Introduction

(Short Story Criticism)

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.