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To understand the story it is important to know a bit more about the setting - historically and culturally. The story is set in a time just after feudalism was abandoned. Feudalism was a way of ordering society which mean that peasants were nothing more than slaves to their landlords. Peasants could be traded and were not allowed to buy property. Tolstoy wrote this story 25 years after the emancipation of the peasants. Tolstoy was a reformer who aggressively campaigned for the amelioration of conditions for peasants, and so obviously he did not wish a return into the state of bondage for the peasants. However, this parable allows him to explore the question of the peasants' progress and whether the peasants truly were better off for their freedom and the ability to buy land. A key quote in the story that can be viewed as relating to this theme is "Loss and gain are brothers twain". Any change can bring both good and bad to a group, Tolstoy seems to be suggesting, and with a rather black humour he establishes this in the case of the peasants.
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