Master and Man Essay - Critical Essays

Leo Tolstoy

Khozyain I rabotnik, Leo Tolstoy


Khozyain I rabotnik Leo Tolstoy

The following entry presents criticism concerning Tolstoy's short novel Khozyain I rabotnik (Master and Man; 1895). For additional coverage of Tolstoy's short fiction, see SSC, Vols. 9 and 30.

The novella Master and Man is considered one of the more notable works from the later stage of Tolstoy's illustrious literary career. Critics often compare it to his earlier classic story, Smert Ivana Illyicha (The Death of Ivan Ilych; 1886), in that both short novels are concerned with protagonists facing impending death and undergoing a profound spiritual transformation.

Plot and Major Characters

The protagonist of Master and Man is Brekhunov, a dishonest country merchant living in nineteenth-century Russia. Brekhunov is both egocentric and materialistic, character traits that contrast dramatically with the artless and instinctual behavior of his servant Nikita. After a local festival, Brekhunov is anxious to pursue a lucrative business deal in another town. The two men depart together and soon encounter a bizarre, apocalyptic snowstorm. They reach shelter, but Brekhunov insists on continuing the journey in pursuit of his business arrangement. After hours of frustrated attempts to reach another shelter, Nikita accepts his ineluctable fate and lies down to die; after which Brekhunov experiences a revelatory moment as he confronts and rejects the hollow values of his past, and comprehends the finality of death. Consequently, he saves Nikita's life by sacrificing his own.

Major Themes

In Master and Man Tolstoy explores the effects imminent death has on a man's perceptions of his own life, and how this parley with death can be a revelatory occurrence. The spiritual crisis and epiphany seen in Master and Man, a result of the intimate encounter with death, fosters a numinous redemption for Brekhunov as he rejects his former, corrupt values and sacrifices his own worldly existence. The story also underscores class differences, as the two men's social standing informs their reaction to the crisis: Nikita, the servant, humbly accepts his fate; Brekhunov, the master, attempts to command his own destiny. When Brekhunov confronts death and accepts its utter inevitability, he embraces a master greater than the self. Another significant theme in Master and Man is the mastery of God or Nature: whereas the fantastic and omnipotent snowstorm renders the two capable men virtually blind and impotent—symbolizing the protagonist Brekhunov's plight as a man spiritually bereft, lost in a tempest of superficial and corrupt meanings—there is an ultimate redemption.

Critical Reception

Critically, Tolstoy's works are generally divided into an early period, before he wrote his major novels Voina I mir (War and Peace; 1869) and Anna Karenina (1877), and a later period, the works of which were influenced by the moral and spiritual crisis Tolstoy experienced in the late 1870s. Commentators perceive Master and Man as one of Tolstoy's finest works of this latter stage. While many critics acknowledge the emotional power of the story, others complain that Brekhunov's transformation is too sudden to be credible. Some commentators emphasize the parallels between Brekhunov's conversion and that of Ivan Ilych's, the dying protagonist of Tolstoy's novella The Death of Ivan Ilych. The correspondence of Master and Man to Tolstoy's own life is also a rich area of literary scholarship, as critics trace autobiographical aspects of the story to the author's own spiritual transformation late in life. The religious symbolism and biblical allusions in the short novel are other commonly analyzed motifs by critics and scholars.

Principal Works

Detstvo [Childhood] 1852

Otrochestvo [Boyhood] 1854

Sevastopolskiye rasskazy 2 vols. 1855-56

Yunost [Youth] 1857

Semeinoe schaste [Family Happiness] 1859

Kazaki [The Cossacks] 1863

Polikushka [Polikouchka] 1863

Smert Ivana Illyicha [The Death of Ivan Ilych] 1886

Kreitserova sonata [The Kreutzer Sonata] 1890

Khozyain I rabotnik [Master and Man] 1895

Otetz sergii [Father Sergius] 1898

The Novels and Other Works of Leo N. Tolstoi 22 vols. (novels, novellas, short stories, dramas, essays, and sketches) 1899-1902

