Bookman (review date 1895)

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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.

Master and Man begins in the dryest, most literal fashion, describing two commonplace persons, one a sordid country merchant, whose soul only stirs when he outwits a customer; the other, a ground-down, poverty-stricken peasant, a drunkard with fits of sour repentance. They take a winter journey together in a sledge, and get lost. The account of their wanderings and adventures is in its way masterly. But you are probably beginning to think you have had enough of their company—the tone and description being rigidly kept at their level, and their minds are not very lively—when the catastrophe occurs. While the deadly sleep is creeping over them they have each their own fears and visions. As a man knows his own heart best by his dreams, so these two different human hearts are revealed to us by theirs—the selfish, greedy man with his hopes still on gain, the overdriven peasant with desire for rest. Then Vassili the master makes a great effort for life, deserting the now unconscious Nikita; and if ever the terror of a desperate man in a wilderness of night and snow could be adequately suggested to the imagination, it is suggested here—by the simplest means, too. The dark spot, which might be a sheltering house, turning into a black strip of reeds, all whistling and bending before the merciless storm; the horse's tracks speaking of hope till they are discovered to be his own, and prove him to have been travelling in a circle: a few such glimpses in a short page or...

(This entire section contains 840 words.)

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two keep the man's desperate case fast and vivid in our imaginations. Then comes the climax, or rather the revelation of the motive of the story. A central and sublime belief in the religion which Tolstoy literally accepts, declares that the soul, in great moments, by divine intervention, is made better than itself—a doctrine contradicted by our daily common life of sordid disappointments, but which a wider human experience, reaching beyond Christendom, faithfully corroborates. So Vassili, of the petty bargaining past, who, if a to-morrow were still granted him, would again overreach his neighbours and chuckle at his cleverness—Vassili goes back to Nikita, clasps him in his arms, wraps him in his coat, and gives him all his warmth. Thoughts and dreams crowd on him for long. “He remembered his money, his shop, his house, his buying, and his sales, and the Mironoff millions, and could not understand why the man they called Vassili Andreïtch Brekhunoff had worried over what he had worried over. … And he felt that he was free, and nothing further held him back. And these were the last things that Vassili Andreïtch saw, heard, and felt in this world.”

Perhaps with the death of the master and the comparative safety of Nikita the tale should have ended. But we will not perversely seek for an artistic defect in a story so beautiful in conception, so masterly in development, so skilfully delicate in workmanship.

N. K. Mikhaylovsky (essay date 1904)

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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, connecting the various points of his outlook with this fear of death at its center.

All of his discussions of physical labor, about “harness,” pure air of the fields and woods, and other hygienic features of his moral doctrine belong here in the first place. However these things merely guarantee health and longevity, death is only postponed, while still remaining the dreadful, inevitable end. Couldn't it be made at least not so dreadful? For this there is a prescription, already worked out to perfection by the buddhists: without repudiating life, one must reduce its budget as much as possible, so that when one reaches the inevitable end, one can pass without fear and regret into that area of nirvana, which, strictly speaking, is neither life nor death. If this is so, then the end may be not only free of fear but not even inevitable. I refuse to follow the fantastic leap of thought or the just as fantastic crawl of the willowy syllogisms with which Tolstoy arrives at the conclusion that the right kind of life will preserve us from death. I will merely remind the reader of the ending of the Death of Ivan Ilych. This ending is, artistically, an unpleasant blot on the story—to such a degree it is arbitrary, unmotivated, lacking in that bright and pitilessly authentic realism Tolstoy is justly famous for. Ivan Ilych didn't do anything particularly bad, but lived his entire life as a limp, shallow egotist and, having fallen ill, began to suffer from the fear of death. But just before the very end, having realized that his wife and son are really feeling sorry for him, becomes imbued with pity and love himself.

And suddenly it became clear to him that what had been oppressing him and would not leave him was all coming out suddenly, and from both sides, from ten sides, and from all sides. He felt sorry for them, felt the need to do something so that they would not suffer; to free them, and himself as well, from this suffering. “How nice and how simple,” he thought. “And the pain?” he queried himself, “Where shall I put it?” “So, where are you, pain?”

He turned his attention to it.

“Ah, here it is. Well, what of it? Let the pain be.”

“And death? Where is it?”

He was looking for his former habitual fear of death and could not find it. “Where is it? What death?” There was no fear, because there was no death. Instead of death there was light.

“So that's what it is!” he suddenly said out loud. “What joy!”

I think that this exclamation “What joy!” must strike any artistically somewhat sensitive person as a dissonant note that pains the ear. And if such a great artist like Tolstoy introduced this false chord into his story, then it must have been because he was so very eager to show that death may not be so dreadful after all, that it may not even exist. He is trying to console us as well as himself here. We appreciate it, of course. We thank him, particularly, for saying that in order to conquer the fear of death one needs to practice not just Buddhist asceticism but love, active love, love in the form of good deeds, even though this love might have been presented as having another, more solid and less speculative basis.

Ivan Ilych didn't do anything very bad, he lived more or less like everybody: went to work, played cards, went visiting, and had people come to his house, had a wife and a son with whom he more or less got along. But it was only at the very end that a spark of real love ignited in him that hitherto had had almost no chance to express itself in a good deed. But even that was enough to free Ivan Ilych from the fear of death and make him partake of a joyous death, even an absence of death. In this new story, Master and Man, Tolstoy apparently makes a considerably greater demand upon one of his protagonists in terms of active love.

I said earlier that the new story reminds one of Tolstoy's peak years of literary production. One newspaper account even had it that “this story is a masterpiece even among the works of the famous writer himself.” This, I believe, is going a little too far. The same paper asserted that the story was “almost four signatures long.” This is not true: the story is less than two and a half signatures long, and if in reading it someone has felt that it was almost twice as long, then we have here a clear indication of one of the shortcomings of Tolstoy's new work: it is stretched too much with numerous and unnecessary details. It does remind one of Tolstoy's peak years, but that's all it does. The inner suspense of the story is concentrated in the last two chapters, which I shall quote here fully, especially since they are, artistically, the best too. As already mentioned, the master and man went in winter to take care of the master's pretty ordinary, everyday, yet not quite clean business, typical of the sort of man he was. To conduct this business the master, a well fed, rich, self-satisfied peasant-businessman and sweatshop owner who, by the way, was also a church warden, took along a sum of 2,300 rubles belonging to the church. Along the way they got lost and, after a number of misadventures, the man realized that he was freezing to death and was about to submit uncomplainingly to the will of the higher power. Meanwhile the selfish master decided to leave him to perish, while he himself rode away on horseback wherever the horse would take him. But the horse, after having circled aimlessly a few times, brought him back to the same place where his man was slowly freezing to death in the sleigh. In order to get warm, he lies down on the man's body and warms him up in this way. In his own terminal delirium he imagines that:

And he lay on the bed, still unable to rise, waiting, and the waiting filled him with dread and also with joy. And suddenly his joy was complete: the one he was waiting for came, and it was not the policeman, Ivan Matveich, but someone else, but it was the one he was waiting for. He came and is calling him, and the one who is calling him is the same one who told him to lie on top of Nikita. And Vasilii Andreich is glad that this someone has come for him. “I'm coming!” he shouts joyfully. And his own shout wakes him up …

And he wakes up, but now he is a different person from who he was when he fell asleep. He wants to get up but can't; wants to move his arm, and can't; his leg, too, would not move. He wants to turn his head, and can't do that either. And he feels surprise but is not in the least worried about this. He understands that this is death, but this does not worry him in the least either. He understand that Nikita is lying underneath him and that he is now warm and alive, and it begins to seem to him that he himself is Nikita, and Nikita is him, and that his own life is now not in him but in Nikita. He strains his hearing and hears Nikita breathing, even snoring faintly. “Nikita is alive, therefore I am alive too,” he says triumphantly to himself. And something quite new, a feeling that he never knew all his life, is now descending upon him.

And he remembers all about his money, his shop, his house, buying and selling, and the Mironov millions, and he is now at a loss to understand why this man whom they call Vasilii Brekhunov used to do all those things he was doing. “Well, he did not really know what was what, that's why,” he thought about Vasilii Brekhunov. He didn't, but now I know. I know for sure that I know now. And again he hears the one who is calling him, and his whole being responds joyfully, “Coming, coming!” And he feels that he is now free and that nothing keeps him back any more.

And indeed, Vasilii Andreich neither saw nor heard nor felt anything any more in this world.

But Nikita died only this year—at home, as he wished, lying below the icons and with a burning wax candle in his hands. Before he died he asked forgiveness of his wife, and forgave her her affair with the cooper; he also took leave of his son and his grandchildren, and died, genuinely glad that his death relieves his son and daughter-in-law of the need to feed an extra mouth, and that now he really was passing from this wearisome life into that other life which with each passing year and hour had become for him more and more comprehensible and attractive. Is he better or worse off in that place where he awoke after this his real death? Was he disappointed, or did he find there whatever he expected? That we shall all soon know.

So there we have two more deaths (not counting the horse) in Tolstoy's rich collection. The master's death strongly reminds one of the death of St. Julian the Hospitalier in a well known legend by Flaubert, translated by Turgenev. St. Julian, too, lies down on a dying man in order to warm him, and, dying himself, also feels “an abundance of happiness, a superhuman joy.” In his terminal delirium the person of the leper whom he was warming, also fuses with the higher being who, admittedly, does not call on St. Julian to join him but directly carries him off into the wide blue yonder. The master is not guilty of any of those terrible sins and evil deeds that burden St. Julian's soul, but on the other hand, St. Julian atones for his sins by years of achievement, and his final selfless deed is merely the last link in a chain, which lends the story a naturalness insofar as this is possible in a legend. The master, on the other hand, did not spill any blood, like St. Julian, nor did he kill his parents, yet he was a crook and probably responsible for the ruination of dozens of people in order to advance his own well being. Let us say, all this can be atoned for by his last minutes, but it seems to me that only one of two things is possible: if the master saved his man unconsciously, inadvertently, hoping to save himself by warming himself with the man's body, then this is hardly a self-sacrifice, and the moral value of the master's last few minutes is not great; but if he really did forget about himself and his only thought was to save the man, then this would seem to be too sudden a turnaround, too unmotivated an act—since only a short time before he was ready to betray and abandon the man to his fate in order to save himself. The “joyous” death that St. Julian earned, the master got as a real bargain: with an almost unconscious and in any case semi-conscious deed, the result of which was a rescue of his fellow man immediately after a heartless deed toward this selfsame fellow man. And yet his deed is somewhat more substantial than the terminal flareup of love in Ivan Ilych. As regards the man, Nikita, here we have an uncomplicated man, hardly a saint, a drunkard, but a goodnatured one, servile and hardworking, nonresistant to evil and completely satisfied with his lot, as opposed to his master who wants more and more money, no one knows why. Nikita knows that besides the “master” in the story he also has another “Master” in heaven, whose will be done. So, these are, then, the two roads that lead to a joyous death. …

As any other work of Tolstoy, his new story lends itself to drawing several conclusions from it, besides the main one concerning death; among others, one may, for example, conclude that it is better to be a man than a master. This conclusion would not be news for Tolstoy. In one of his fairy tales, “Ilias,” the man and his wife, who used to be masters themselves, praise their present status. They say: “For fifty years we were looking for happiness and did not find it, and only now, for the second year that we are left with nothing and live as laborers, have we found real happiness and don't need any other … We used to live from one worry to another, one sin unto another, and saw no happiness in life … Now we get up, chat a little with each other lovingly, always agreeing, have nothing to argue about, nothing to worry. All we need to think about is how to serve the master.” I'm afraid that neither masters nor men will believe Tolstoy.

Leo Shestov (essay date 1932)

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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. This proceeding is not new, but it is effective. Aristotle had already suggested it when, with firm hand, he traced a definite line to mark the limit beyond which human endeavour and inquiry must not go. The ultimate mystery must not be approached, the idea of death must not be allowed to take possession of the human soul.

But Plato taught otherwise. …

Eight years after The Death of Ivan Ilych, Tolstoy wrote Master and Man. These two stories are, in spite of their surface dissimilarity, so intimately connected with one another that they seem to be only variations on a single theme. Since Tolstoy had been forced out of the common way by the terrors which he had described to us in The Diary of a Madman, one single thought, one single problem pursued and obsessed him. If Plato is right in saying philosophers “concern themselves with nothing but dying and death,” … then we must admit that few of our contemporaries have so wholly devoted themselves to philosophy as Tolstoy. Tolstoy begins by describing to us, in these two stories, a man in the ordinary circumstances of existence, circumstances which are well known and universally admitted. Then suddenly, in Master and Man (the catastrophe is even less prepared than in The Death of Ivan Ilych), he transports his characters to that solitude which could not have been more complete in the bowels of the earth or in the depths of the sea. Vassili Andreivich Brekhunov is a “self-made man,” a rich villager, of the corporation of merchants, proud of his intelligence and of the fortune which he has won. He owes nothing to any one but himself, to his own talents, his own energy, for everything that he possesses; and he is, moreover, convinced that he possesses a great many excellent things. He genuinely despises those who have not succeeded in carving out their own path through life; misfortune and incapacity are synonyms in his eyes. He would probably repeat with others: “Trust in God, but look out for yourself,” but in his mouth these words would mean: “God's duty is to help those who do not sit with folded arms.” If he had had a theological education he would have said: Facienti quod in se est Deus infallibiliter dat gratiam, and he would protest against those who affirm that Deum necessitare non posse. But he does not know Latin and expresses the same ideas in Russian with no less emphasis. The man worthy of the name is the one who has the means to make himself beloved of God by his own efforts. Masses, fat wax candles, and all the rest are not for a miserable moujik like the workman Nikita, who earns with difficulty a few kopeks to supply his immediate needs. But he, Vassili Andreivich, can do anything. By his own energy and intelligence he has assured his welfare here below and his eternal salvation above.

The consciousness of his righteousness, indeed of his election, never leaves him. He even cheats with conviction. Two days before the festival which marks the opening of the story, Marfa, the servant Nikita's wife, has come to Vassili Andreivich and has obtained from him white flour, tea, sugar, the eighth of a measure of brandy, three roubles' worth altogether, besides five roubles in money. She has thanked him for all this as though he had done her a special favour, although at the lowest computation he owed Nikita twenty roubles for his work.

“Are we agreed on our bargain?” Vassili Andreivich had said to Nikita: “if you want anything you shall have it from me, and you shall pay me in labour. I am not like others where you must wait, make out bills and then pay fines into the bargain. No, I am a man of honour. You serve me and I will not desert you.” As he spoke thus Vassili Andreivich was quite sincerely convinced that he was Nikita's benefactor, so persuasive were his arguments and so wholeheartedly did all those who depended on him, beginning with Nikita himself, support him in the opinion that, far from exploiting other people, he was loading them with benefits.

Tolstoy insistently underlines this gift which Vassili Andreivich possessed of being able to convince himself and others of his rectitude. It was a precious gift. To it Vassili Andreivich owed the comfort of his position. A few pages later on Tolstoy quotes another example of his talents. He is trying to sell Nikita a worthless horse.

“Well, take the bony horse; I won't charge you much for him,” cried Brekhunov, feeling agreeably excited and joyfully seizing the opportunity to drive a bargain, which he loved of all things.

“Give me fifteen roubles or so instead, it will buy one at the horse fair,” said Nikita, who knew quite well that the bony beast which Vassili Andreivich was trying to pass off on him was worth seven roubles at the outside, and that it would be reckoned against him at twenty-five. He would not see the colour of his money again for many a long day.

“It is a good horse. I want your good as well as my own. Word of honour! Brekhunov deceives no one. I would rather lose on the bargain myself. I am not like others. I give you my word that the horse is a good one,” he cried in the special tone which he used in order to talk over and deceive buyers or sellers.

Brekhunov, as we have seen from these extracts, was no ordinary man. Being a merchant, he could only make use of his great powers over himself and others for a modest end, bargaining. But if fate had seen fit to put him in a more exalted position, if he had had the necessary education, his voice, which was now only used to confuse his fellow merchants in their ideas, to deceive buyers and sellers, would certainly have been used for other purposes. Who knows to what he might not have persuaded the masses which he could then have addressed? The secret of talent lies in the ability to work upon men. Conversely, success, general approbation, is the atmosphere which talent needs for its development. Crowds need leaders, but leaders also need crowds.

Tolstoy knew this; the hero of his story was no ordinary character; he had a powerful will and a clear intelligence, in his own way he was a genius. Such is the personality which Tolstoy will now tear out of his natural setting and put abruptly into the midst of new conditions, facing him with the absolute solitude which we have already met in Ivan Ilych.

Nikita goes out with Brekhunov and together they are caught in a snowstorm. But Nikita's agony in the snow is of no interest either to Tolstoy or to us. Perhaps Brekhunov is right when he prepares to abandon his faithful servant and says: “It doesn't matter to him whether he dies or not. What was his life like? He won't regret his life. But I, thanks be to God, I still have something to live for!” Nikita prepares to die as he has lived, peacefully, with that calm submission which, losing itself in the grey uniformity of the surrounding world and obeying eternal laws, makes no particular individual impression which can be seized and retained in the mind of the observer. Tolstoy himself cannot guess at what happens in Nikita's mind when life ceases and death begins in it under the snow which covers him. Perhaps this is why Nikita lives and Brekhunov dies. Tolstoy wanted to confront life with death; but a rich life, full to the brim, confident in itself and its sacred rights and without even a suspicion that an implacable enemy infinitely stronger than itself is watching it at every turn. Even when it turns out that master and man have lost their way and that they will have to pass the night buried under the snow, Brekhunov will not admit that his reason and his talents, which have already got him out of so many difficult situations, will betray him now; that in a few hours his stiffened hands will let fall the potestas clavium, which gave him the proud right to look upon the future with the same confidence as the present.

This is what he is thinking of while Nikita, in his thin clothes, drowses under the falling snow and tries to protect his shivering body against the raging of the bitter wind. Brekhunov is warmly clad, as yet he does not feel the cold, and from past experience is confident he never will.

“… What did we possess in my father's time? Nothing much; he was no more than a rich peasant. An inn, a farm; that was all. And I, what have I collected in fifteen years? A shop, two inns, a mill, barns for grain, two farm properties, a house and its outbuildings all under iron roofs.” He thought of all that with pride. “It is quite different from my father's time. Who is now famous throughout the whole district? Brekhunov! And why? Because I never lose sight of business. I work. I am not like others who are always sleeping or else running their heads into some foolishness or other.”

Brekhunov continues for a long time to sing the praises of these reasonable, active principles, the source of all “good” on earth. And I repeat: if Brekhunov had received a superior education, he would have been capable of writing an excellent philosophical or theological treatise, which would have made him famous, not only in his own district but throughout all Russia and Europe.

But here we come to the second part of the story, where an unexpected reality suddenly supervenes and affords the critique of this treatise which Brekhunov might have written.

In the middle of this reasoning Brekhunov began to doze.

But he suddenly felt a shock and awoke. Whether it was that the horse had tugged at a few straws from behind his head, or whether it was the effect of some internal uneasiness, he suddenly awoke and his heart began to beat so violently and quickly that it seemed as though the whole sledge were trembling beneath him.

This was the beginning of a whole series of events of which Brekhunov had no suspicion in spite of his long life, his powerful intelligence, and his rich experience. Around him was the boundless plain, boundless, at least, to him, and snow, cold, and wind, Nikita, already numbed by the cold, and the shivering horse. He felt unreasonable but insistent and overmastering terror. “What to do? What to do?” This is the regular question which every man asks when he finds himself in a difficult situation. It presents itself to Brekhunov, but this time it seems completely absurd. Hitherto, the question had always held the elements of its own answer, it had at least always shown him the possibility of an answer. But this time it held nothing of the sort. The question excluded all possibility of an answer; there was nothing to be done.

