolstoy’s writings. They are frequently used by Tolstoy as a symbol of the elemental, powerful, and uncontrollable force of nature. Unlike his Romantic precursors, however, Tolstoy does not imbue the storm with any sentimental or poetic significance. His approach is realistic, almost scientific. The snowstorm is for Tolstoy but another meteorological phenomenon, characteristic of Russia and other places with similar winter seasons. The accuracy and descriptive power of the young Tolstoy are noteworthy and typical for his whole literary career.