Khadzhi Murat [Hadji Murád] 1911

L.N. Tolstoi: polnoe sobranie proizvedenie. 90 vols. (novels, novellas, short stories, dramas, essays, and sketches) 1928-58

Short Stories 1968

Voina I mir [War and Peace] (novel) 1869

Anna Karenina (novel) 1877

Ispoved [A Confession] (essay) 1882

V chiom moya vera [What I Believe] (essay) 1884

Vlast tmy [The Dominion of Darkness] (drama) 1888

Plody prosvesh cheniya [The Fruits of Enlightenment] (drama) 1889

Chto takoe iskusstvo [What Is Art?] (essay) 1898

Voskresenie [Resurrection] (novel) 1899

Tolstoy's Letters 2 vols. (letters) 1978


Bookman (review date 1895)

SOURCE: A review of Master and Man, in Bookman, Vol. 1, No. 6, July, 1895, pp. 409-10.

[In the following laudatory review of Tolstoy's story, the critic deems Master and Man “beautiful in conception, so masterly in development, so skillfully delicate in workmanship.”]

Tolstoy has warm admirers who could only under severe compulsion read The Kingdom of God is Within You, just as he has others who read War and Peace and Anna Karénina, in the rather vain hopes of extracting a gospel from them. The former had grown to think that the vein they valued was completely worked out; but the inventive faculty and the power of scenic representation, when they are as strong as they were in Tolstoy, are not easily exhausted or weakened. In his case an absorbing mission, and perhaps some ascetic principles, have had far more to do with the arrest of his artistic career than any decay of genius. The proof is, that now and again in his later peasant stories, written purposely for an uncultured audience, the old strength and beauty of phrase and incident refuse to be suppressed. Notably is this so in Master and Man; and surely we may be allowed to rejoice freely at the reappearance of the earlier Tolstoy. After all, next to life we learn most from art. Precept and homily have not half its reach. And the best reason for rejoicing he himself involuntarily provides. As a story-writer he is a fastidious artist; none more eager to search for the word, or, at least, the circumstance that will produce the desired effect on our imagination; there is nothing casual or haphazard in word or arrangement. He has plainly loved his imaginings, and tended them till they have become fair. In his books of precept, on the other hand, in spite of their striking thought, the form is as careless, and often as unsatisfactory as it could be. Unconsciously, and against his will, he has himself apportioned the respective values to be set on his two orders of books.


(The entire section is 840 words.)

N. K. Mikhaylovsky (essay date 1904)

SOURCE: “Master and Man and The Death of Ivan Ilych,” in Critical Essays on Tolstoy, edited by Edward Wasiolek, G. K. Hall & Co., 1986, pp. 175-79.

[In the following essay, initially published in 1904, Mikhaylovsky contrasts Tolstoy's approach to death in The Death of Ivan Ilych and Master and Man.]

How does one preserve life without the thought of death that poisons one's existence? How does one burn out, destroy this fear of death that, as we have seen, “is put into everyone?” This is Tolstoy's main task lately. Although it concerned him before, now he is exclusively concerned with it, and all his writings are merely peripheral to it,...

(The entire section is 2310 words.)

Leo Shestov (essay date 1932)

SOURCE: “The Last Judgment: Tolstoy's Last Works,” in Tolstoy: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1967, pp. 157-72.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1932, Shestov summarizes the plot and outlines the major themes of Master and Man.]

Many people, in the effort to calm themselves and dissipate the uneasiness which seizes them on reading Tolstoy's works, have thought to explain his struggles and his wild outbursts as the result of his fear of death. They think that such an explanation would free them once and for all from every difficulty and would also re-establish in their old strength the solutions which he had rendered null and void....

(The entire section is 4702 words.)

Elizabeth Trahan (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: “L. N. Tolstoj's Master and Man—A Symbolic Narrative,” in Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 7, No. 3, 1963, pp. 258-68.

[In the following essay, Trahan explores the symbolism in Master and Man, contending, “even a superficial reading reveals a certain mysterious, magic quality which suggests additional dimensions.”]