Brekhunov was no coward. He had been in many difficult places in his lifetime, and had always been ready to fight any adversary, even one stronger than himself. But his present situation was such that it would have been impossible to imagine anything more terrible. The enemy was formidable and—this was the worst part of it—completely invisible. Against what could he direct his blows? Against whom could he defend himself? Brekhunov's reason could not admit that such a thing was possible.

When they had stopped at Grichkino, an hour earlier, everything had seemed so comfortable, so natural, so easy to understand. One was able to talk, to listen to other people, drink tea, give orders to Nikita, drive the bay. And now there was nothing to be done but to look on and feel oneself freeze. Where is truth, where is reality? Over there at Grichkino, or here on this plain? Grichkino had ceased to exist for ever; must one then doubt the reality of its existence? And with it the reality of the existence of all the old world? Doubt everything? De omnibus dubitandum? But did great Descartes really doubt everything? No, Hume was right: the man who has once doubted all things will never overcome his doubts, he will leave for ever the world common to us all and take refuge in his own particular world. De omnibus dubitandum is useless; it is worse than storm and snow, worse than the fact that Nikita is freezing and that the bay is shivering in the icy wind.

Always so strong, so clear-minded, Brekhunov tries, for the first time in his life, to take refuge in dreams.

He began once more to reckon up his profits, the sums which were due to him. He began to boast to himself again, and to take pleasure in his excellent situation; but at every moment fear slipped into his thoughts and interrupted their pleasant flow. Try as he might to think of nothing but his accounts, his transactions, his revenues, his glory and his wealth, fear little by little took possession of his whole soul.

It will seem strange that Brekhunov, like King Solomon in Ecclesiastes, told over the tale of his riches and his glory. But this was just what Tolstoy wanted, and he knew what he wanted. If the great king himself had been in Brekhunov's place, the situation would not have been changed in any way. Riches and glory added nothing to Brekhunov's strength, nor diminished in any way that of his invisible adversary. For the lowly and humble Nikita it was much easier. “He did not know whether he was dying or whether he was falling asleep, but he was equally ready to do either.”

All his existence, utterly devoid alike of glory and wealth, had accustomed Nikita to the thought that he was not his own master, that he must not ask any one to render him an account, or to explain what was happening. He had never understood anything, and he continued not to understand; there was not much difference. But for Brekhunov it was quite another matter. He was accustomed to being his own master, and to having clear and distinct explanations given him; everything indefinite and indeterminate was intolerable to him. To live in the unknown is to live under a strange power which slays or spares us as it will. Can one have confidence in it? Why should it have mercy on us? It will certainly condemn us. One cannot believe any one or anything, except oneself. And in any case, before believing one must ask cui est credendum—whom shall we believe? You must not be surprised that Brekhunov takes to talking Latin and quoting St. Augustine, for it was certainly no more surprising than everything else which was happening to him.

And Brekhunov, gathering together all his strength for the last time, firmly declared: “I will never believe in this silence, in this forsaken solitude, in the snowstorm, the shivering horse, freezing Nikita, this cold and dreary desert, and this infinite waste.” Reason was still alive within him, and reason which had always taught him what to do would guide him again. There was still some possible answer, although a lying terror was whispering to him that he must yield.

Brekhunov decides to abandon Nikita and take his chance, mounts the horse and goes off in search of the road.

This was undoubtedly a reasonable decision; the only reasonable decision. Was he to die, caught by the cold, like a dog, he, Brekhunov, who for so many years had filled Russia and Europe with the fame of his inns, his house, his barns with their iron roofs?

Brekhunov makes a last, supreme effort to defeat his invisible foe. But what he does, what he is forced to do, in no way resembles what one would call “action”. He urges on his horse, which obeys him docilely, but his strength of mind, in which he had always had so much confidence, now betrays him. Without noticing it, he continually changes the direction of his march. Everything overwhelms him, he is trembling more from fear than from cold now—a quite absurd and unreasonable fear of every tussock which appeared through the snow. To his distracted eyes every outlined object was as a phantom. He suddenly found himself placed in circumstances so contrary to his usual reasonable, positive nature, that everything appeared to him stupid and absurd as in a fairy tale. But where is truth? In that old world, with that old reason where everything is clear and comprehensible, or here? Until now there had been nothing hostile or terrible or mysterious in that tussock or in those dried grasses. They had been subject to man and useful to him. What then, is the force that suddenly takes possession of them? Why do they inspire him with such terror? And not they alone; this immense, mournful desert appears peopled with phantoms who until now, as he had positively known, did not exist and could not exist.

Suddenly a terrible cry rang in his ears and everything trembled and moved beneath him. Vassili Andreivich clung to the neck of his horse, but the neck trembled and the cry rang out again, more terribly still. For a few minutes Vassili Andreivich could not take heart again, could not understand what had happened. But all that had happened was simply that the horse had neighed with all its powerful voice, either to give itself courage or else, perhaps, to call for help. “Oh, curse you,” said Brekhunov, “how you frightened me!” But even when he understood the real cause of his terrors, he did not succeed in overcoming them.

The last chance of safety disappeared, terror invaded his soul and took possession of it. Explanations which had formerly driven away all his doubts and fears were now powerless and brought him no comfort. “One must think, one must be calm,” said Brekhunov to himself; but in vain. He had already crossed the fatal border line, he was cast off for ever from solid earth, where order reigns and laws and methods which have been securely established for the ascertaining of truth. The phantoms with which the desert is peopled will disappear no more, whether or no he succeeds in explaining that the dried grasses are nothing but a vegetable growth and the cry of terror no more than the neighing of his horse. And, moreover, are these descriptions accurate? Has that black bush not got some occult force which had escaped Brekhunov's sagacity until now? …

Brekhunov falls from his horse into a snowdrift, the horse goes on and leaves him alone, utterly alone in the snow. “The forest, the farmsteads, the inns, the house under its iron roof and the barns … will his heir—what,” he thinks, “will become of these? But what is happening? This cannot be.” Suddenly he remembers the tuft of grass which the wind had shaken and which he had passed twice already. “Such a terror invaded him then that he could not believe in the reality of all that was happening to him. He thought, ‘Is not this a dream?’ And tried to awake. But it was not a dream.”

He tried to remember the theories of knowledge which even a few hours earlier had given him the power to distinguish between the real and the visionary, dreams from waking; but these principles, hitherto so clear and definite, had effaced themselves and could no longer guide him. They defined nothing, taught nothing, and could not deliver him. Then he gave up all scientific theories and remembered that he had one last resource left to which he had not resorted until now, having felt no need of it, and having kept it in reserve for a last emergency.

“Queen of Heaven, Holy Father Nicholas, Lord of Renunciation. …” He thought of the Mass, of the ikon with its dark face in the gilded frame, of the candles which he sold for this ikon, the candles which were immediately brought back to him, hardly burnt at all, and which he hid in a drawer of his writing table. Then he began to pray to this same St. Nicholas that he would save him, and promised him a Mass and candles.

But he immediately and very clearly understood that this face, those ornaments, the candles, the priest, the Mass might all be very important, very necessary even, over there in church, but that they could not help him in any way, that there had not been and was not any connection between the candles and the religious ceremonies, and his present situation.

But what does this new reality call to mind? Nothing that Brekhunov knows, except dreams. Brekhunov's powerful and well-balanced understanding can imagine nothing, it feels itself lost in the midst of the dreams which press in on reality, he struggles like a madman and does just the opposite of what could help him. “Only, no confusion! No haste!” He repeats to himself these well-learned and tried rules of reasonable action and methodical search. But his terror grows, and instead of looking for the road, calmly and carefully, according to rule, he begins to run, falls, picks himself up again, falls once more and loses the last remnants of his strength. Thus he arrives, quite by accident, at the sledge where Nikita is lying. There, at first, from old habit, he makes proof of great activity. Then suddenly a complete change comes over him, such as could not have been deduced by any ordinary rules, from his empirical character.

Before Nikita, who, as it seems to him, is about to die, in the face of inevitable death, Brekhunov suddenly resolves to break completely with his past. Whence this decision comes, and what it means, Tolstoy does not explain; and presumably he does well, for the fact admits of no explanation; in other words, we can establish no connection between the force which drives a man towards the unknown, and the facts that we have previously known about him. This break means, in the words of Plato and Plotinus, “a flight from the known,” and any explanation, in so far as it tries to re-establish broken ties, is only the expression of our wish to maintain the man in his former place, to prevent him from accomplishing his destiny.

“Vassili Andreivich,” Tolstoy tells us, “stood for some moments in silence, and then, suddenly, with the same decision with which he used to clinch a successful bargain by a hand-shake, he took a step backwards, rolled up the sleeves of his coat and set about rubbing life back into Nikita's half frozen body.” Can you explain this “sudden” and “suddenly” from which spring the decisions of those who are forsaking the common world? Brekhunov suddenly descends from the height of his glories to warm that worthless peasant Nikita. Is it not an obvious absurdity? But it is still to a certain extent the old Brekhunov; one feels his need to do something, in order not to have to look IT in the face. In the words which he addresses to Nikita we still catch a ring of the old boasting tones, the old self-glorification. Brekhunov still tries instinctively in his old way to escape the inevitable. He is still afraid to let drop from his trembling hands the potestas clavium which obviously no longer belongs to him.

“Ah, there you are! You are all right! … And you talk of dying. Don't get up, keep warm. That's what we do, we cunning ones. …” Vassili Andreivich begins to hold forth. But he could not go on in the same strain. And he was obliged to throw this act, too, overboard. “That's what we do …”—this phrase might have been of some use to him formerly, but now, after the decision of this autocratic “suddenly,” it is of no use at all, even though crowned by supreme self-abnegation. Something else is wanted, something quite different.

To his great astonishment he was unable to go on, for his eyes filled with tears and his lower jaw began to tremble. He stopped talking and could only swallow the lump in his throat. “I have been frightened,” he thought to himself, “and now I am very weak.” But this weakness was not unpleasant; it caused him a peculiar feeling of joy such as he had never previously known.

Brekhunov rejoiced in his weakness; the same Brekhunov who all his life had gloried in his strength, according to the laws of common humanity, persuaded that he was not and could not be happy except in his full strength; and in this conviction he had disputed the potestas clavium, the power to bind and loose, with Heaven itself. This joy which was born of weakness, was the beginning of the miraculous, inconceivable, enigmatic change which we call death. Brekhunov, Tolstoy tells us, tries once more to get back for a moment into the old world; he boasts to someone that he has saved Nikita, that he has sacrificed his life to him; but these abrupt stirrings of the old consciousness, the consciousness of strength, become shorter and shorter and eventually cease altogether. Then there remains in him only the joy of his weakness and his liberty. He no longer fears death; strength fears death, weakness does not know this fear. Weakness hears the appeal coming from the place where, long pursued and despised, she has found her eventual refuge. Brekhunov renounces, eagerly and with feverish haste, his inns, his barns, and all the great ideas, including the potestas clavium, which had gathered in his soul and been the boasts of the other, the learned, Brekhunov. And now an admirable mystery is revealed to him. “‘I come, I come,’ he cried joyfully with his whole being. And he felt that he was free and that nothing held him back any more.” And he went, or rather he flew on the wings of his weakness, without knowing whither they would carry him; he rose into the eternal night, terrible and incomprehensible to mankind.

The end of Master and Man turned out to be a prophecy. Leo Nicolaievich Tolstoy also ended his days on the steppe, in the midst of storms and tempests. Thus destiny will end. The glory of Tolstoy was spread abroad throughout the whole world while he still lived. And yet, in spite of that, soon after his eightieth birthday, which was celebrated in the four quarters of the globe, in every language—an honour which no one before his day had enjoyed—he yet left all and fled from his home one dark night, not knowing whither or wherefore. His works, his glory, all these were a misery to him, a burden too heavy for him to bear. He seems, with trembling, impatient hand, to be tearing off the marks of the sage, the master, the honoured teacher. That he might present himself before the Supreme Judge with unweighted soul, he had to forget and renounce all his magnificent past.

Such, in fact, is the revelation of death. Down here on earth, all that was of importance, but here one wants something quite different. … “Let us flee to our dear fatherland … for thence are we come, and there dwells our Father.” (Plotinus, Enn. I, vi, 8.)

Elizabeth Trahan (essay date 1963)

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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 universally valid religious or at least humanitarian feelings, experienced by the author and transmitted through direct emotional infection, as is accomplished in the great religious writings, in folk legends, fairy tales and folk songs. When reviewing his own writings from this critical position, Tolstoj is forced to reject all his literary masterpieces. He can only find two instances of “good” art, two of his Tales for Children (1872)—“The Prisoner of the Caucasus” and “God Sees the Truth but Waits.”

Today, however interesting we may find the essay on art, we will hardly use it as a basis for evaluating Tolstoj's works. Not “The Prisoner of the Caucasus” or “God Sees the Truth but Waits” but War and Peace, Anna Karenina,The Death of Ivan Il'ič, and Master and Man are generally considered Tolstoj's best works. Yet, paradoxically, in one respect the bias of Tolstoj's theoretical position seems to have affected most critics. Tolstoj is usually discussed in terms of his “realism” or as a moralist, and is rarely given credit for any formal experimentation. Yet already War and Peace (1865-69) and Anna Karenina (1873-77) make use of certain formal devices, such as interior monologue, free association, structural patterns based on parallels and contrasts, significant detail, even some symbolic, i. e., open metaphors. The Death of Ivan Il'ič (1886), in addition, uses “leitmotifs” very much in Richard Wagner's manner, and contains sensory associations of a directness or subtlety very close to that emphasis on nuances and depth which characterizes Baudelaire and the French Symbolists. Finally, Master and Man (1894), one of Tolstoj's last stories, is, as I will try to show, a truly modern symbolic narrative.

The plot of Master and Man is simple. Vasilij Andreič Brexunov, the master, and Nikita, his man, set out on a business trip to a village some seven miles away. They are confronted by a blizzard, repeatedly lose their way and are finally forced to spend the night in their sledge. Brexunov freezes to death but saves Nikita by shielding him with his body. Initially a selfish, stubborn bully, he now dies willingly and gladly, with a vision of Christ and a belief in the unity of all life.1 Nikita's life is saved, and he quietly lives out his lifespan.

The juxtaposition of two contrasting characters and their ways and views of life had been a favorite device of Tolstoj's ever since Three Deaths, written in 1858. But only on the most immediate level is Master and Man the story of Brexunov and his servant Nikita. While Nikita does not change throughout the story, Brexunov undergoes a complete transformation. The indifferent churchwarden becomes a true believer; the greedy and self-confident egotist, a humble and self-effacing human being. Master and Man is actually Brexunov's story, for he emerges as both master and man.

As a tale of moral regeneration and religious consolation, the story is thematically close to many of Tolstoj's popular tales, and to his conception of “good” art. Moreover, the detached, simple folk idiom used—much of its charm is, unfortunately, lost in translation—gives the story the naïveté and wisdom of a folk legend.2 At the same time, even a superficial reading reveals a certain mysterious, magic quality which suggests additional dimensions. Certain words are repeated like incantations. The howling of the wind and the circling of the snow provide an ominous refrain. The sledge and its occupants move in circles which they seem unable to break through. The number “three” occurs some fifteen times in the story, suggesting a bewitched, alien world. And close attention to the text reveals the presence of metaphors and symbols which not only deepen and transform the surface reality of the plot but which form connected patterns and provide additional levels of meaning. Through these symbols, Brexunov's religious awakening becomes a pilgrimage from the village of Kresty (The Crosses) to the Cross, almost a reiteration of Christ's Road to Calvary. The personal crisis of Brexunov, the Liar—brexat' is “to tell lies”—becomes the experience of an existential moment, the culmination of man's struggle with nature both without and within. Brexunov's final insight not only bestows meaning upon his existence but, through the correspondence of the symbols used, reveals Brexunov's essence to be a reflection of the essence of that external force which he had challenged.

The setting for the story may have been suggested to Tolstoj by a personal experience. During the winters of 1891–92 and 1892–93, he was engaged in famine relief work in the district of Rjazan'. Mme. Raevskaja, at whose estate he was staying, describes how on February 15, 1892, worried about Tolstoj's long absence during a blizzard, they set out after him and found him crossing a snowy field on foot, left behind by his horse.3 Once before, Tolstoj had written a story based on his own experience of a blizzard during a twenty-two hour trip in January of 1854. “The Snowstorm” (1856) describes realistically an all-night ride, in which the horses instinctively find their way to safety. If contrasted to the early story, the formal emphasis and achievement of Master and Man becomes immediately apparent.

The immediate incentive for the story must have been provided by Flaubert's Légende de Saint Julien l'Hospitalier. Tolstoj wrote Master and Man only a few months before two introductions, one to the works of Guy de Maupassant, the other to S. T. Semenov's Peasant Stories. Both introductions reveal Tolstoj's preoccupation with literary criticism. The criteria stated later in What is Art? are here anticipated by Tolstoj's emphasis on the significance and universality of the theme, on the proper relation of form to content, and on the author's “sincerity.” In the introduction to Semenov's stories, Tolstoj points to Flaubert's tale as an example of an author's lack of sincerity: “The last episode of the story which ought to be the most touching represents Julien lying on a bed together with a leper and warming him with his body. … The whole thing is described with great skill, but in reading this story I am always left perfectly cold and indifferent. I feel that the author would not have done and would not have cared to do what his hero did, and I therefore have no desire to do it, and experience no emotion on reading of this marvellous exploit.”4

Tolstoj's criticism of Flaubert's story shows not merely the inadequacy of his criterion of “sincerity” but his lack of insight into Flaubert's approach. A comparison with Master and Man again becomes illuminating: La Légende de Saint Julien l'Hospitalier was written as a deliberate—and probably eminently sincere—attempt to re-create the mood and spirit of the Middle Ages. It is filled with allegorical objects and animals, miracles and coincidences, set against the backdrop of a medieval, stable universe. The story provides an excellent example of what Erich Kahler calls “descending symbolism”—a symbolism dependent on and determined by a preestablished reality. Tolstoj's story, on the other hand, becomes modern both by its emphasis on psychological character treatment and by its “ascending” symbolism. Here a set of freely created unique forms achieves a consummate representation of the author's vision. In contrast to Flaubert's story, the intensity of the vision now absorbs the communicative purpose, and the story's message can no longer be separated from the work itself.5

The comparison of Brexunov and his man, Nikita, is achieved largely by direct description, as well as Tolstoj's long favored devices of parallelism and contrast, often used to reflect ironic ambivalences. But since this comparison forms the story's basis, it must be traced at least briefly before we can turn to Brexunov's psychological development and its symbolic significance.

Initially, Brexunov, Church Elder and Merchant of the Second Guild, views the world entirely in terms of his personal power and economic success. Though his estate thrives, both wife and child are “thin and pale.” Brexunov's tone toward his wife is rude and condescending, and his son exists for him merely as a personal heir. Nor is Brexunov's attitude toward Nikita positive, though he considers himself Nikita's benefactor. As shown by his taunting remarks about the cooper and by his attempt to sell Nikita a bad horse, Brexunov is as indifferent to Nikita's feelings and to his financial plight as to his physical well-being.

Nikita's relations with his environment, on the other hand, are harmonious. The master's little boy loves him, the mistress worries whether he will be warm enough, and he pleases everyone by his cheerful and obliging manner. He has the peasant's straightforward simplicity and fatalism, his closeness to nature and animals. Nonetheless, Nikita is no saint. When drunk—and he is called a habitual drunkard early in the story—he can become a veritable fiend. But while his master freely imbibes both before his departure and in Griškino, Nikita resists all temptation, remains sober and thus more aware of the hazards and necessities of their situation.

Ironically, just as Brexunov's two fur-lined coats do not save him while Nikita survives in his thin coat, so Brexunov's personal energy and business acumen turn out far less effective than the simple reasoning of those around him. Nikita would have chosen the safer road, trusted the horse's instinct and, undoubtedly, spent the night safely at Taras' house. Only upon his wife's nagging does Brexunov take Nikita along. This step might have saved his life, had he paid attention to Nikita from the start. It saves his soul when he finally does. It is similarly ironic that, while Nikita derives real comfort from placing his sins and fate into God's hands, Brexunov, the Church Elder, can find no consolation in religion. Instead, he vainly seeks reassurance in the memory of his own achievements and the excitement of future goals.

We do not know whether Nikita would have survived the night without Brexunov's self-sacrifice; but we know that he was ready for death, without any reproach toward his master or God. It almost seems a reward for his unswerving loyalty that Nikita is permitted to die his own death—nastojaščaja smert'—the traditional solemn death of the believer, at home in his bed, surrounded by his family and with a lighted taper in his hand.

Even though the last paragraph is devoted to Nikita, Master and Man is not his story. The ending merely completes the comparison between him and his master, beyond their actions and attitudes to their actual death experience. In many ways, Nikita is more positive. His actions and decisions, in contrast to Brexunov's, seem appropriate and “right.” By his fatalistic acceptance of life in all its manifestations, he reminds us of Natal'ja Savišna in Childhood, the coachman Fedor in Three Deaths, Platon Karataev in War and Peace, Gerasim in The Death of Ivan Il'ič. All of them are contrasted positively to men of greater individuality who are assailed by doubts, fears, and temptations. In Platon, the type finds it's culmination. He is less a person than a symbol, a “personification of the spirit of simplicity and truth” (War and Peace, Part Twelve, Ch. XIII). He does not take the center of the stage, but the secret of his happiness is coveted by Pierre Bezuxov as much as that of the peasant—whose name, incidentally, is again Platon—by Konstantin Levin. In The Death of Ivan Il'ič, the balance begins to shift. Ivan Il'ič incorporates to some extent Gerasim's humble and joyful submissiveness into his own world view. In Master and Man, the change is completed. However “right” Nikita's attitude and however peaceful his death, not he, the just man, is exalted but Brexunov, the repentant sinner, who, after a desperate struggle with nature, submits to it and finds God.

The contrast between Nikita and Brexunov is extended into their attitude toward nature. While Nikita accepts it even in its extreme manifestation—the cold and pitiless fury of the blizzard—Brexunov challenges it as he had challenged everything around him before. But while he had been able to impose his will on men and animals, he suffers defeat when he confronts nature with the same ruthless disregard.

When Brexunov's path is blocked by the ravine, he suffers the first decisive defeat, the defeat of his actions. When he vainly seeks reassurance in memories of the past and dreams of the future, he suffers the defeat of his achievements. Finally, when he, no longer master of himself but driven by fear and the instinct of self-preservation, makes one more attempt at physical escape, he suffers the defeat of his values. But like Dostoevskij's Ridiculous Man who, on his dream flight, is stripped of layer upon layer of the armor with which he had fortified himself against life, so Vasilij Brexunov, facing non-existence in a nightmarish and awesome no-man's land, moves step by step toward the core of his existence. He faces his existential crisis alone, weak, unable to muster the support of any ethical, moral, or religious consolations. But now, untrammeled by shackles of conventions and prejudices, a deep inner strength surges up in him. Brexunov begins to find a new self and new values.

Brexunov's attempt to revive Nikita may initially have been due to his fear of being left alone again, of having to submit to death and acknowledge defeat. But the “peculiar joy such as he had never felt before,” the “strange and solemn tenderness,” and the “joyous condition” which he experiences, bear witness to the fact that a change is taking place within him. Now his thoughts circle around Nikita and the peasant's image fuses with that of the past. Finally, Brexunov sees himself back in the past, when he is immobile, unable to react to his old environment. That this fact does not fill him with fear or indignation, again shows how profoundly he has changed. Formerly an impatient and irascrible master, he is now waiting patiently and joyfully for his own Master. His submission is complete: he acknowledges the merit for the good deed as not his but Christ's and follows Him with humility.

The religious theme which asserts itself so powerfully at the end, is latently present from the very beginning. Brexunov lives in a village called The Crosses and, as it turns out, indeed in the shadow of the Cross. His challenge takes place on the second day of the feast of St. Nicholas, who is not only the saint of all Russia and specifically of peasants, merchants and wayfarers, but also of temperance—and a wonderworker. Nikita, who has taken a vow of abstinence and who successfully resists all temptation on the crucial day, is obviously under the protection of St. Nicholas. But on Brexunov the Saint works his miracle.

Initially Brexunov is a sinner. Though a church elder, he ignores the holy day and desecrates church funds by borrowing them for private gain. In Griškino, he sits down at the head of the table for what becomes his last supper. To be sure, with his “protruding, hawk-like eyes,” his three thousand rubles and his greed for gain he is still closer to Judas than to Christ. His answer to the anguished complaints of the old man about his son's greed is unconcerned. Brexunov does not realize that his own test has begun.

It is interesting that a counting of heads reveals the presence of thirteen adults in Taras' house: the old couple, two of their sons and one grandson—Petruša—with his wife, Taras' four daughters-in-law, the neighbor, Brexunov, and Nikita. But though such detailed account is given of all twenty-two members of Taras' household as to suggest a purpose, the allusion is again blurred by the fact that only the men sit around the table.6

Several other, similarly marginal references occur. The sledge which Brexunov overtakes is driven by one Simon who, however casually encountered, might have shared Brexunov's burden, had he chosen to accept his help. The man who opens the gate to Taras' house for them and again guides them onto their way is called Peter and, for all his willingness, he turns back at the crucial moment and abandons them, if unknowingly, to their fate. These allusions gain weight, as Brexunov recalls one Sebastian who froze to death. The uncommon name clearly evokes the Saint and the possibility of martyrdom and glory. Even more direct is the allusion to treason when Brexunov thinks he hears a cock crow. Not much later, he abandons Nikita with the sacrilegious words: “He won't grudge his life but I, thank God, have something to live for …”7

When Brexunov sets out alone for the wilderness—the wormwood becomes its appropriate symbol—his punishment seems imminent. Though there is little resemblance between Brexunov's flight into the snowy waste and Christ's withdrawal into the Garden of Gethsemane, Brexunov, not unlike Christ, experiences supreme anguish. He, too, turns to prayer asking that the cup be taken away from him, only to realize the vanity of such prayer. When Brexunov returns to Nikita, he is ready for his burden. As he lies down on his servant with his arms spread out, he, in a sense, mounts the Cross.

During the moment of extreme anguish Brexunov recalled the recent church service and the tapers which he would sell and resell. Lying on Nikita he again recalls service and tapers, but now their images merge with that of Nikita. In sacrificing himself for this man, Brexunov reiterates Christ's sacrifice, and in his last vision Christ comes for him in person and thereby accepts the sacrifice.

Even though Brexunov's symbolic death is somewhat similar to Billy Budd's he is no Christ figure like Billy Budd or like Prince Myškin. Nor does his wrong-doing approach the scope of that of St. Julien. Brexunov is merely a sinner who through suffering returns to love and through love to Christ. Franz Kafka, in “A Country Doctor,” likewise describes a ride through a blizzard, and the doctor, too, lies down to warm a dying human being. There, however, the symbols are used with savage irony. The country doctor lies down willingly, and attempts to escape as soon as he can—only to find his escape turn into a trap, an eternal pilgrimage through “the frost of this most unhappy of ages.” Brexunov's religious development, on the other hand, remains thematically entirely within the framework of traditional Christianity, a fitting illustration of Luke 15:7: “I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.” The symbolic presentation, however, gives Brexunov's final gesture a scope and significance which by far transcends his actual transformation into a humble and dedicated servant of Christ.

The religious symbolism of Master and Man represents only one strand in the symbolic pattern of the story. With its use of allegorical names and its actual depiction of a religious vision, it remains to some extent superimposed upon the story. The nature imagery, on the other hand, becomes so intrinsic a part of the narrative, permeates it so completely and intensively that the story becomes an excellent example of what, earlier, I called “ascending” symbolism.

The circle becomes the key symbol of the story. It is menace and trap, futility and despair, but it also represents the unity of life and death, the Chain of Being. The snow whirls around master and man, the wind circles around them, their road turns into circles. Brexunov, by defying the circle as long as he can, rejects every road leading out of it, until there remains only the one leading into its very center—the heart of nature and the self. Darkness and the abyss provide its signposts. Though Brexunov fails to recognize their deeper significance, they effectively stop his outer journey, and the inner journey to the core of the self can begin. Again Brexunov's quest moves in circles, those of his thoughts, then those of his last trip. Finally Brexunov reaches the innermost circle, in which the I and the Thou merge.

The circular symbol is enhanced by the continual recurrence of the number “three,” which also adds a supernatural dimension to the reality of the plot. Brexunov starts out during the third hour, with three thousand rubles in his pocket. Three times they set out. Three times Nikita takes over. Three times they see the same cluster of moaning willows, three times they pass the frozen wash, three times wormwood is mentioned. They have three encounters—with Isaj, the horse thief, the three peasants whom they overtake, and Taras and his household in Griškino. Petruša speaks of three domestic councellors. Three times Nikita climbs out to search for the path, the third time reappearing three sazhens further. Three times Brexunov tries to light a cigarette and, after successfully lighting three matches, he is unable to light the last three.8

Other secondary images likewise support and extend the symbolic structure. The frozen wash which “is struggling,” “fluttering desperately in the wind,” and the white shirt which “in particular struggled desperately, waving its sleeves around”—not only reflect the fury of the storm but become portents of doom, of man in distress, of a shroud, a frozen body, perhaps even a crucifixion.9 The willows are moaning “dismally” and “desperately,” “swaying” and “whistling”; the wormwood which is “desperately tossed about by a pitiless wind” fills Brexunov with utmost terror and seems to him his own reflection, as he “awaits an inevitable, swift and meaningless death.” These images call to mind Pascal's pensée on man as a reed, “le plus faible de la nature”;10 they also suggest Job 21: 18: “They are as stubble before the wind, and as chaff that the storm carrieth away.”11

A series of frightening sounds provides the aural backdrop for the visual imagery and fills the air with the clamor appropriate for Judgment Day: the wild whistling of the wind, the threatening howl of a wolf, the eerie and pitiful cry of the frightened horse.

The poem which Petruša quotes with such joy at its aptness—it is a colloquialized version of the first stanza of Puškin's Winter Evening—indeed expresses the Protean power of the storm:

Storms with mist the sky conceal,
Snowy circles wheeling wild.
Now like savage beast ‘twill howl,
And now ‘tis wailing like a child.

(Tr. by Aylmer Maude.)

Brexunov dies only thirty sazhens (70 feet) off the road and half a verst (about one-third mile) from the village, trapped by the blizzard in a magic circle which he cannot break through. Nor can man break through nature's circle of life and death; he can only transcend it by leaving the realm of nature, of life. And while Brexunov follows His call, around his dead body the snowstorm once more asserts its symbol of the circle: “All around the snow was whirling as before. The same snow squalls were circling about, covering the dead Vasilij Andreič's fur coat …”12

The blizzard has lifted Brexunov out of time and space—the time and space of his everyday life—into the vastness of nature, pure, bare, and invincible, stripped of sham values and comforts, and encompassing both life and death in close proximity. The business trip, begun with a disregard for nature's power, continued as one man's challenge, becomes a desperate struggle against the element until nature asserts itself. It forces Brexunov to acquiesce, to accept death at its hands; but it also enables him to understand its secret and to find his own existence and essence in love. An almost mystical union with nature through a supreme act of love becomes his ultimate fulfillment. “Nikita is alive so I too am alive,” is Brexunov's final unreserved and unselfish affirmation of life. This is not merely a creed based on the Christian virtues of humility and brotherly love, but a belief in the eternal flow and transfer of life, a Buddhist rather than Christian concept. Käte Hamburger, in her excellent study on Tolstoj, sees the unique accomplishment of Master and Man in this visually accomplished act of love, which by far transcends the token gesture of love made by Ivan Il'ič.13 Yet even Master and Man, if more faintly than Tolstoj's other works, echoes its author's own inner split. Despite his self-sacrifice, Brexunov does not come to terms with death nor does he, in Rilke's words, “die his own death.”

Of all of Tolstoj's heroes, only Prince Andrej comes close to dying his own death, aside from such “children of God,” as Natal'ja Savišna, Platon Krataev, or Nikita. Prince Andrej turns away from life with the same aloofness with which he had turned away from each successive phase of his life. Neither Ivan Il'ič nor Brexunov dies his own death. Ivan Il'ič's dying is awful far beyond the sins of his lifetime, while Brexunov, petty sinner that he was, dies an undeservedly beautiful and glorious death. Nor does either of them—in fact, none of Tolstoj's fictional challengers of death—ever come to terms with it. Even Prince Andrej cannot face death squarely. He turns it from an end into a beginning, “an awakening from life”—an escape. Brexunov's story in many ways parallels that of Ivan Il'ič. Confronted by death, both men face the crisis of their existence, and both are forced to reject the values of their past. Yet neither is able to accept death—they merely dismiss or ignore it. For Ivan Il'ič it “ceases to exist,” as the immense relief after an almost unbearable suffering floods his entire being till nothing else has room. Brexunov finds a dual escape from facing death: the Christian consolation of a personal immortality and a—basically contradictory—emphasis on the abandonment of individuality in an identification with all life. In neither case is death accepted as part of life, as its end.14

Brexunov is much simpler than Ivan Il'ič. He lives by feelings and urges rather than thoughts, and even his act of love and submission takes place on the same instinctive level, brought about by a moment of overwhelming fear rather than a crisis of consciousness. He rejects his past after he has found new values, whereas Ivan Il'ič dismissed his entire life before he had found anything to take its place. Ivan Il'ič was battered and tossed about by his pain until the last shreds of his strength and dignity were gone. Therefore, his final gesture of love may be weak, and his dismissal of death an escape, yet his courage and his suffering give him a heroic scope which Brexunov lacks.

Ironically, though Master and Man was prompted by Tolstoj's effort to demonstrate “sincerity,” to achieve a direct emotional infection, the impact of the story cannot compare to the impact of Ivan Il'ič's terrible struggle with death. Tolstoj's own fear of death proved stronger than his love of man or God. However, esthetically, Master and Man evokes a serenity and pleasure as none of Tolstoj's other works do. The story not only occupies a unique place in Tolstoj's creative output and points to an unsuspected range of his talent, but, both complex and superbly simple, it becomes the most nearly perfect of his works of art.


  1. Though Christ is not named directly, the references seem obvious enough not to require lengthy justifications. To be sure, in one critical study the “Someone” and “He” is interpreted as “Love”; the author was probably unaware of the fact that, in Russian, love is feminine in gender. (See Jacqueline de Proyart de Baillescourt, “La représentation de la mort dans l'oeuvre littéraire de Tolstoj,” For Roman Jakobson, The Hague, 1956.)

  2. Compare, e.g., the ending with its detached, ironic legend style: “Is he better or worse off there where he awoke after this death of his? was he disillusioned or did he find there exactly what he expected? We will all soon find out.” (All translations of passages from Master and Man are my own.)

  3. See E. I. Raevskaja, “Lev Nikolaevič Tolstoj sredi golodajuščix,” Letopisi Gosudarstvennogo literaturnogo museja, Vol. II (M., 1938).

  4. L. N. Tolstoj, Sobranie sočinenij (1928), XVIII, 17-18.

  5. For the terminology used see Erich Kahler's “The Nature of the Symbol,” the introductory chapter to Symbolism in Religion and Literature, ed. Rollo May (New York, 1950). It seems far more satisfactory than the customary, socially oriented and rather rigid division into a “traditional” or “conventional” symbolism as against a “private” symbolism, or the vague psychological distinction of a “literary” or “artificial” as against a “natural” symbolism.

  6. Every detail is blended so skillfully into the story line and setting that a symbolic interpretation may seem arbitrary and far-fetched until the entire pattern is perceived. Therefore, Miss McCarthy is hardly the only one to insist on Tolstoj's unintentional, at best “natural” symbolism (Literary Symbolism, ed. Maurice Beebe [San Francisco, 1960], pp. 50-51). Even though “intention” is a highly questionable esthetic criterion and rarely supported by satisfactory evidence, a comparison of the various drafts and proofs for Master and Man (thirteen exist; one or two are lost) seems to bear out my suggestion of a deliberate stylization: Almost all symbolic details emerge only in the final drafts.

  7. Actually there is a threefold betrayal: first, when Brexunov leaves Nikita outside in the snow while settling in the sledge, a second time when, despite the thought that Nikita might die, he does not get up to cover him. The third instance is, of course, the most striking manifestation of the betrayal and the crucial one.

  8. Like most symbols occurring in the story, the number “three” can be interpreted on various levels and should not be overemphasized. Yet by its very vagueness and ambivalence it contributes depth to the symbolic pattern.

  9. I am indebted to Professor Wellek for calling my attention to the symbol of the cross suggested by Brexunov's dead body with its outstretched arms, and anticipated by the white shirt with its frozen sleeves. It was this starting point that suggested to me the complex structure of religious symbols underlying the story.

  10. Tolstoj was a great admirer of Pascal. Cf. his diary entry of 23 Dec. 1895 (The Journal of Leo Tolstoy, 1895-99, Knopf 1917, p. 15) and his essay on Pascal in Krug Čtenija za 1906oj god (Berlin, 1923). Tolstoj's essay Life (1887) uses as its motto Pascal's maxim on man's resemblance to a reed.

  11. The entire first part of the story can be read as an illustration of Job. 27: 16-20.

  12. A comparison of the various drafts for Master and Man shows that the symbol of the circle only gradually reached its full impact. In the first draft it emerges only in its main features: the return to Griškino and the circling along the edge of the ravine. In the second draft, we find Brexunov's attempt to reach the village on horseback—of which, incidentally, he informs Nikita, who wishes him Godspeed. Similarly, not before the final drafts is there any mention of Petruša's poem, of the reappearing willows and wormwood, of the frozen wash, nor is there any reiteration of the circling of snow and wind. The number “three” occurs only once, very casually, when Nikita reappears “about three sazhens” from the sled. Nor are there any religious symbols. Brexunov takes no church money; Nikita has made no vow to abstain. The Crosses are, inconspicuously, called Mikolskoe, the Gorjačkin (i. e., Burning Man's) Forest, more prosaically, Pirogov's. Isaj is not a horse thief, merely a peasant. No encounter with Simon and the other two peasants is mentioned, and instead of a Sebastian there is a Egor Fedorovič.

    Similarly, Brexunov's religious apotheosis emerges only gradually. In the first version, he merely feels awkward about leaving Nikita outside, and lies down upon him so that both may have room in the sledge. The change in him—“something completely different which cannot even be named”—occurs suddenly, and “he entered into it.” In the second version a humanitarian motive emerges. Brexunov turns the horse back to the sledge when he hears a wolf howl. Realizing that Nikita is dying, he feels guilty and sorry for him, lies down on him to keep him warm and is happy. He dies like a traditional believer, following His call and finding “that all is well now, thanks be to God.” Only the final version contains his insight into the circle of being, the unity of all life and the meaning of self-sacrificing love. (Cf. Polnoe Sobranie Sočinenij, XXIX, 295-324.)