In his essay What is Art? (1897), Tolstoj rejects contemporary art as involved, affected and obscure (Ch. X). He attacks the French Symbolists for their incomprehensibility (ibid.) and heaps ridicule on Richard Wagner for his use of myths and leitmotifs (Ch. XIII). Good art, Tolstoj suggests, must express...

(The entire section is 5630 words.)

Ernest J. Simmons (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: “Later Short Novels,” in Introduction to Tolstoy's Writings, University of Chicago Press, 1968, pp. 146-53.

[In the following excerpt, Simmons regards Master and Man as a successful embodiment of Tolstoy's ideal of religious art.]


In addition to the short story, Tolstoy also devoted a substantial amount of creative effort, after War and Peace and Anna Karenina, to that longer type of fiction which he had attempted in his earlier period—the short novel. Though they vary a great deal in length, no one of them could properly be regarded as either a short story or a novel. For like the earlier short novels, each...

(The entire section is 2225 words.)

John Hagan (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: “Detail and Meaning in Tolstoy's Master and Man,” in Criticism, Vol. 11, Winter, 1969, pp. 31-58.

[In the following essay, Hagan analyzes the religious symbolism found in Master and Man to better understand Tolstoy's artistic method.]

Though Master and Man (1895) has long been generally recognized, together with The Death of Ivan Ilych, Father Sergius, and Hadji Murad, as one of the masterpieces of Tolstoy's third period of authorship, close study of its artistic methods has only begun. Turning as it does (in accord with Tolstoy's favorite device of antithesis) on an obvious contrast between two types of men and two...

(The entire section is 12379 words.)

T. G. S. Cain (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: “The Fruits of Conversion,” in Tolstoy, Elek Books Ltd., 1977, pp. 154–64.

[In the following excerpt, Cain offers a thematic and stylistic overview of Master and Man and compares it to The Death of Ivan Ilych.]

Though they too deal with conversion, the accession of illuminating insight as to the true meaning of life and death, the stories of Ivan Ilyich and of the dealer Brekhunov in Master and Man are altogether more convincing than is that of Pozdnyshev. Together, they represent the peak of Tolstoy's achievement in this group of stories and novels: more incisive and much more carefully made than the longer but uneven Resurrection,...

(The entire section is 4457 words.)

Michael Henry Heim (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: “Master and Man: Three Deaths Redivivus,” in American Contributions to the Eighth International Congress of Slavists, Volume 2: Literature, edited by Victor Terras, Slavica Publishers, 1978, pp. 260-70.

[In the following essay, Heim perceives Master and Man as a reworking of Tolstoy's earlier work, Three Deaths.]

Tolstoj's stories Three Deaths [Tri smerti, 1859] and Master and Man [Xozjain i rabotnik, 1895] stand equidistant from the years of his “conversion” and the autobiographical Confession [Ispoved', 1879]. In many respects Master and Man is a reworking of its predecessor....

(The entire section is 4612 words.)

Richard F. Gustafson (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: “The Way to Love,” in Leo Tolstoy, Resident and Stranger: A Study in Fiction and Theology, Princeton University Press, 1986, pp. 197–202.

[In the following excerpt, Gustafson considers the autobiographical nature of Master and Man.]

The perfect type of Tolstoy's fiction is Master and Man. This late (1895) narrative is an emblematic journey of discovery and a parable of the way to love. Vasily Andreevich Brekhunov, a “local merchant of the second guild,” is the one who thinks he is the master (i). He is in a most profound sense, therefore, a liar and a braggart. His name (brekhun) suggests both. He “boasts to himself and rejoices in...

(The entire section is 2724 words.)

Further Reading


Noyes, George Rapall. Tolstoy. 1918. Reprint. New York: Dover Publications, 1968, 395 p.

Examines Tolstoy's multifaceted body of literature, offering biographical information pertaining to his short fiction.


Andreyev, Nikolay. Introduction to Master and Man, and Other Parables and Tales, pp. v-xvi. London: Everyman's Library, 1958.

Surveys the defining characteristics of Tolstoy's short fiction.

Additional coverage of Tolstoy's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 104,...

(The entire section is 115 words.)