  13. Käte Hamburger, Tolstoi. Gestalt und Problem (Bern, 1950), pp. 139-149.

  14. Cf. the following, closely corresponding passage from Life, in which Tolstoj expressed his own views: “But if a man could place his happiness in the happiness of other beings, i.e., if he would love them more than himself, then death would not represent to him that discontinuance of happiness and life, such as it does represent to a man who lives only for himself. Death to the man who should live only for others could not seem to be a cessation of happiness and of life, because the happiness and the life of other beings is not only not interrupted with the life of a man who serves them, but is frequently augmented and heightened by the sacrifice of his life.” (Ch. XVIII, tr. I. Hapgood.)

Ernest J. Simmons (essay date 1968)

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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 involves a number of characters and a frame of reference too extensive for the concentrated focus of the short story but not extensive enough for the expansive structure of the full-length novel. Among these eight remaining short novels are several of his most remarkable creations in fiction.

An objective approach to the human condition may be discerned in the early short novels, but in the later ones Tolstoy's own moral presence, combined with a subjective spiritual element, is frequently felt, although he is careful, in the best of them, to embody his personal views in impeccable artistic form. The different emphasis is largely a consequence of Tolstoy's sharply altered outlook on life—all the later short novels were written after his searing spiritual experience of 1880-81. During these remaining years the art of fiction, with some few exceptions, became a medium for conveying his search for truth and for urging individual self-perfection, opposition to violence in any form, and man's duty to live by the moral law. Even certain of the ascetic rules of his new faith, which he tried to live up to, find reflection in his tales—the need to abandon private property, to achieve self-sufficiency through physical labor in the matter of one's essential wants, to be chaste, and to subscribe to vegetarianism and abstinence from liquor and tobacco.

However sincere was Tolstoy's reluctance to practice his art after his spiritual conversion, he could never get himself to deny an instinct that was central to his being. If the elaborate theory of artistic creation in What Is Art? was in essence an aesthetic expression of his new philosophy, designed in part to justify the future fiction he felt an inner compulsion to write, the results frequently indicate that the literary artist in him transcended the moral and religious preacher. For despite the mass of religious, philosophical, and moral books and articles he wrote during this last period, he produced a surprising body of belles-lettres. And much more fiction might have been turned out if it had not been for a special circumstance. In 1891 Tolstoy publicly renounced the copyrights of all he had written after 1881, the time of his spiritual conversion. This decision became one of the principal reasons for the prolonged and tragic struggle that developed between him and his wife, who had taken upon herself the publication of his works. Every new artistic effort of her husband could cause a renewal of the family quarrel, for she invariably pleaded for the right of first publication for the sake of financial gain, the very thing he was trying to avoid. This unhappy situation made him hesitate to write fiction at all. Some stories that he began he failed to complete for years, and if finished, he would conceal them from his wife or hold up their publication for a long time. Several of his finest tales did not appear until the posthumous edition of his unpublished works in 1911. It is reasonably certain that he avoided finishing several stories and one play because of his reluctance to add to the quarrels with his wife over publication rights.

This situation makes it extremely difficult to date exactly the writing of some of his later short novels, especially those Tolstoy worked on for several years or kept hidden from his wife. And since four of the eight tales were first printed posthumously, publication dates have no certain relation to actual composition. Therefore it seems best to consider these stories chronologically according to the year or years in which they were written, and when that data is not accurately ascertainable, according to the year in which Tolstoy finished the writing of each story, dates which are available in every case.

If in several of the short novels under consideration Tolstoy attempts, as a supreme rationalist, to identify the principle of life with reason, it is the irrational human conscience that brings about the conversion of his heroes through experiences essentially mystical in nature. Though in such narratives Tolstoy is usually concerned with bringing the actions and thoughts of his characters into harmony with his new beliefs, he rarely ceases to be the literary artist in matters of language, form, and content.

The fear of death, a problem with which Tolstoy had long been preoccupied, lies behind the mystical experiences of the main characters in The Death of Ivan Ilych (finished 1886; published 1886) and Master and Man (finished 1895; published 1895), two of his greatest masterpieces in the genre of the short novel. The public hailed The Death of Ivan Ilych, for it was the first substantial artistic work that he had written since Anna Karenina nine years before. At last it seemed that the celebrated author had returned to the art that had won him international fame.

This short novel, which is an account of the spiritual conversion of a judge, an ordinary, unthinking, vulgar man, in the face of the terrible fear of approaching death, is a problem story in which Tolstoy does not so much preach as communicate experience. In it he not only reverts to the wonderful realism of his early fiction, but adds an emphasis new and startling in the development of Russian literature. Although Gorky is often credited with freeing nineteenth-century Russian realism from its genteel tradition of inoffensiveness, a tradition not unlike that of English Victorian fiction, Tolstoy preceded him in this respect in The Death of Ivan Ilych, where he dwells with unsparing detail on the physical horrors of disease and death. But the story is also filled with those psychologically realistic and perceptive touches made familiar to us by earlier novels—Peter Ivanovich's efforts, at a solemn moment, to suppress the rebellious metal springs of the pouf on which he sits at Ivan Ilych's funeral; the subtle indications of the mourners' insincerity, suggested by their concentration on unrelated trivia; the indirect hints of the dissimulation and hypocrisy of Ivan Ilych's grieving wife and colleagues, who barely disguise their secret concern over the advantages or disadvantages that will accrue to them because of his death. Yet we somehow know that Ivan Ilych would have behaved in similar fashion in the event of the decease of his wife or of one of his partners in the law.

Ivan Ilych's life, remarks Tolstoy, had been most simple and ordinary and therefore most terrible. He is very strict in the fulfillment of his legal duties, and he considers his duty to be what is so considered by those in authority. As a magistrate, he particularly enjoys power, and in his examinations of those on trial, his main concern is to eliminate all considerations irrelevant to the legal aspects of the case, in short, to eliminate every vestige of human sympathy or pity. His heartlessness is neatly and ironically revealed during his illness, when he hopefully asks the examining physician: “‘We sick people probably often put inappropriate questions. But tell me, in general, is this complaint dangerous, or not?’ The doctor looked at him sternly over his spectacles with one eye, as if to say: ‘Prisoner, if you will not keep to the questions put to you, I shall be obliged to have you removed from the court.’”

During his long wasting illness, Ivan Ilych tries at times to justify his life which he always imagined had been a good one. But when he feels the end approaching, in mortal despair he realizes that he has been living a lie and indulging in utter self-deception. These clarifying moments come to him with particular poignancy upon beholding the sincere grief of his young son over his sufferings and when he submits to the cheerful, self-sacrificing ministrations of his simple peasant servant Gerasim. He had discovered sympathy and pity where he had never expected to find them. Thus prepared, shortly before his death an inner light mystically illumines the clouded understanding of Ivan Ilych. He suddenly perceives that man's essential life belongs to the spirit, a realm of feeling where well-being is achieved in the loving community of people. In truth, death for Ivan Ilych ultimately becomes an awakening. He asks forgiveness of his family for his sins and welcomes death, transported by the inner light of faith, renunciation, and love.

In Master and Man the same theme is treated with equal effectiveness in a totally different setting of peasants and merchants, and the story is told in a style that falls between Tolstoy's earlier method of saturated realism and his post-conversion manner of simple unadorned narrative designed to appeal to the mass reader. Here and elsewhere we sense that his aim is to relate facts with as much warmth and persuasiveness as possible and hence the prose he creates is magnificent. It has been said that whenever he wrote a sentence which seemed too elegant, he hastened to disarrange it so that it did not appear to be polished. He appreciated only what was left after he had rejected all conventions and only what could live without artifice. When obliged to choose, he always preferred rudimentary expressions to the most ingenious and refined. There is no grandeur, he remarked in War and Peace, where there is no simplicity, no truth. And his immediate followers in Russian fiction, such as Chekhov, Gorky, and Bunin, strove to avoid what might be described as a polished style.

When Tolstoy finished Master and Man, he sent the manuscript to a close friend whose critical judgment he valued, with the comment: “It is so long since I've written anything artistic that I truly do not know whether it ought to be printed. I wrote it with great satisfaction. …” Actually, Tolstoy feared, at the age of sixty-seven, that his creative powers were slipping, and the prompt response of his friend: “My God! how splendid, priceless it is …” quite reassured him.

Extensive concentration on the blizzard in Master and Man recalls the famous description in “The Snow Storm,” a short story written almost forty years earlier, but it must be said that the effort of his old age is in no sense artistically inferior to that of his youth. “The Snow Storm” is centered almost exclusively on closely observed nature and incident. In Master and Man, nature is employed as the background of a profound story that emerges from Tolstoy's feelings and from his mature understanding of life and death, and the sustained beauty of the construction ennobles its great theme.

The merchant Vasily's relentless ambition to accumulate money is contrasted with the harsh lot of his kindly peasant worker, Nikita, whose existence of endless toil and service is hardly sweetened by the knowledge that his master regularly cheats him. The contrast tragically deepens when master and man are threatened with freezing to death as they lose their way at night in a raging blizzard—Vasily had insisted on braving the storm in his sleigh in order to anticipate competitors in the sale of a woodlot. Finally, hopelessly marooned in the bitter cold and swirling snow, they can go no further. Nikita wraps himself up in his threadbare coat and waits. Death does not particularly worry him. In dying, he thinks, he will be in God's power and will not be ill-used by Him. It is a pity to give up what one is accustomed to, he tells himself, but he will get used to new things.

Meanwhile, the warmly clad master, worrying about missing out on the woodlot deal and thinking only of his growing fortune, mounts the unharnessed horse in an attempt to go on alone. But in the darkness and the storm he travels in a circle and comes back to the sleigh. Nikita, slowly freezing, begs him to give the money owing to him to his son and then asks his master's forgiveness. At this point the master, as in the case of the hero of The Death of Ivan Ilych, experiences an inner spiritual illumination. He lies on the body of his worker, wrapping around him the flaps of his huge fur coat. And as the warmth gradually revives Nikita, the master finds inexpressible joy and contentment in discovering the true life of brotherly contact with a fellow man. The next morning, when peasants dig them out of the snow, the worker is alive and the master dead.

The merchant's mystical experience at the end that brings about the victory of unselfishness over death seems entirely genuine and convincing. Master and Man embodies Tolstoy's ideal of religious art that has a universal appeal more successfully than other tales which he expressly designed for this purpose. Here truth is achieved by spiritual conviction rather than by the intellectual conviction that brings about the conversion of Tolstoy's hero in his novel Resurrection—a patent artistic error.

John Hagan (essay date 1969)

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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 sets of moral values, and on the straightforward conversion of one of these men from the one set to the other, no work of equal seriousness and importance might initially seem to be less arcane. But this conclusion would be a mistake. Though transparently didactic, the story is by no means crudely so; the surface clarity and simplicity of the structure, characters, and theme belie a considerable richness and complexity of suggestive detail and symbolism which, once they are perceived, give to the story's claim on our imagination a wholly new authority, and link it more closely to twentieth-century modes of short fiction than we might first suspect. There has, indeed, been a recent discussion of this matter in an essay by Elizabeth Trahan (“L. N. Tolstoj's Master and Man—A Symbolic Narrative”)1 which is the best study of Master and Man to be found anywhere. But Miss Trahan by no means exhausts the subject. In the present paper, while assuming that the reader is familiar with her case, I should like to pursue it a bit further, noting a number of interesting points omitted from her analysis, in the hope of increasing still more our sense of Tolstoy's artistic method.

Since the experiences of Vasili Andreevich Brekhunov with which the story is centrally concerned obviously fall into two parts—his life before his conversion, when he is an antichrist; and his conversion itself, which is brought about when he comes to serve Christ's moral law through a supreme act of loving self-sacrifice—it will be convenient to examine each of these phases in turn.


Brekhunov's character as an antichrist is established by implicit reference throughout to the version given in Matthew of the Sermon on the Mount. Tolstoy's passionate interest in the latter during the third period of his career is, of course, well known; in What I Believe (1884), The Kingdom of God is Within You (1894), and a great number of other polemical writings, he made it the basis of his entire morality—a morality which he brought to bear on religious, political, social, and aesthetic issues of the widest scope. But the close relevance of the text to Master and Man may be obscured by the fact that Tolstoy here draws on a portion of it to which he otherwise gave little explicit attention. Of the three successive chapters of Matthew in which the Sermon is presented (5, 6, and 7), he usually focuses only on the “five commandments” set forth in the first. The basis of Master and Man, however, is Chapter 6, and once this fact is recognized the story is freshly illuminated. For Tolstoy has so contrived that every one of Brekhunov's major attitudes toward life will be in flagrant violation of one of Christ's moral injunctions set forth in this chapter. The clearest example of this is Brekhunov's dedication of his life to the service of money, even on the threshold of his death—an act obviously in complete disregard of Christ's warning against trying to serve the “two masters … God and mammon” (6: 24). Whereas Christ has urged his followers, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth … but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (6: 19-20), Brekhunov has done exactly the opposite. Similarly, though Christ requires of his disciples that they “seek … first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness,” and “take therefore no thought for the morrow” (6: 33-34), Brekhunov is always preoccupied with the future, calculating how much profit he will make if he can buy the Goryachkin grove,2 or worrying about whether his wife, alone at home, will know how to receive payment for some oxen he sold the butcher (306). Again, though Christ insists that “when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men” (6: 5), Brekhunov complacently serves as church elder, a position which provides his true religious indifference with a convenient mask of piety. And finally, though Christ demands of his listeners that they “take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on” (6: 25), Brekhunov not only feasts, drinks, and swathes himself in two heavy coats before beginning his journey (272-277), but when he first becomes aware that he may die in the storm he becomes filled with such terror that, in order to save his own life, he performs the most morally atrocious act of his career—that of deciding upon the worthlessness of a fellow man, and abandoning him to perish alone.

Tolstoy, in short, is creating in Brekhunov not a mere melodramatic villain conceived as the embodiment of some vaguely generalized “evil,” nor even a simply “realistic” character whose motivation merely satisfies criteria of psychological plausibility, but something of an archetypal figure in whom psychologically plausible motives are at the same time symbolic of very specific classes of sin which violate some of the most fundamental tenets of Christian ethics. Indeed, once Tolstoy's handling of Brekhunov's character has alerted us to this method of imparting to realistic detail a precise symbolic suggestiveness without reducing its potency as realistic detail, we become aware that it is the controlling technique of the whole story. In each of the four main segments into which the antichristian phase of Brekhunov's life can be divided—the events preparatory to the journey (Chapter I), the first stage of the journey itself (Chapter II), the two visits to the village of Grishkino (Chapters III-IV), and the crisis in the snowbound sledge (Chapters V-VIII)—a number of details apparently casually introduced or serving no more than the purposes of verisimilitude are actually working along with the undercurrent of allusion to the Sermon on the Mount to effect one of the most compelling blends of Realism and Fable in the whole Tolstoy canon, and perhaps in the whole range of short fiction.

Consider, for example, the use Tolstoy makes of the fact mentioned in the story's first segment and reiterated again in Chapter IV that Brekhunov's house stands on “an iron foundation” and is “iron-roofed” (275, 319).3 At first this small detail might seem limited merely to suggesting, as by synecdoche, Brekhunov's prosperity and love of physical comfort. But there is more to it than this. The image also suggests the sheer density, mass, and weight of the things, the material possessions which Brekhunov has put at the center of his values, and which have weighed down and crushed the life of his spirit. His soul lives, as it were, in an iron-bound house from which it has hitherto sought no escape. By the end of the story his body too has become like his house—“stiff and cold and heavy like iron weights” (322; SS, 365. Italics mine); but this is so now precisely because he has renounced that body: sprawled protectively over Nikita, it is the corpse, the dead weight, of the material values, of the concerns of the body, from which his spirit has finally fled. The use of the same imagery in the different contexts underlines vividly the fact of Brekhunov's development and the terms in which Tolstoy views it.

Or consider, again in the story's first segment, the related fact that Brekhunov is “wearing two fur-lined coats one over the other” (279). From one point of view, this is simply another literal detail, like that of the house, which is indicative of Brekhunov's prosperity and his complacent regard for his physical comfort, in contrast to Nikita's indifference. From another point of view, as we have seen, it has a more metaphorical significance as a violation of Christ's commandment that one should “take no thought … for your body, what ye shall put on.” In still other terms, however, it is a symbolic image pointing to Brekhunov's moral encasement, his spiritual incarceration, which is both the cause and the result of the unawareness, the absence of fellow-feeling, and the all-consuming self-regard that enables him to be so callously indifferent to the well-being of Nikita. From the bitter storm that threatens his own and Nikita's physical life, he seeks to protect himself in the coats as he does in his iron-roofed house—to shield the body he cherishes behind the things of the body—though the result in each case is only to smother the life of his soul. When he finally experiences his moral conversion in Chapter IX, one of his most significant acts is precisely to throw open these coats in which he has swathed himself and release his spirit from their constricting folds—first, before going to the aid of the horse (317), and then in order to give shelter and warmth to the freezing Nikita (318). This warmth, radiating outward from within, has been born of the new ardor of love in his soul. To open the coat, and thereby to confront the storm without regard to the injury it may do to his physical self is at last to surrender, to discard, the things of the body in exchange for spiritual liberation. It is a rendering of that which is Caesar's to Caesar, in order to render that which is God's to God. From one point of view, at least, the storm is nothing less than an emissary of Satan, the supreme antichrist himself, who can frighten, intimidate, and maintain his power over Brekhunov's will only so long as the latter cherishes the values of the flesh instead of those of the spirit.

This significance is given to the storm in the story's second segment, where it first makes its appearance. Twice in Chapter II it is remarked, first by Nikita and then by Brekhunov, that the storm is causing them to “go astray” (282, 283; SS, 328, 329), a phrase with obvious moral implications which is thereafter repeated by them on at least four separate occasions (286, 289, 293, 298; SS, 331, 335, 339, 343). The snow, which obliterates all clear landmarks (279), turns the landscape into a perilous Wood of Error, a moral Wasteland, through which Brekhunov now is and heretofore has been making his life's journey. Yet, as one of the people he meets in the village of Grishkino declares, “A little child could find the way to Melchanovka from here” (293)—a clear echo of Christ's remark to his disciples in Matthew, 18: 3: “Except ye be converted, and become as little children ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” By ignoring this injunction, Brekhunov has placed himself wholly at the mercy of the storm and its fatal deceptions.

To reinforce the point Tolstoy also plays an ingenious variation on the verses in the third and final section of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt., 7: 13-14; Luke, 13: 24), in which Christ distinguishes between the “strait” and the “wide” gates which lead, respectively, to death and to life. For shortly after beginning their journey, Brekhunov and Nikita are faced with the necessity of choosing between two different roads. At first it appears that the correct choice is Brekhunov's: the way he prefers, like that advocated by Christ, is both “little used” and little marked, whereas the one chosen by Nikita, like that which leads to destruction, is both “more frequented” and “well marked” (281). But the apparent rightness of Brekhunov's choice is only an extremely deceptive illusion; his preference is governed solely by the fact that the road is the straighter and the shorter, and will therefore enable him to arrive at his destination and close his business deal all the sooner. The trick of making the worse course appear the better—together with the storm which causes the materialist to “go astray” and to center all his fears in the well-being of his body—is the very means, as it were, by which Satan seduces Brekhunov to his purposes.

This symbolism of the two ways is also connected in Chapter II with a series of other very important details—namely, those indicating the directions in which Brekhunov and Nikita are moving. Tolstoy pointedly tells us that in order to take the fatal route which he has chosen, Brekhunov must turn “to the left” (281) and that the wind which is presently to assist the snow in its deadly work of leading the travellers astray also comes “from the left” (279). Moreover, when the sledge gets lost for the first time and Nikita goes “off to the left from his own side” in order to look for the road, he can find nothing (282). A familiar place—the Zakharov factory land—is reached only after he decides that they “must go to the right” (282-283). The significance of these details is that they are the beginning of a pattern that assumes an increasingly clear shape as the story progresses—a pattern according to which movements to the left are identified with error and destruction, whereas those to the right give at least a hope of leading to safety (285, 286, 297, 299, 314)—and in the background of which is the familiar Biblical theme of Christ and the righteous in general finding their reward at the right hand of God, as in the parable of the separation of the sheep and the goats at the Last Judgment (Matt., 25: 31-46).4 To the former will be granted “life eternal,” to the latter “everlasting punishment”; for whereas the “sheep” fed, sheltered, clothed, and comforted Christ in the person of even “the least” of his brethren, the “goats” did none of these things. The parallel between their dereliction and Brekhunov's toward Nikita makes Brekhunov's habitual choice of the left inevitable. It is the unmistakable sign of his specifically antichristian life and of the damnation in store for him should he not be spiritually reborn.

Biblical texts also afford a vital clue to the uses Tolstoy makes for the first time in the second chapter of two curious features of the landscape—the wormwood and the willows. Sometimes, Tolstoy tells us, Brekhunov and Nikita “got onto a fallow field on which they could see stalks of wormwood” (283), or there suddenly looms up before them “a row of tall willows … which moaned sadly in the wind” (284). In themselves these passages may seem of only slight significance as helping to establish the travellers' isolation and a certain appropriate atmosphere of gloom. But occurring as they do only after Brekhunov has made his fatal choice of the leftward route, and reappearing conspicuously several times later in the story (286, 297, 314, 315), they become a commentary on that choice and strengthen the impression of Brekhunov's moral failure which we have already received.

The wormwood is especially important. As Brekhunov urges his horse away from the sledge, after having deserted Nikita, a “dark patch” which shows up in front of him turns out to be “some tall stalks of wormwood,” the sight of which “tormented by the pitiless wind made Vasili Andreevich shudder, he knew not why” (314). Though he tries to ride away from this disquieting scene by continually urging the horse to the left, he succeeds only in bringing himself around in a circle to the same spot—to “the same wormwood desperately tossed by the wind and carrying unreasoning terror to his heart” (314). Later, moreover, after he himself has been deserted by the horse, the mere memory of that “wormwood tossed by the wind” seizes him “with such terror that he did not believe in the reality of what was happening to him” (315). The wormwood has become decisive in augmenting Brekhunov's fear for his physical safety and thereby in serving the crucial dramatic function of bringing the stage of moral blindness which precedes his conversion to its climax. But when we ask why it should fill him with such fear in the first place, it also becomes clear that Tolstoy is probably suggesting that Brekhunov is unconsciously recalling the several well-known places in the Old Testament and Revelation where wormwood is specifically identified with sin or its punishment. Revelation, 8: 10-11, for example, would fill him with horror indeed, for here it is that when the third of the seven angels delegated to exact God's terrible vengeance sounds his trumpet, “there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters; and the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters because they were made bitter.”5

It also seems likely that there is a Biblical allusion concealed in the equally suggestive image of the moaning willows. In Leviticus, 23: 40 and in Isaiah, 44: 3-4, the willows, through their association with other trees and especially with water, are a token of fertility, of God's creative power and goodness, which are to be either a literal offering by the righteous as a sign of their devotion, or a metaphor of the blessedness to be enjoyed by the righteous as their reward. In Master and Man, however, they have become an ironic mockery of these ideas, indicative both of Brekhunov's impiety and God's wrath: instead of signifying the holy rejoicing of God, man, or nature, they can only wail mournfully in the wind which has stripped them of all but “a few leaves” (284), while the water which should nourish them has turned to an icy snow.

All of these allusions, though implicit in Chapter II, do not become fully apparent, of course, until later. It is precisely one of the functions of the third and fourth segments of the story (Chapters III-VIII) to reveal them, in a manner analogous to that of the development section in a piece of music. Simultaneously, however, these segments also introduce additional motifs which enrich the story by deepening our sense of Brekhunov's moral failure still more. As the travellers approach the village of Grishkino at the end of Chapter II, for instance, they notice “some frozen clothes hanging on a line,” among which there are two shirts, “one red and one white,” with the latter struggling “desperately, waving its sleeves about” (284). A few moments later, as Brekhunov and Nikita leave the village for the first time, they notice the washing again, and observe that “the white shirt had broken loose and was now attached only by one frozen sleeve” (286). On their return, “the same line with the frozen washing, shirts and trousers, which … fluttered desperately in the wind” is still to be seen (289). But on their second and last departure from the village, the clothes have entirely disappeared (297). By now, we begin to suspect, Tolstoy is doing something more with this imagery than simply giving a vivid impression of the severity of the storm. Mrs. Trahan suggests that it is a portent “of doom, of man in distress, of a shroud, a frozen body, perhaps even a crucifixion” (T, 265), and this suggestion is a quite plausible one. But we can be even more specific if we ask ourselves why Tolstoy differentiates the shirts as red and white, and singles out the “struggles” of the latter.

The answer is evident as soon as we notice that when Brekhunov and Nikita stop at the house of the hospitable peasant where they are to receive food and drink, the first people they meet at the door are the peasant himself, wearing “a sheepskin coat thrown over his white holiday shirt” and his grandson Petrushka, “a lad in a red shirt and high leather boots” (289. Italics mine). These are not the same shirts which Brekhunov and Nikita have just seen hanging on the line, but they make the significance of those shirts clear by analogy. The master-and-man relation of the white-shirted peasant to his red-shirted grandson and that of Brekhunov to Nikita are parallel: the peasant, who owns a large house and other valuable possessions (289), whose family is “one of the richest” in the village (291), and who has just been entertaining relatives and a friend to celebrate the end of the fast of St. Nicholas (291-292), resembles Brekhunov, and the young Petrushka, who serves everyone with irresponsible cheerfulness and willingness (290, 294, 295, 296), and faces the storm unperturbed (296), is the counterpart of Nikita. It thus becomes possible to infer the metaphorical identity of the red and white shirts with, respectively, Nikita and Brekhunov themselves. The white shirt, in particular, fluttering desperately in the wind, partly breaking loose from the line, and finally disappearing, unmistakably forecasts Brekhunov's later terror, his struggles to save himself, and his death—an interpretation reinforced by a resemblance between the shirt and a handkerchief which he later ties to the shafts of the sledge as a distress signal (304, 306, 309). By extending the analogy between Brekhunov and the shirt, we can see that the latter is also a metaphor of the doomed bodily life itself and all the ephemeral values connected with it: at those moments when Brekhunov encounters it (whatever his subsequent choices may turn out to be) its struggles image the passionate concern for that life by which he is still dominated.

As such, its appearance at the very end of Chapter II provides the third segment of the story, which immediately follows, with a highly appropriate emblem. Throughout this segment the impression we have been given of Brekhunov as an antichrist in the first two chapters is progressively darkened and rendered more specific. No sooner does Brekhunov enter the village of Grishkino, for instance, than a dog begins barking (285), and a moment later Brekhunov is addressed by an acquaintance named Isay, who is “well known as the principal horse-thief in the district” (285). The conjunction of these two happenings is clarified by a remark made later by Petrushka, who cites Paulson's primer to the effect that when “a thief creeps to a house—the dog barks,” warning the occupants to be on their guard (290). But the barking of the dog is also a fitting herald for the arrival of Brekhunov alone, for he too is a thief: to buy the Goryachkin grove, he has stolen a large sum of money from the church (272); he has habitually cheated Nikita and his other laborers out of their rightful wages (273, 274); and on this very trip he has tried to sell him a horse at far more than its worth (280-281)—a point with respect to which the meeting between Brekhunov and the horse-thief becomes a telling bit of irony. Above all, however, these men are an emphatic allusion to the two thieves with whom Christ was crucified, and who, at least according to two of the Gospels (Matt., 27: 44; Mark, 15: 32), mocked and reviled His divinity no less than the crucifiers themselves. Luke, of course, gives a different account of the behavior of one of these thieves, and this has a crucial bearing on Brekhunov's moral regeneration—a point to which I shall return later.

Meanwhile, the spirit of Christian brotherhood which Brekhunov and his like have violated is imaged in the village itself. Though at the entrance to the street “the wind still raged and the road was thickly covered with snow,” within the village “it was calm, warm, and cheerful … there seemed to be less wind and snow … the frost was less keen,” and girls can be heard singing (284-285). This is true on the travellers' first and second arrivals alike (cf. 289). Yet, though Brekhunov is invited by four different people on five separate occasions to spend the night there, he stubbornly refuses in the name of his “business” (285, 286, 290, 293, 294). It is the devil's business, as the storm is the devil's agent, and Brekhunov is not destined to achieve the Christian brotherly union which the town images until much later. As he leaves the village for the first time, “the storm, far from ceasing, seemed to have grown yet stronger” (286), as if the devil were rejoicing in his conquest.

A few minutes later Brekhunov also comes upon a human equivalent of this demonic storm in the person of four peasants whom a speeding sledge is carrying home from a feast. The sudden appearance of this sledge, followed by its almost equally sudden disappearance (286-288), makes this one of the most haunting episodes in the whole story, and even invests it with something of the power and suggestivenes of an apocalyptic vision. When Brekhunov calls out to the peasants, asking them who they are and where they are from, the only answer he can hear above the noise of the storm is a vague cry—“From A-a-a … From A-a-a”—like the voice of the damned calling out from hell itself. For these peasants—drunken, callous, frenzied people, who are trying desperately to outstrip Brekhunov's sledge which is gaining on them—are a mirror of the every type of men for whom Christ prophesied destruction at the time of the Second Coming and the Last Judgment (Matt., 24: 48-51; Luke, 21: 34). Their diabolical nature is also suggested by an even more specific analogy between them and Christ's crucifiers—an analogy established by the fact that the driver whom the former frantically urge to beat the horse in order that they may go ever faster and faster on their reckless course is named Simon (287), just as was the “man of Cyrene” whom the crucifiers found and compelled to bear the cross to Golgotha (Matt., 27: 32; Mark, 15: 21; Luke, 23: 26).6

The peasants' disordered life is, furthermore, a mirror-image, grotesquely enlarged, of Brekhunov's own: he too has been drinking and feasting; he too shows little compassion; he chose the route he did because he too wished to go the fastest way; and he too, unless he alters his course, is on his way to damnation. Nevertheless, he fails to take any warning from what he sees. Whereas the abstemious and tender Nikita is outraged by the peasants' behavior (287), Brekhunov is filled only with the excitement of the race (288). When he and Nikita get off the road, he even wishes that he could hear the peasants again and take them for a guide (288). Nikita's reflection that they have gone too “far astray” for the peasants to be heard, or that perhaps the latter “have lost their way too” (288) has obvious moral implications that are completely lost on Brekhunov, for the demonism that infuses the storm and the peasants alike now fully possesses him.

Demonic possession and disorder are also central themes in the episode which immediately follows in Chapter IV. Though the village of Grishkino itself to which the travellers return is an image of Christian brotherhood, the peasant household in which they pause to drink and eat is not. Its warmth, comfort, and hospitality suggest the possibility of such brotherhood, but this is threatened by faction. The house is a house divided against itself and therefore must fall (Luke, 11: 17): “It was one of the few homesteads that remained still undivided, but even here the dull internal work of distintegration which would inevitably lead to separation had already begun …” (291). The chief cause of this trouble is the behavior of the owner's second and third sons, especially the former, who has explicitly demanded that the family break up—a position which his father finds intolerable: “‘He carries on so, carries on so,’ the old man continued in a whining tone. ‘There's no doing anything with him. It's as if the devil possessed him’” (295. Italics mine). Clearly, the whole situation is a miniature allegory of man's rebellion against God. If, that is, from one point of view, as we have already noted, “the old, bald, white-bearded master of the house” (291-292) is a literal master who resembles Brekhunov in certain particulars, from another point of view he is a kind of peasant's-eye view of that “Chief Master” (as the peasant Nikita thinks of him [312]), the heavenly Father, God Himself—an impression strengthened by the fact that he is never given a name. The household thus emerges, as so often in the Gospels themselves, as a microcosm of the world at large, divided between those who, like the old man's grandson Petrushka (and his namesake, the Apostle Simon Peter of the Epistles), serve the Master and their fellow-men loyally, meekly, and lovingly, in the spirit of Christ, and thereby contribute to human solidarity, and those who, like the rebellious sons, embody the spirit of the antichrist, “that denieth the Father and the Son” (I John 2: 22), and thereby lead all toward discord and chaos. Brekhunov, of course, no more sees any of this meaning than he did that of the apocalyptic sledge-ride. Warned twice, he twice ignores the warning. Together, the falling house and the village itself become the counterparts of the earlier image of the two routes as metaphors of the alternative ways of life—that of Christian brotherhood and that of Satanic individualism—between which he has already made his choice.

The implications of this choice are shown still further in this chapter by the incident of the peasant meal. As Mrs. Trahan notes, though Brekhunov sits at the head of the table at what is literally his “last supper,” so far is he from being a Christ-figure that “his ‘protruding, hawk-like eyes,’ his three thousand rubles and his greed for gain” actually establish his likeness to Judas (T, 263). What might at first appear to be a re-enactment of the sacred occasion is only a blasphemous parody of it; instead of re-affirming the spirit of Christian communion, Brekhunov stands forth as its enemy, and for the moment it is the enemy who is presiding.

There is, however, another dimension to the episode which Mrs. Trahan overlooks. Christ is not absent from the scene entirely, just as He will not always be absent from Brekhunov's life. Amid the darkness of the storm, the divided house, and the unholy supper, His light shines forth quietly and gently from the humblest source of all, Nikita. Having already established Nikita's resemblance to Petrushka, the young boy faithful, like the Apostle, to the Chief Master. Tolstoy now goes a step further and establishes a likeness between Nikita and Christ Himself: the man becomes the Master. The passage in which Tolstoy accomplishes this merits quotation in full, if only as an example of his technique in this story at its subtlest:

As Nikita entered the house she [the housewife] was offering her guest [Brekhunov] a small tumbler of thick glass which she had just filled with vodka.

“Don't refuse, Vasili Andreevich, you mustn't! Wish us a merry feast. Drink it, dear!” she said.

The sight and smell of vodka, especially now when he was chilled through and tired out, much disturbed Nikita's mind. …

… He too was offered vodka. He went through a moment of painful hesitation and nearly took up the glass and emptied the clear fragrant liquid down his throat, but he glanced at Vasili Andreevich, remembered his oath and the boots that he had sold for drink, recalled the cooper, remembered his son for whom he had promised to buy a horse by spring, sighed, and declined it.

“I don't drink, thank you kindly,” he said frowning, and sat down on a bench near the second window.

“How's that?” asked the eldest brother.

“I just don't drink,” replied Nikita. …


No episode might appear to be more simply “realistic” than this, and yet we have only to relate it to the Last Supper motif for its symbolic overtones to become perfectly apparent. In refraining from drink Nikita is not only behaving in a psychologically plausible way—behaving “in character”—by acting consistently with his earlier vow; he is also doing exactly what Christ did after offering the bread and wine to be eaten and drunk by his disciples: “I say unto you, I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom” (Matt., 26: 29; cf. Mark, 14: 25; Luke, 22: 18). Nikita's vow, it now becomes clear, is not only proof of his capacity to live by the Christian virtue of self-denial, but a re-enactment of Christ's pledge of His Resurrenction and of the grace for man which that Resurrection will have won. Instead of mocking this pledge by presiding, Judas-like, at the head of the table and indulging himself in the food and vodka like the drunken peasants in the sledge, Brekhunov should be making this gesture himself. Indeed, that he does make it, in a far more exalted form, is precisely what happens at the end: Nikita's symbolic pledge comes to be fulfilled when Christ is resurrected in Brekhunov's own heart. The allusion to the Last Supper thus implies not only a contrast to Brekhunov's present state of soul, but a forecast of what he will become.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that these developments lie in the future. As Brekhunov leaves the peasant house, “the old man … brought a lantern into the passage to show him a light, but it was blown out at once. And even in the yard it was evident that the snowstorm had become more violent” (296). The Satanic storm resists the light that would shine in the darkness, and temporarily quenches it, for Brekhunov still regards himself as the “master,” and is not yet ready to serve the higher Master Whose light now shines from the “man” Nikita. Before experiencing his conversion, it will be his fate, indeed, to enact still once more the role of Christ's betrayer.

This final betrayal occurs at the end of Chapter VI, when Brekhunov, growing increasingly fearful, decides to seek escape for himself and abandon Nikita to almost certain death. It functions as the climax of the fourth segment of the action and hence of the story's first part as a whole—the inevitable consequence and epitomizing expression of Brekhunov's false life toward which everything has been moving. To emphasize the critical importance of this moment Tolstoy carefully leads up to it, again by means of suggestive details, within Chapter VI itself. Shortly before Brekhunov arrives at his destination, for example, he hears the terrifying sound of a wolf (309-310), which recurs, after the betrayal, in Chapter VIII as well (314). On one level, this is no more than a bit of atmosphere designed to make both the reader and Brekhunov aware of the latter's desperate situation. But it also goes beyond this, for Tolstoy is very probably alluding to the celebrated passage in Jeremiah, 5: 6, in which the punishment to be meted out to the sinful is symbolized specifically by the triadic image of wolf, lion, and leopard, which was also used by Dante as an emblem of the three chief categories of sin punishable in the Inferno. In this way the image of the wolf prepares for the betrayal of Nikita by adding still another touch to the ever darkening picture of Brekhunov's evil.

Still another image which serves the same function and is even more fully developed, though it is far less obvious as such because it stems from Tolstoy's own system of thought rather than from a general cultural tradition, is that of Brekhunov's cigarette. In Chapter I, before Brekhunov begins his journey, Tolstoy carefully establishes the fact that he not only has been drinking, but is smoking; the very first glimpse we get of him is as he emerges “from the high porch in front of the house with a cigarette in his mouth …” (276). Later, in Chapter VI, the image reappears, and is developed on no less than three occasions. The first of these is at the beginning of the chapter when Brekhunov, “to calm himself … sat down in the sledge and got out his cigarettes and matches” (303). Though his efforts to strike a light are initially frustrated by his trembling hands and the force of the wind, and though, once lit, the cigarette is quickly blown away, he does manage to take a “few puffs” and these considerably cheer him (303-304). The same thing happens on the second occasion (307). On the third, however, which takes place immediately before his desertion of Nikita, he cannot get the matches lit at all, because the phosphorus has rubbed off them, and he throws the cigarette away in disgust (310). All of this can be understood, like so much else in this story, as “realism” pure and simple: Brekhunov wants a smoke because he is nervous (in contrast to Nikita who finds consolation in thoughts of God [313]), and when he is finally frustrated in getting one, he becomes panicky and decides to flee for his life. But that there is more to these details than this becomes clear as soon as we relate them to an important theme in Tolstoy's work which had been gathering strength for almost ten years before Master and Man was written—the theme, namely, of temperance. Beginning in 1886 with a short folk-tale entitled “The Imp and the Crust,” and continuing through various other works,7 Tolstoy had been steadily exposing, in one way or another, what he considered the deleterious effects of alcohol (a context, incidentally, which sheds still further significance on Nikita's abstinence from vodka and Brekhunov's indulgence), until at last in a major essay written in 1890, and entitled “Why Do Men Stupefy Themselves,” he had brought the whole theme to a climax with a withering indictment not only of alcohol, but of tobacco too, which he classed with a variety of other narcotics as the principal means by which modern man systematically seeks “to stifle the voice of conscience.”8 Indeed, of all these “stupefiers,” it is tobacco which is “probably the most generally used and most harmful.”9

What distinguishes tobacco from most other stupefiers, besides the ease with which one can stupefy oneself with it and its apparent harmlessness, is its portability and the possibility of applying it to meet small, isolated occurrences that disturb one. … You wish to do what you ought not to do, so you smoke a cigarette and stupefy yourself sufficiently to enable you to do what should not be done, and then you are all right again, and can think and speak clearly! or you feel you have done what you should not—again you smoke and the unpleasant consciousness of the wrong or awkward action is obliterated, and you can occupy yourself with other things and forget it.10

The relevance of this to Brekhunov's behavior in Chapter VI is clear: Tolstoy emphasizes his attempt to light and smoke his cigarettes before he deserts Nikita, not only to indicate his fear for his own safety, but to suggest the full moral ugliness of the act to which that fear will lead him, and the persistence of his desire—even if at first it must be unconscious—to commit it; for it is an act to which Brekhunov can bring himself only after he has first repeatedly gone through the ritual of trying to “stupefy” his conscience. That Brekhunov has a conscience to be stifled is, no doubt, a fact in his favor, and the establishment of this fact lays a necessary piece of groundwork for his eventual conversion. But the decisive point for the moment is how Tolstoy uses the little drama of Brekhunov's efforts to light his cigarettes to suggest powerfully and yet quite without melodramatic overemphasis exactly how dark and how deeply rooted in Brekhunov his evil intention is. Indeed, the reason Tolstoy arranges for him to fail in lighting his cigarette on the third occasion is precisely to make clear how ready Brekhunov is, when the one method of silencing his conscience fails, to find another, for the narcotic of tobacco is at once replaced by the narcotic of self-deceiving, self-justifying words (310-311).

After this preparation, the betrayal itself follows immediately, bringing the first part of the story to its climax. The reason this betrayal has such crucial importance lies finally not only in the fact that it is still another literal violation of the spirit of Christian brotherhood, but that as a result of Nikita's having been established in the “Last Supper” scene of Chapter IV as a Christ figure, it is a violation, in effect, of the very person of Christ Himself—a metaphorical reenactment of the historic deed itself. This is the final enormity, the final nightmarish revelation of Brekhunov's potential for evil, toward which the structure and rhetoric of the story have been progressively leading. Acting in the spirit of his predecessors. Brekhunov figuratively gives up Christ to a second death. That some such event would have to be forthcoming was already hinted with special clarity in the “Last Supper” scene itself, when Brekhunov sat at the head of the table in the role of Judas. Now he re-enacts the role of Christ's other betrayer, Peter, who was also present at the actual Last Supper, and was told by Christ that he would deny Him “thrice,” “before the cock crow” (Matt., 26: 34). Brekhunov imagines that he hears the sound of “a distant cock-crow” even prior to his desertion of Nikita (308)—a fact which alerts the reader to the symbolic significance of the betrayal well in advance. Moreover, since it is made clear that this sound is only an illusion11 and hence that the betrayal literally does occur before a real cock crows, after all, the apparent reversal of the sequence of events delicately hints that this symbolic significance of his deed may be apparent in advance even to Brekhunov himself, whose imagination proceeds to act accordingly. As for the threefold form of the betrayal, that too is unmistakable in the manner in which Brekhunov attempts to mount the horse and ride away: “[1] He untied the horse, threw the reins over his neck and tried to mount, but his coats and boots were so heavy that he failed. [2] Then he clambered up in the sledge and tried to mount from there, but the sledge tilted under his weight, and he failed again. [3] At last he drew Mukhorty nearer to the sledge, cautiously balanced on one side of it, and managed to lie on his stomach across the horse's back” (311). Peter's reiterated words of denial (“I know not what thou sayest. … I do not know the man. … I know not the man”) are here echoed by the way in which Brekhunov adheres to his treacherous purpose with such persistence.

Thus the pattern of allusion and symbolic detail in the first part of Master and Man is completed. In particular, the cry of the wolf and the three attempts to light the cigarettes are, it is now clear, important mainly as analogues to the imagined cry of the cock and the three attempts at desertion—the one mirroring and the other foreshadowing the latter happenings, in order that everything may lead up to and make emphatic the identification of Nikita with Christ, and of Brekhunov with His enemies, Judas and Peter. This is the key to the structural principle of the story's first eight chapters, and the fullest extent to which Tolstoy's characterization of Brekhunov as an antichrist is carried.


What follows, of course, in the second part of the story (Chapters IX-X) is Brekhunov's conversion. From the position of antichrist, he moves to that of faithful disciple. If Judas and Peter betrayed Christ, they also repented; in effect, by choosing to save Nikita's life at the expense of his own, and, what is even more crucial, by experiencing, as a consequence, a desire to surrender himself to Christ—to renounce his role of “master” in order to become the “man” of the “Chief Master”—Brekhunov does the same thing.

This ultimate renunciation is anticipated and prepared for by the relation he has begun to have with Nikita even before the decisive events in Chapter IX take place. At the very beginning of the journey it is Brekhunov who drives the sledge and makes most of the decisions, including that of taking “the nearest way.” But gradually he surrenders his will more and more to Nikita (282, 283, 288), until finally the latter is virtually in full control. Repeatedly, Brekhunov asks him what is to be done, and always follows his lead (299, 300, 301, 302).

A similar pattern of events which prepares for and supports the thematic significance of Brekhunov's conversion as that of a discipleship to Christ grows out of the relation which he and Nikita have to their horse, Mukhorty. Nikita's tender regard for the horse and his resemblance to it (e.g., 274, 275, 283) are an important index of his harmony with God's creation. To love the horse and to respect its will becomes a metaphor of one's right relation to the divine will itself. When Nikita is distressed by the way in which the driver of the drunken peasants in the sledge is beating his own horse, whereas Brekhunov remains unmoved, we know at once that this says something vital about the moral condition of their souls. The same thing is revealed by the degree to which they are willing to rely on Mukhorty as a guide. Nikita trusts the animal completely (288-289), and this confidence is rewarded when Mukhorty not only brings them back to Grishkino (289), but on two later occasions stops just at the edge of a hidden ravine, saving the travelers from an accident (299-300). At the beginning Brekhunov too trusts the horse (286); but as the story goes on, he tries more and more to guide it, and in doing so only succeeds in going increasingly astray: “he hurriedly began urging the horse on, not noticing that when riding up to the wormwood he had quite changed his direction and was now heading the opposite way, though still imagining that he was riding towards where the hut should be. But the horse kept making towards the right, and Vasili Andreevich kept guiding it to the left” (314). The moral implication of this passage is obvious, for here Brekhunov's attempt to direct the horse and his attempt to desert Nikita are correlated. What saves Brekhunov's soul is only the fact that, in spite of his persistent efforts to control the animal, Mukhorty leads him back to the sledge, after all (316-317). The whole sequence of events, like Brekhunov's progressive acquiescence in the decisions of Nikita, points symbolically to the necessity of surrendering oneself to something outside of onself, of making one's own will the servant of that which is expressive of the higher will of God.

Still another way in which Tolstoy prepares for Brekhunov's emergence as a disciple of Christ is by the symbolic image of Brekhunov's lost right-hand glove, of which we hear on three separate occasions (316, 317, 319). The importance of this detail is that it supplements the key image of Brekhunov's coats. As I have already noted, these coats may be regarded from one point of view as a metaphor of Brekhunov's moral encasement, the spiritual imprisonment that manifests itself in his callous lack of fellow-feeling. Accordingly, when Tolstoy wishes to dramatize his conversion, he allows Brekhunov not merely to go to the aid of Mukhorty and throw himself down upon Nikita's body in order to warm it, but first spread open his coats in what amounts to a heroic gesture of spiritual liberation. The lost glove, even though it has not been purposely discarded, is a similar sign: without the glove, Brekhunov's hand begins to freeze, but he scarcely notices this, so intent is he on performing his act of charity (319). The fact that it is specifically the right-hand glove which Brekhunov has lost also relates the motif to the earlier symbolism of the right and left ways: freed from its encasement, Brekhunov's hand is no longer, in effect, his own hand—a part of the mortal body which he is now in the process of renouncing—but the right hand of God, performing God's work in this world.

The groundwork for Brekhunov's change into a disciple of Christ is also laid down in a number of other ways, which work to create in the reader a sense, specifically, of spiritual duality and of the possibility of the transfiguration of one identity into another. In Chapters I-VI, for example, this purpose is served mainly by a pattern of verbal ironies which reveal that though Brekhunov is one kind of man at the moment, he contains, unknown to himself, as does a chrysalis, still another—the “new man” of Paul's Epistle to the Colossians (3: 9-10)—whose eventual emergence is thereby anticipated. Thus, in revealing at the outset the ways in which Brekhunov has habitually swindled Nikita out of his rightful wages, Tolstoy recalls the latter, on two separate occasions, saying the following: “If you need anything, take it; you will work it off. I'm not like others to keep you waiting, and making up accounts and reckoning fines. We deal straightforwardly. You serve me and I don't neglect you. … I think of your interest as of my own—according to conscience. Brekhunov isn't a man to wrong anyone. Let the loss be mine. I'm not like others. Honestly!” (274, 281; SS, 320, 327). At first glance, nothing could seem more disingenuous: judged in relation to what Brekhunov has been and now is, these words are all lies. Yet judged in relation to what he will become, they are nothing less than the truth—a prophetic glimpse for the reader into the latent Brekhunov who, when he and Nikita are facing death, will prove quite different from the “others” (including the “old man” of his former self), after all, no longer neglecting Nikita or keeping him waiting, but allowing him to “take” all he needs, even at the cost of Brekhunov's own life (“Let the loss be mine”). Another example of this unconscious prophecy appears much later, only shortly before Brekhunov deserts Nikita, when the thought occurs to him of covering the peasant with the horse's drugget. The reason he gives himself for considering such an action is simply that of avoiding any responsibility for Nikita's death. But the way in which Brekhunov puts this—“I may be held responsible for him” (308; SS, 351)—also hints at the fact that he will indeed “be held responsible”—by his own conscience, as his earlier remark, “I think of your interest as of my own—according to conscience,” had also anticipated.

Brekhunov's transfiguration is again ironically forecast by some comments he makes on the conditions necessary to the success of the journey and of business ventures in general. To his wife who urges him to take Nikita along, he replies, “Why? Don't I know the road that I must needs take a guide?” (277; SS, 323); later, to Nikita, who hints that they might go astray once more if they leave the peasant's house in Grishkino, he insists, “But we have only to reach the turning and then we shan't go wrong” (294; SS, 339); and finally, to himself, as he leaves the house and later lies in the sledge, recalling his commercial triumphs, he thinks, “We'll get there with God's help! … Take pains and God gives. … God gives to those who take trouble, but not to loafers, lie-abeds, or fools” (296, 306, 307; SS, 341, 350, 351). Like the foregoing, each of these remarks points in two different directions. If taken literally, they only confirm our impression of Brekhunov's present blindness; but, if taken metaphorically, everything Brekhunov says looks ahead to his moral regeneration: when it comes to saving Nikita from death, he will need no “guide” but the love newly born in his own heart; though he continues to lose the way after making the turn, this proves only to be an error which lands him in the extremity indispensable to his spiritual salvation; and it is to arrive at that—rather than at the Goryackhin forest or its equivalent—that God finally gives him all the help he needs.

In fact, as the turning-point in Brekhunov's life approaches, the presence of God in his thoughts becomes increasingly evident. The word “God” appears not only three times in one of the passages I have just cited, but elsewhere as well: “God only knows how we missed the turning” (305; SS, 349); “Devil take the forest! Things were all right without it, thank God” (310; SS, 354); and “He [Nikita] won't grudge his life, but I have something to live for, thank God” (311; SS, 354). All these remarks are no less ironic than the others. So far as Brekhunov's intentions are concerned, they are merely the most conventional and hollow of exclamations. And yet they also hint, however obliquely, at that genuine acknowledgement of God in his heart which will finally save him, and entitle him, in effect, to repeat with far greater meaning what Nikita has already said in the first chapter about himself: “You know that I serve you and take as much pains as I would for my own father” (274). Nikita has served Brekhunov as he would his own father, but Brekhunov, in serving Nikita, will give himself up to serving the higher Father of them both. In rejecting the forest, in particular (“Devil take the forest!”), Brekhunov is doing so only because he now sees that his fanatical hope of buying it has endangered the life of his body; yet such a rejection is also a necessary condition for the salvation of the life of his soul—a consigning to the Devil of the values which obstruct his hearing the word of God. Similarly, just prior to his betrayal of Nikita, by which time his fear has increased unbearably, he rejects the trapping and rituals of the church: “he clearly and indubitably realized that the icon, its frame, the candles, the priest, and the thanksgiving service, though very important and necessary in church, could do nothing for him here, and that there was and could be no connection between those candles and services and his present disastrous plight” (316). The point here is the same: Brekhunov's awareness, on the conscious level, is simply that, so far as his physical safety is concerned, his having participated in the church service earlier in the day was futile; but his thoughts cut in another direction as well, implying one of the central theses of Tolstoy's religious thought in this period—that ritualism is indeed futile even for the safety of the soul, if, as usually happens, it stands in the way of genuine deeds of love. It too must be discarded if the voice of God is to be acknowledged fully.

All of these examples of verbal irony which develop in a general way the theme of transfiguration or duality preparatory to Brekhunov's emerging as a disciple of Christ do not operate in a vacuum. They derive much of their resonance from being part of a structure of actions—of non-verbal events—or of images that serve the same purpose. The most obvious of such events perhaps is the snow storm itself, the central feature of which is precisely its ambiguity. That it is a metaphor of demonic power—of the power of darkness—we have already noted. But insofar as it prevents Brekhunov from achieving his benighted purpose, which is that of transacting his business deal, it also becomes an instrument of his redemption. It is, in the end, for the best that the storm should cause Brekhunov to “go astray,” because in going astray he is actually finding the way to his moral awakening—to the release of the latent spiritual being within him.

Matching the ambiguous import of the storm is that of a number of Brekhunov's own actions. The transfiguration evidenced by his conversion itself is underscored, for example, by details which ironically stress a resemblance between his efforts to save Nikita and the manner in which he formerly carried out his business transactions. He pulls his girdle low down, tightens it, and prepares for action “as was his custom when going out of his shop to buy grain from the peasants” (317); he begins raking the snow off Nikita “with the same resolution with which he used to strike hands when making a good purchase” (318); and he refers to his successfully keeping Nikita warm “with the same boastfulness with which he spoke of his buying and selling” (319). The point of these comparisons is to juxtapose the old and the new Brekhunovs for the sake of the sharpest possible contrast. Like the storm, Brekhunov's mannerisms might appear on the surface to be wholly motivated, like all his previous actions, by selfishness and the acquisitive instinct alone, whereas in fact they are expressive of a wholly new impulse which gives them the highest moral importance. The substance of the action belies its form. Earlier, this duality of Brekhunov's behavior had been exhibited even more subtly in a reverse way: several of his actions really undertaken for selfish reasons had been given a certain appearance of piety—as when, in order to light his cigarette and see his watch, he “went down on his knees and elbows” in a posture of prayer (309)—or, even more important, of a symbolic crucifixion—as when in screening the matches he “stretched himself flat on his stomach” (307), and in mounting Mukhorty for his flight “managed to lie on his stomach across the horse's back” (311).

These glancing references to the crucifixion also bring us back to two of the story's Biblical allusions, and alert us to the fact that they too have ambiguous import. The first of these—crystallized when Brekhunov originally enters Grishkino and encounters Isay—is to the two thieves mentioned in Matthew, 27: 44 and Mark, 15: 32. As already noted, this allusion helps to establish Brekhunov in the early stages of the story as one of Christ's enemies. Simultaneously, however, it also implies his forthcoming discipleship, when we recall that, according to the version of the crucifixion given in Luke, 23: 39-43, one of the thieves, as a result of acknowledging his guilt and rebuking his fellow for his raillery of Christ, was promised reunion with Christ in paradise. This reunion with Christ is precisely what Brekhunov himself comes to enjoy, in the form of a dream vision which he experiences while lying protectively on Nikita's body. At first he imagines that he is on his bed at home, awaiting the arrival of the local police officer, with whom he is to go “either to bargain for the forest or to put Mukhorty's breeching straight” (320). Yet he experiences an uncanny degree of joy which is quite incommensurate with this purpose, and which continues to increase until at last it is completed by the arrival of Christ Himself, Who is the real guest he has been unconsciously expecting and wanting to welcome all along (320). Brekhunov's act of love toward Nikita, like the repentance of the thief on the cross, has won him a vision of his spiritual resurrection.12

But the allusion to the crucified thieves is not the only forecast of this development. Equally suggestive is the ambiguous import of the “distant cock-crow” which Brekhunov imagines he hears shortly before his treacherous flight. This too, as we have seen, is a Biblical allusion—to the three-fold denial of Christ by Peter. But it also has another, quite opposite meaning, deriving from the story itself, as is made clear by a passage at the end of Chapter III, where the peasant lad Petrushka is reciting various folk-proverbs from Paulson's primer. That one of these proverbs—“‘A thief creeps to the house—the dog barks,’ that means, ‘Be on your guard!’” (290)—helps establish the allusion to the Biblical thieves is another point we have already noted. But the proverb is immediately followed by two others which define an equally clear relation between the cock-crow and Brekhunov's dream-vision of his discipleship and redemption: “The cock crows,” continues Petrushka, “that means, ‘Get up!’ The cat licks herself—that means, ‘A welcome guest is coming. Get ready to receive him!’” (290-291). Both these consequences are precisely what happens in the dream: Brekhunov feels an urgent need to “get up” (320) from his bed, and he feels this because he wishes to greet Christ, the “welcome guest,” whose arrival he has been so eagerly awaiting. The parallel between the proverbs and the action of the story, it is true, is only partial, for Tolstoy allows the dream to be heralded by the cock-crow alone; but the connection is close enough for Petrushka's words to lose none of their relevance. What Tolstoy has done, in effect, is to telescope the implications of the two images of the cock and the cat so that the one may do the duty of both, avoiding in this way an appearance of schematism in a story whose parabolic intent is already sufficiently clear, and, at the same time, sacrificing nothing of the symbolic meaning of the cock-crow which Petrushka's words explicitly impart to it. At the very least—however we may consider its relation to the specific content of the dream—the cock-crow, by urging Brekhunov to “get up,” metaphorically announces that the redemptive dream is an experience which he must undergo. Paradoxically, it summons him to awaken to a dream—a dream which saves him by, in turn, awakening him to a new life in Christ.

For it is indeed this, the conversion experience itself, to which the dream at last directly leads us. Neither Brekhunov's decision to protect Nikita, nor the dream itself, constitute his conversion; they, like all the other details we have been examining in the second part of the story, have been only preparations for it. The act of protecting Nikita is what makes possible Brekhunov's dream; but the dream itself is important only because it, in turn, makes possible the emergence of the new man from within him. As Brekhunov dreams of Christ arriving and calling to him, he cries out “joyfully” in response, “I'm coming!” and “that cry awoke him, but woke him up not at all the same person he had been when he fell asleep” (320).

As we have already remarked, the essence of this change is that Brekhunov emerges as no longer the enemy and the betrayer of Christ, but as His disciple. This is the reversal on which the whole story turns. It is brought about most explicitly by Brekhunov's words, “I'm coming,” which indicate his desire no longer to serve his own will, but another's—no longer to be “master,” but to be the “man” of the higher “Master.” Tolstoy also suggests the change in a more subtle and arresting way by a symbolic use of Brekhunov's eyes. These are mentioned only twice in the story, but at two extremely important and radically contrasting moments—first, at the beginning of Chapter IV (as Mrs. Trahan notes), when our attention is called to his “prominent hawk-like eyes” as he sits at the head of the peasant table in the role of Judas (291), and again at the end of the final chapter when we see his “bulging hawk-eyes … frozen” in death (323). On the first occasion, these eyes are clearly a symbol of Brekhunov's corruption, an image of the life of the “animal self” (a favorite phrase in Tolstoy's later writings) governed by selfish, predatory motives alone. Why, then, are they mentioned again, after the converted Brekhunov has renounced that self by his act of supreme self-sacrifice? Obviously, the repetition produces irony: the same detail appearing on two quite different occasions underlines the difference emphatically. There is, however, more to the matter than this, for the hawk or the falcon is one of the most common symbols in traditional Christian art, having for its chief purpose the symbolizing of precisely those two different spiritual states in which Brekhunov himself is found on the occasions just mentioned. As George Ferguson has put it in his study, Signs and Symbols in Christian Art, “There are two kinds of falcon in religious symbolism: the wild and the domestic. The wild falcon symbolized evil thought or action, while the domestic falcon represented the holy man, or the Gentile converted to the Christian faith.”13 This distinction between the two kinds of falcon is served in the story by the distinction between the two different occasions on which Brekhunov's hawk-like eyes are described. The eyes themselves are the same on both of these occasions, but, on each, they mean quite different things. Like a number of the images which Tolstoy used earlier in preparing for Brekhunov's conversion, their power as symbols lies in their ambiguity.

But the most important index of Brekhunov's conversion is his suddenly acquiring a profound sense of his and Nikita's oneness of being—a sense that he has been actually transfigured into the humble servant he previously betrayed. The very words, “I'm coming,” with which he announces his allegiance to Christ, are the same that Nikita himself used earlier when answering Brekhunov's cries for help (300). At the time of the betrayal itself he had seen Nikita and himself as radically separate; like so many of those (including himself!) whom Tolstoy repeatedly denounced in his non-fictional writings (e.g., What Then Must We Do?), he had put between himself and another man the barrier of his insufferable class pride, his selfishness, and his egotism (e.g., 310-311). After the betrayal, however, two very interesting things had happened: Nikita and Brekhunov had literally changed places. Nikita “got inside the sledge and lay down in the place where his master had been” (313), and Brekhunov, in the course of his flight, found that he “had sunk in the same ravine Nikita had previously fallen into” (316; cf. 299-300). In the perspective of the story's denouement, these events take on unexpected resonance as a metaphor of Brekhunov's startling sense of his new identity: “it seemed to him that he was Nikita and Nikita was he, and that his life was not in himself but in Nikita. … ‘Nikita is alive, so I too am alive!’ he said to himself triumphantly” (320-321). Through this feeling of oneness with Nikita, Brekhunov metaphorically attains to an experience of Christian humility and brotherhood in the most emphatic way possible.14 Moreover, it is precisely because of this experience that he is finally able to achieve what, in his numerous religious writings, Tolstoy repeatedly insisted could be achieved by this experience alone—namely, a meaning in life indestructible by death. Though Brekhunov cannot move his body and realizes that this means he must die, he is undisturbed, knowing that the Brekhunov who is dying is quite another Brekhunov—an empty shell—whom his sense of identity with Nikita has at last enabled him wholly to transcend (321). In this joyful experience of liberation from the world of death—the object of Tolstoy's own life-long religious quest—Brekhunov's discipleship to Christ has at last been fully achieved.

But the story is not yet over; there is still another way in which the discipleship theme is expressed. If Brekhunov feels himself to be transfigured into Nikita, the reader is allowed the even more astonishing experience of seeing him ultimately transfigured, by the author, into Christ Himself. Brekhunov's sense of oneness with Nikita implies a discipleship to Christ which, in turn, Tolstoy images symbolically as an actual identity. As earlier, in the scene at the peasant's house, he had identified Christ and Nikita, he now identifies Christ and the regenerate Brekhunov. The point, of course, has not been missed: noting that “in sacrificing himself for [Nikita] … Brekhunov reiterates Christ's sacrifice” (T, 264), that the name of the village in which he lives is “The Crosses” (Kresty) (T, 259), and that “as he lies down on his servant with his arms spread out, he, in a sense, mounts the Cross” (T, 264), Mrs. Trahan has called Brekhunov's religious awakening “almost a reiteration of Christ's road to Calvary” (T, 259). This is quite true; re-enactment of the Passion of Christ is as crucial to this part of the story as re-enactment of the betrayal of Christ was to the earlier. But Tolstoy's metaphorical identification of Brekhunov with Christ goes even farther. The Crucifixion itself, for example, is suggested not only by the details Mrs. Trahan mentions, but by Brekhunov's last words and feelings, and the manner in which Tolstoy describes his death: “‘I'm coming! Coming!’ he responded gladly, and his whole being was filled with joyful emotion. He felt himself free and that nothing could hold him back any longer. After that Vasili Andreevich neither saw, heard, nor felt anything more in this world” (321). That this passage identifies Brekhunov as Christ's servant is a point we have already noted; but that it also identifies him, through an allusion to the last of the “Seven Last Words” of Christ as described in Luke, 23: 46, with the crucified Christ Himself, Whose final act was to announce Himself as the servant of God, is equally vital.15

Above all, however, Tolstoy goes beyond the motif of the Crucifixion and allows Brekhunov to re-enact the other sacred themes of the Christ story as well—the central Mysteries, indeed, of the Incarnation, the Resurrection, and the Redemption. This is the story's culminating stroke of rhetoric, bringing Brekhunov's conversion experience and the motif of duality and transfiguration which we have been tracing to their true climax. The Incarnation is re-enacted when Brekhunov experiences his sense of oneness with Nikita—when he enters imaginatively into him and becomes his very being. The Resurrection is re-enacted, both when Brekhunov awakes from his redemptive dream (“not at all the same person he had been when he fell asleep”), and later when, in dying, “he felt himself free and that nothing could hold him back any longer” (321). And the Redemption is enacted—by Nikita—after Brekhunov has saved his life: not only does Nikita, when he recovers consciousness upon being rescued, feel that he has died and attained immortality—that “he was already dead and that what was taking place with him was no longer happening in this world but in the next” (323)—but Brekhunov's deed enables him to go on living for another twenty years until he is permitted at last to die the holy death of a true believer (323). By saving Nikita's life, Brekhunov's sacrifice, like Christ's, has enabled his man to save his soul.

Tolstoy made clear, of course, in numerous writings, but especially in A Criticism of Dogmatic Theology (wr. 1879-1880), that he regarded these Mysteries, along with the doctrine of Christ's divinity, as nothing more than myths erected into dangerous dogmas. Nevertheless, his works also make clear that they exercised a powerful hold over his imagination as metaphors of permanently available human experiences which could be had by those who chose to become Christ's followers and live by his ethical teachings. Man becomes incarnate God when he recognizes in himself the presence of the divine spirit; he re-enacts the Crucifixion when, actuated by brotherly love, he sacrifices himself for others; he achieves resurrection when he recognizes that “The Kingdom of God” is to be found within; and he redeems his fellows when his life becomes an example of Christ-like goodness which all will want to imitate. It is precisely Brekhunov's achievement of these things that Master and Man is ultimately all about, and which all the facets of Tolstoy's artistry we have been examining ultimately exist, in their various ways, to define.


  1. The Slavic and East European Journal, VII (Fall, 1963), 258-268. Hereafter abbreviated as T, with page references given parenthetically above in the text.

  2. “Master and Man,” trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude, in Leo Tolstoy, Short Novels, II, ed. Ernest J. Simmons (New York, 1966), p. 305. Hereafter all page references to the story will be to this edition, and will be indicated parenthetically above. The Russian text may be found in L. N. Tolstoj, Sobranie Soc̆inenij, 20 vols. (Moscow, 1960-1965), XII, 318-366. In order to conserve space page references to this edition (abbreviated as SS) will be given only in connection with passages in which interpretation depends upon the connotations of the original language.

  3. Cf. in Chapters VI and VIII the reference to Brekhunov's “iron-roofed barn” (306, 315).

  4. Cf. Psalm, 16: 8 and 11; Mark, 14: 62; Acts, 2: 33; 7: 55-56; Romans, 8: 34; Colossians, 3: 1; Hebrews, 1: 3; 8: 1; 10: 12; I Peter, 3: 22.

  5. Cf. Deuteronomy, 29: 18; Amos, 5: 7; Proverbs, 5: 4; Lamentations, 3: 15, 19.

  6. This parallel between the two Simons is also noted by Mrs. Trahan, though I believe she misconstrues its significance: “The sledge which Brexunov overtakes is driven by one Simon who, however casually encountered, might have shared Brexunov's burden, had he [Brexunov] chosen to accept his [Simon's] help” (T, 263). This statement seems to imply (a) that the Biblical Simon volunteered to share Christ's burden, and (b) that the peasant driver is also willing to help Brekhunov. But neither of these assumptions is acceptable. The Biblical Simon, far from freely offering his services, was compelled to offer them by the crucifiers, and compelled not in order charitably to ease Christ's burden, but solely in order to enable Christ to reach the place of execution. As for the peasant driver, he gives no indication whatsoever of wanting to help Brekhunov, and, indeed, the kind of help he could offer him is not clear, since we are given no assurance that he himself can keep on the correct course.

  7. See, for example, The First Distiller (1886), The Power of Darkness (1886), The Fruits of Enlightenment (1889), “The Kreutzer Sonata” (1887-1889), “Introduction” to Ershov's Recollections of Sevastopol (1889), and “The Holiday of the Enlightenment of the Twelfth of January” (1889).

  8. Recollections and Essays, trans. Aylmer Maude (London, 1937), p. 75.

  9. Ibid.

  10. Ibid., p. 77.

  11. Brekhunov's watch, soon after, indicates that the hour is “only ten minutes past” midnight (309).

  12. It is very interesting to note that in his Introduction (1884) to What I Believe Tolstoy had used this same Biblical passage as an illustration of his own conversion: “The thief on the cross believed in Jesus and was saved. … I, like that thief on the cross, have believed Christ's teaching and been saved” (A Confession, The Gospel in Brief, and What I Believe, trans. Aylmer Maude [London, 1940], p. 308).

  13. (New York, 1966), p. 18.

  14. Cf. the very similar conversion experience of the title character in Tolstoy's late parable, “Esarhaddon, King of Assyria” (1903).

  15. Tolstoy uses a similar Biblical echo at the end of The Death of Ivan Ilych, where the words, “‘It is finished! … Death is finished. … It is no more’” (Leo Tolstoy, Short Novels, II, p. 62) are taken from the sixth of the “Seven Last Words,” as recorded in John, 19: 30.

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

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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, only the very different Hadji Murat can be put alongside them in an assessment of his work after Anna Karenina.

That this is so is doubtless due in part to the fact that sexual temptation is no longer at the centre of the two narratives. It is the emptiness of the whole spectrum of values by which Ivan Ilyich and Brekhunov live and measure their success that Tolstoy illuminates. But it is at least as important for the regaining of authorial balance that these two stories should both be told in the third person, as that they should not centre on an exclusively sexual corruption. Again in Tolstoy we can see, as so often in Lawrence, how the demands of that narrative mode serve to impose a necessary discipline on the prophet and teacher. It is not that Tolstoy ever gives up being didactic in either story, but that the ‘lesson’ involved is in each case seen as growing out of a thoroughly credible, particularised context, a real and recognisable world in which Brekhunov and Ivan Ilyich move towards their individual destinies.

It is this sense of particularisation, both of character and context, that separates Master and Man from those shorter parabolic stories to which it otherwise bears some resemblance. Both Brekhunov and Nikita, the peasant he employs, are presented as wholly plausible, living figures whose representative significance is secondary to their existence as individual characters. We are thus drawn, as readers, into a much greater involvement with their fates, both moral and physical, than in the simple parables where men tend to be types rather than individuals.

The dealer and innkeeper Brekhunov is a man of considerable complacency and energy, who lives entirely for the business he has built up, and the yet bigger business he is going to build. Although we see him at the outset in the role of a Church elder, it is clear that his religion is simply a matter of propriety, and that material gain is the real mainspring of his existence. So enthusiastic and unquestioning is he in his pursuit of such gain, and so thoroughly pleased with himself at what he has achieved, that there is an almost endearing quality about his particular brand of materialism. For all his willingness to exploit the peasant Nikita, and indeed anyone else with whom he has dealings, he is by no means offered as a thoroughly corrupt man. Rather, he appears as an essentially good-hearted man whose energies have been consistently misapplied. When, at the close, his values have changed drastically, there is not felt to have been any essential change in his nature—he boasts to himself of his achievement at keeping Nikita from freezing with the same kind of relish that he might have congratulated himself earlier on making a good deal (his name is derived from brekhun, which has derogatory associations of boasting or bragging). The consistency is important to our acceptance of Brekhunov's conversion as something wholly plausible, an event the seeds of which are already within him.

Nikita is a slightly less satisfactory figure than Brekhunov in that he has about him something of the Tolstoyan stereotype of the good peasant—good natured, submissive, God-fearing and ready to welcome death in the same way as does Natalya Savishna in Childhood or Platon Karatayev in War and Peace. But he too is real, redeemed from the stereotype by his occasional lapses into drunken violence, a vice which has put him into Brekhunov's grasping but not ill-intentioned hands.

It is these two who set out on the momentous journey through the snowstorm to forestall other dealers in buying a grove of standing timber at what Brekhunov considers will be a bargain price. It is an urgent occasion for him, a considerable potential increase in his fortune, and he is unwilling even to consider the worsening weather as a hindrance. For Nikita the journey is simply another duty laid upon him, an order he obeys willingly enough, though he has little choice but to obey. They are immediately projected into a world almost completely devoid of landmarks, a desolate, snow-covered landscape, which has an obviously symbolic significance in a story of a man spiritually lost in a corrupt world, but whose primary significance is certainly its literal one: it has the same bleak, immediate reality as does the landscape in “The Snow-Storm,” written nearly forty years earlier.

As they wander in this wilderness it is Brekhunov, driven by greed to take the shorter, less well-marked route, whom we see causing them to lose their way, and Nikita whom we see finding it again. The anticipation of his profit makes Brekhunov refuse the hospitality of the old farmer, in whose house they rest after losing their way for the second time. (We see in the latter's family an image of the old agrarian Russia struggling against the new order that Brekhunov and his kind bring with them.) When they get lost for the third and final time, Brekhunov comforts himself, as he settles down to spend the night in the blizzard, with the thought of his money:

He did not feel like sleeping. He lay and thought: thought only about the one thing that constituted the sole aim, meaning, pleasure and pride of his life—about how much money he had made, and how much he still could make; about how much other people he knew had made and possessed, and how those others had made and were making money, and how he, like them, might still make a lot of money.

(Chapter 6)

The details of the deal he is about to make, of how much he has already improved the property his father left him, and of how he may in time become a millionaire, comfort him for a little while, but such consolations are insidiously undermined by the terrible, unavoidable reality of the storm. Against this background, reduced to being simply a man, his wealth worthless, isolated from society and all he has lived for, Brekhunov's unquestioning confidence in the validity of his ambitions slowly seeps away: ‘However much he tried to think about his accounts, his business, and about his reputation and his dignity and wealth, fear took hold of him more and more, and above all his thoughts, and mixed in with all his other thoughts, stood out the thought of why he had not spent the night at Grishkino.’ (Chapter 6)

Brekhunov's fear of death grows stronger as the interminable night wears on; it is something against which he has absolutely no defence, unlike Nikita, who is, in the most matter of fact way, ready to accept whatever God may decide is best. Brekhunov finds himself quite alone in the darkness; Nikita does not. It is this that drives Brekhunov to his ignoble and pathetic attempt to escape on the horse, abandoning Nikita whom, he reasons, has nothing much to live for anyway. It is with this attempted escape that the symbolic element in the story intensifies: abandoning his fellow man to his death, the dealer rides in selfishly aimless circles around the snowy wilderness. He has no clear idea of where he is going, but is simply carried along. Twice he believes he sees a village before him, but in each case the object which he thinks is his salvation turns out on closer inspection to be nothing but wormwood. Finally the horse brings him back to Nikita and the sledge in a very different frame of mind.

This brief symbolic passage is crucial to the story as a whole, and Tolstoy's deployment of it is extraordinarily sure. It has a clarity of underlying meaning about it that makes it seem reasonable to call it an allegory in little of Brekhunov's whole life—a life guided by no sure principle, which takes him away from his fellow men, going round in circles in pursuit of ambitions which when they are realised turn out to be wormwood, but a life which in the end is to regain its proper course in returning to love for mankind. But for all its allegorical clarity, the episode never loses for a moment its urgent, literal reality: it is never felt to be an obtrusive digression into a mode at variance with the rest of the story. The wormwood which so frightens Brekhunov when he sees what it is, is real wormwood, just as the storm, the horse and the sledge are all real. As often in Anna Karenina, symbolic and realistic narrative are perfectly balanced, reinforcing rather than clashing with each other, so that the change in Brekhunov's attitude when he returns to the sledge is an altogether credible one, rooted in the particular experience and yet given a wider resonance through Tolstoy's allegory.

The change is all the more credible in that Brekhunov's sudden access of love, of a wholly new system of values, is yet seen, as has already been suggested, as wholly in character. It is the determined man of business who decides to save Nikita from freezing to death: ‘Vasily Andreyich stood silent and motionless for half a minute, then suddenly, with the same resolution with which he used to strike hands when making a good purchase, he took one step back and tucking up the sleeves of his fur coat began raking the snow off Nikita and out of the sledge with both hands.’ (Chapter 9)

As Brekhunov lies on top of Nikita warming him, his pleasure at what he is doing increases, as his fear of death diminishes. In the end, as he dies, there is no fear of death. In his half-conscious condition, sometimes dreaming, sometimes awake, death seems itself joyful, a mingling of identity with Nikita, and a freedom from his own private body and identity. Again Tolstoy's realism is crucial here in helping us accept what might otherwise seem simple Tolstoyan propaganda. Brekhunov's sensations as he dies are so particularised as to belong only to him, and as such the most sceptical reader can accept them as moving and plausible: we can believe in Brekhunov without having to believe in any generalised ethical or religious system, whether a conventional Christian immortality, or Tolstoy's rationalised version in which man merges into the rest of humanity, the collective divine consciousness, past, present and future, putting off his physical body.

Here, as in The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Tolstoy's treatment of experience is far removed from the simplistic, somewhat bludgeoning mode of much of the later non-fiction, or of the worst parts of The Kreutzer Sonata. In the latter, Donald Davie has rightly argued, Tolstoy ‘cheated the most valuable trait in himself, his plastic apprehension of irrationality and complexity’.1 In the description of Brekhunov's slow, joyful death he exploits that trait to the full, making his ‘conversion’ something we can accept on the level of immediate, lived experience, complex, irrational, particularised, and therefore movingly convincing.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich is very close in some respects to Master and Man: it too posits the case of a man who has lived his life wrongly, according to trivial values, and who therefore cannot face death without fear. There, too, the late discovery of love for those around him helps him to accept death, which in the end presents itself, after the most terrible physical and spiritual suffering, as a passage to something joyful. It differs most obviously from Master and Man in the remorselessness with which Tolstoy presents the emptiness, the terrible pointlessness, of Ivan Ilyich's life, and the long drawn out process of his death. Until his death, Brekhunov's was a life without real values, but one lived with some kind of gusto. Ivan Ilyich's life has none of this: it is an ordinary life, which, we are made uncomfortably aware, is in its essential loneliness, its reliance on values and ambitions that in the larger view are seen to be trivial in the extreme, close to that of a modern Everyman. This is the force of the famous statement with which Tolstoy opens the second chapter: ‘The story of Ivan Ilyich's life was most simple and most ordinary and most terrible’, a statement which subsequent chapters persuade us to be only too close to the truth.

The desolate landscape, the snow and wormwood of Master and Man are used to body forth the emptiness of Brekhunov's values and life, but in The Death of Ivan Ilyich we are shown that emptiness more directly as we follow the course of the hero's career. What makes the ambitions, the minor successes and failures, the distractions, the sources of frustration or satisfaction, all seem so trivial in Ivan Ilyich's case is that Tolstoy begins his story from the point of his death, and only then returns to explain the life that had preceded it. The story in fact begins and ends with that death (the last word is ‘died’), and the questions that this perspective inevitably raises are kept before our minds throughout. We are made to ask about Ivan Ilyich, as we rarely do about our own lives, the question which so tormented Tolstoy—what is the point, what is it all for, if it is only to end in death, this death we have already seen in the coffin-lid standing against the wall in the first pages of Ivan Ilyich's life story? That coffin-lid makes a terrible mockery of all that pleases or frustrates Ivan Ilyich; his satisfactions in life, his tastefully furnished house, his efficiency at his job, his regular games of bridge, cannot survive the kind of probing that the coffin-lid forces us to give them, not because they are entirely worthless, but because they are never seen by him in their proper perspective—the perspective of the coffin-lid, of inevitable death. For Ivan Ilyich, as for his whole circle, death is something that only happens to other people, never to oneself, as Tolstoy intimates with such absolute rightness in the pathetic yet poignant and natural reflections of Ivan Ilyich:

‘The example of a syllogism he had learnt from Kiezewetter's Logic: “Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal”, had always seemed correct only in relation to Caius, but in no sense to himself. That was Caius—man, man in the abstract, and that was perfectly correct; but he was not Caius, not man in the abstract, but a creature quite, quite separate from all others. He had been Vanya, with Mamma, with Papa, with Mitya and Volodya, with the toys, with a coachman, with a nurse, then with Katenka, and with all the joys, griefs, delights of childhood, youth and youthfulness. What was the smell of that striped leather ball Vanya had liked so much to Caius? Did Caius kiss his mother's hand like that, and did the silk of the folds of her dress rustle like that for Caius? Had he rioted like that over the pastry at school? Had Caius been in love like that? Could Caius preside at a session like that?

“Caius really was mortal, and it was correct for him to die, but for me, Vanya, Ivan Ilyich, with all my feelings, thoughts—for me it's a different matter. It can't be that I ought to die. That would be quite horrible.”

Such was his feeling.’

(Chapter 6)

The old Tolstoyan feeling for the life of the body, the love that enables him to apprehend the intimate and innocent details of the child's consciousness as it survives in the man, comes through here, even in the unnatural, unlovable Ivan Ilyich. But it comes through only to be shown as something false, a delusion we must give up if we are to understand things rightly. Ivan Ilyich's friends, who have no such understanding, respond to his death, significantly enough, with the perfectly natural if selfish feeling of complacent pleasure that ‘it is he who is dead, not I’.

Those colleagues who call to fulfil the demands of propriety before the funeral have no real sense that what has happened to one of them must happen to all. It is simply an occasion for possible promotion, an interruption to their evening games of bridge, an unnecessarily depressing event that even has a kind of tastelessness about it on Ivan Ilyich's part. Only for a brief moment does the relevance of this death to his own life strike Ivan Ilyich's closest colleague, Peter Ivanovich, as he sits giving hypocritical comfort to the hypocritical grief of Ivan Ilyich's widow. Otherwise it is an air of unreality that pervades the opening chapter: the grief itself is unreal, as is the empty pomposity of the funeral arrangements, while the attempts at dignified grief and solicitude between Peter Ivanovich and Ivan Ilyich's widow are bizarrely undermined by the squeaking pouffe on which the former sits, and by the carved table on which the latter catches her black shawl. For all those concerned, death is something unreal, as it had been at first to Ivan Ilyich.

The fact that he has placed the latter's life so firmly in the perspective of death from the very outset has a considerable bearing on the way in which Tolstoy is able to tell the story of that life. For it means that there is no need to emphasise the terrible emptiness of it, the mundanity of the values by which it is lived. The pleasant, moderately gifted young man who drifts rather casually into a marriage to which he is not wholly committed, and who achieves a degree of success in his career in the law, is presented to us with relatively little comment. The keynote of vanitas vanitatis has already been established, and Tolstoy can gain his effect much more tellingly simply by showing than by explicit commentary. Such explicitness, the explicitness of the didactic prose of this period, would almost certainly have been disastrous, not only because of Tolstoy's tendency to become reductive as soon as he leaves the living world of his fiction, but also because it would have tended to make of Ivan Ilyich merely a target, a straw man to be hammered by the Tolstoyan moralist until he was finally converted and forgiven. That we have no sense of this happening, no sense of the work as clumsily didactic, is largely due to the fact that Tolstoy is content to leave his judgements as indirect, ironic ones, just as his whole story is constructed around the ironic discrepancy between Ivan Ilyich's own view of his life, and the reality.

It is important, too, that there should be no extremes in Ivan Ilyich's life, that he should be not simply credible, but ordinary—ordinary in his career, his marriage, his house, his pleasures, and that it should be this ordinary man, complacently settled in his way of life, that we see suddenly confronted by the one thing that is certain and yet not ordinary—death. From the time when the small knock received in decorating his house (making it as comme il faut and thus as ordinary as possible) develops into what would now presumably be diagnosed as cancer, Ivan Ilyich is no longer ordinary. Brought face to face with the reality of death, he is, like Brekhunov, suddenly alone, with nothing to fall back on but his own untapped spiritual resources, living ‘all alone on the brink of death, with not a single person who understood or pitied him’.

For most of the second half of the story, Ivan Ilyich tries to come to terms with this terrible abyss into which he has suddenly been forced to look, staring into it and yet unable to accept that it exists. The old, accustomed habits, the ‘satisfactory’ way of life that had once screened the thought of death from him so effectively, no longer have that power. Whatever he is doing, whatever he tries to concentrate on, It, the ultimate and undeniable, breaks in to remind him of its existence. The horror that he feels in the face of that terrible It is reminiscent of that described in The Memoirs of a Madman, and there is no question but that an autobiographical immediacy comes through in Tolstoy's immensely moving descriptions of these moments of fear. For Ivan Ilyich as for Tolstoy the most terrible thing about death is its absolute reality, the fact that, knowing it to be there, waiting, one can yet do nothing whatever about it. One of the underlying reasons for Tolstoy's preoccupation with death, his wish to conquer it, as he tries to do in A Confession and these stories, may well have been that, like sexual passion, or the effects of music, but infinitely more so, it was something beyond his control, a fundamental threat not only to his need for a meaning, a purpose in life, but also to that irrational, Luciferian egoism that lay deep within him. Whatever his motivation, he more than any other writer, tries to take possession of death in his work by describing the process of dying from the inside. He was, his son Ilya tells us, ‘always extraordinarily curious and attentive about the sensations of the dying, and, whenever he could, picked up the smallest details about their experiences’.2 The deaths of Andrey and of Nikolay Levin, and Anna's suicide, are the preludes to the three detailed descriptions of the sensations of a dying man taken right up to and even beyond the very point of death that we have in Master and Man,The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Hadji Murat. Of the three, it is Ivan Ilyich's death which is described in the most detail, through the developing illness, and finally through a death agony that lasts for three days.

Before he can die, Ivan Ilyich has to spend weeks looking into the terrible abyss, something he cannot do with any spiritual calm as long as he clings to the belief that his life up to this point has been lived as it should have been. Death presents itself as incomprehensible, pointless, absurd, his sufferings an arbitrary and hideously unfair imposition on a man who has lived his life correctly, even well. Although the idea occurs to him that his adult life has in reality been ‘trivial and often nasty’, and that the only real happiness he has experienced lies in his childhood, although he feels that there is something wrong somewhere in his life, yet he cannot bring himself to believe that that life has been wasted, that it is all as senseless and horrible as impending death now makes it seem.

As long as this struggle goes on—the struggle which in his dream takes the form of being thrust resisting into a black sack with a light at the end—his physical and spiritual sufferings continue. Tolstoy relates the terrible physical pain to the spiritual, not in the crude sense that if Ivan Ilyich had lived a better life he would not have had his illness, but in the sense that an acceptance of death would have made his pain easier to bear, as in the end it does. As long as he cannot accept death simply and easily, as the servant Gerasim can, he cannot fall into that black sack of death. Only when, in the last few hours of his life, he comes to accept that his past life was ‘all not the right thing’ does he grow spiritually quiet. This is the crucial moment, the moment, we might say, of conversion, when he falls through into the black sack. As he does so, still screaming in his physical agony, his waving arm falls on the head of his son: looking at him, and at his unloved wife, he suddenly feels sorrow not for himself, but for them, and death appears for the first time as something desirable. Like Brekhunov, he dies with a sense of love for others within him, and like Brekhunov, this makes death joyful, so much so that, the fear having departed, death itself hardly seems to exist. Ivan Ilyich has, in the words of What I Believe, transferred his transient and trivial personal life into ‘the life of the whole of humanity’, a transference which is the Tolstoyan equivalent for immortality, ‘the common life’ of all mankind.

For most readers the defeat of death in these closing pages is not likely to be an altogether convincing one. Impressive though these pages are, the Tolstoyan resolution becomes less convincing the more we look at it. The metaphor of the black sack with the light at the bottom—admittedly a metaphor of dream and therefore not subject to logic—the statement that ‘in place of death there was light’, the juxtaposition of external observation of Ivan Ilyich's death agonies with his internal moment of revelation, all seem to be doing more than they really are. They chime, it is true, with Tolstoy's philosophy of death as expressed elsewhere, but here, the more we read them, the more they seem immensely skillful rhetorical devices for circumventing death, rather than a real explanation, a real acceptance. It is still there undefeated and unexplained at the end, despite all Tolstoy's efforts.

What is undeniably impressive about The Death of Ivan Ilyich is the incisive, ruthless presentation of that inexplicable It, and of man's helplessness in the face of it. Whatever our feelings about the ending, there can be no question of evasiveness on Tolstoy's part in what has gone before. Few works of art impinge so directly or so disturbingly on the lives of everyone who comes into contact with them as does this one, cutting down so mercilessly the screens of habit, ambition and social conformity behind which most of us live for most of the time. No intelligent reader can turn away from it without being driven to some reassessment of the values by which he lives his life, and that, for Tolstoy, would perhaps have been enough.


  1. ‘Tolstoy, Lermontov and Others’, in Donald Davie (ed.), Russian Literature and Modern English Fiction (Chicago, 1965), p. 167.

  2. Count Ilya Tolstoy, Reminiscences of Tolstoy, trans. George Calderon (London, 1914), p. 22.

Michael Henry Heim (essay date 1978)

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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. Tolstoj retains the basic structure of the early work while modifying its characters and situations to bring them into line with his new views of life and art.

In each of the stories three characters die. In Three Deaths they are Širkina, the wife of a landowner; Uncle Fedor, an old coachman; and a tree; in Master and Man—Brexunov, a prosperous innkeeper and land speculator; Nikita, a farm laborer; and Muxortyj, a horse.1 Tolstoj structures both stories around the contrast between the inhuman (Širkina/Brexunov), the human (Uncle Fedor/Nikita), and the unhuman (the tree/the horse).2 The mighty, attached to their worldly existence, do not know how to let go of life; they fight tooth and nail before succumbing. The meek, taught by lives of hardship to accept whatever comes their way, give in with comparative grace. The flora and fauna, at one with nature, do not even notice they have passed from one state to another.

There are other analogies besides this principal compositional one. In both stories Tolstoj uses an interrupted journey as a metaphor for life. Neither Širkina nor Brexunov reaches his destination. In both stories he ridicules the pretensions of organized religion. The priest attending Širkina on her deathbed recommends to her a charlatan from his parish, and Brexunov, a church elder, dips into church funds for his shady dealings. In both stories he introduces the children of the high and mighty victims. On the one hand they serve as proof that life goes on (a theme especially explicit in Master and Man, where Tolstoj depicts Brexunov's wife as pregnant); on the other, they show how innocent even apparently inhuman characters like Širkina and Brexunov were before they acquired what civilization had to offer. Moreover, in both stories he links them to horses. In Three Deaths they gallop along the hall leading to their dying mother's bedroom, while in Master and Man Brexunov's seven-year-old son begs to be allowed to hold Muxortyj while Nikita is inside putting on his warm clothes. And finally, in both stories he demonstrates his skill as a painter of genre, giving glimpses into the life of the Russian peasant izba.

All this clearly suggests that Tolstoj's attitudes and the techniques with which he illustrates them exhibit a certain degree of stability from Three Deaths to Master and Man. By the same token, however, they help to pinpoint the changes that did occur. The ways in which those attitudes and techniques differ stand out in greater relief for the basic correspondences underlying them.

The most important difference between Three Deaths and Master and Man lies in the hierarchy of characters. Although in relative terms the hierarchy holds for both stories (Brexunov corresponds to Širkina, Fedor to Nikita, and Muxortyj to the tree), only Fedor and Nikita are on the same level in absolute terms. Brexunov belongs to a decidedly lower social class than does Širkina; he is an upstart from the people—rich, perhaps, but never a barin. If Brexunov represents a shift down from Širkina, the horse Muxortyj represents a corresponding shift up from the tree. In his early works Tolstoj tended to portray characters either from the very height of society or from its depths, and even in a work of such epic proportions as War and Peace [Vojna i mir, 1863-69] he devoted no more than a few lines to, say, the merchant class. But War and Peace—and Three Deaths—take place in pre-emancipation Russia, while Master and Man opens with the words “It happened in the seventies …” [Èto bylo v 70-x godax (XXIX, 3)].3 Tolstoj is plainly adapting to the new social conditions. The head of his new hierarchy is no longer a nobleman, he is a country innkeeper and Second Guild merchant.

Not only is Brexunov of a lower class than Širkina, he comes from virtually the same class as his hired hand Nikita: rich as his father was, he despises him for being no more than a peasant. Širkina and Fedor never speak to one another, they never even meet one another; Brexunov and Nikita know each other inside and out. Each is perfectly aware of the other's failings. Brexunov exploits Nikita's poverty, his tendency to overdrink, his passivity; Nikita recognizes Brexunov's greed for what it is, but chooses to accept the consequences.

Just as the two higher members of the Master and Man hierarchy move closer together, so the two lower members converge. The bonds connecting Fedor and the tree are tenuous at best. The tree does not take on meaning for Fedor until after his death, when the young coachman to whom Fedor has bequeathed his boots cuts it down and fashions it into a cross for Fedor's grave. The bonds connecting Nikita and the horse Muxortyj, however, are very strong. From the moment he enters Muxortyj's stable, Nikita carries on a running conversation with him. “He spoke to the horse just as people speak to beings who understand words” [Govoril on s lošad'ju soveršenno tak, kak govorjat s ponimajuščimi slova suščestvami (XXIX, 5)]. In fact, it is the horse who initiates the conversation: Nikita utters his first words “in response to [Muxortyj's] weak neigh of welcome” [otvečaja na slaboe privetstvennoe ržan'e (XXIX, 5)].4 As the story proceeds, the two grow even closer. Nikita helps Muxortyj out of snowdrifts—“‘We're stuck, we have to get out. Come on, boy! Come on now, fellow!’” [Zaexali—vyezžat' nado. No, milen'kij! no! no, rodnoj! (XXIX, 13)]—and Muxortyj does his best to keep them on the road. By giving the characters in Master and Man a basis for interaction, by bringing them into contact with one another, Tolstoj compensates for the abstract, somewhat schematic quality of Three Deaths.

Another way Tolstoj makes Master and Man more concrete than Three Deaths is to provide Brexunov and Nikita with a moral motivation for their actions. This approach has the added advantage of pointing up his own moral position. Širkina, Uncle Fedor, the ash tree—each of them dies in a manner befitting his station, each of them dies because fate so wills it. Death comes from outside themselves, without their complicity, and nothing they can do will fend it off. In Master and Man only the horse's death can be interpreted as an act of fate. Both Brexunov and Nikita participate actively in the outcome of the events.

Brexunov brings about his own death. It is a direct consequence of his greed. The reason he undertakes the perilous journey is to transact a business deal he knows to be unscrupulous: he is planning to buy a tract of woods from a young and inexperienced landowner for only one third of what the land is worth. He should have no fear of competition, because he and his counterparts in the city have agreed not to run up the price in one another's district. But since the agreement itself is dishonest, he cannot trust its perpetrators to honor it, and feels he must close the deal as soon as possible, before they have a chance to beat him to it. The journey is therefore based on three layers of deception: Brexunov vs. the young landowner, the local dealers vs. the local populace, and—potentially, at least—the local dealers vs. Brexunov.

As if to offset this threefold deception Tolstoj offers Brexunov three opportunities for redemption. First, his pregnant wife warns him that the weather may take a turn for the worse. It is her fears that persuade him to take along Nikita. Next, when it comes time for Brexunov to decide whether to follow the short, difficult route or the longer but surer one, he goes against Nikita and chooses the former. He is afraid that even a few minutes will enable one of his competitors to make what he considers to be his sale. Finally, after being offered a bed for the night with a family of rich peasants, Brexunov makes up his mind to push on. By this point he realizes that the weather is stormy enough to prevent even the most determined competitor from reaching the young landowner's estate, but he can no longer help himself. Greed has obscured his rational faculties.

Nikita has no desire whatsoever to go back out into the cold once he has begun to warm up at the peasants' house. But he is so accustomed to doing as others tell him to do that he sees no point in trying to make his feelings known. This lack of resistance notwithstanding, Nikita too has a say in the way he lives and dies. He is the only one of Brexunov's laborers who has not turned the household's celebration of a church holiday into an excuse to go on a spree, and he is sober by design, not by chance. Drinking makes him violent and has caused him and his family much grief. As a result he has resolved to give it up, and when the story opens he has stuck to the resolution for several weeks. Brexunov, on the other hand, is not far from drunk when the story opens, and the vodka he drinks at the peasants' house seals the death sentence he has written for himself. Perfectly aware that vodka increases the danger of the cold—“‘They say you're more likely to freeze to death if you're drunk, … And I've had something to drink’” [Govorjat, p'janye-to zamerzajut, … A ja vypil” (XXIX, 35)]—he fails to reflect on the danger until he can do nothing about it. Not even the example of a group of revelers who all but drive their sleigh into his holds him back. Much as Nikita would have relished a drink of vodka with the peasants—and Tolstoj takes special pains to portray his temptation—he abstains, and, by abstaining, saves his own life.

The scene at the rich peasants' house is the only episode in the story with no counterpart in Three Deaths. If its only purpose were to show Brexunov indulging himself and Nikita refraining, it would not be particularly functional; Tolstoj has already established that Brexunov drinks and that Nikita is trying his best not to. The episode has another, more important function—to accentuate the disintegration at work within the peasantry and demonstrate how the rift between the Brexunovs and Nikitas of Russian society came about. It is the only episode with no counterpart in Three Deaths because Tolstoj did not tackle the problem until several years later.5

After making Brexunov and Nikita comfortable, the peasants return to the discussion they have been having all evening, the pros and cons of disbanding the household. The family, one of the richest in the village, officially consists of twenty-two “souls,” but disintegration has already begun. Two of the men have moved away to Moscow, one is serving in the army, and yet another—the one who brought up the issue—has suggested that the various branches of the family split up once and for all. The first point made after the discussion resumes summarizes the entire situation. It comes from the patriarch of the house and takes the form of a complaint about a son who has failed to send him a gift for the holiday and, to make matters worse, has sent his wife a French kerchief. Besides losing respect for his father, he is losing contact with the peasant way of life, so much so, in fact, that he envisions his peasant wife in French frippery. Here, as so often in Tolstoj, a seemingly minor detail is more telling than a page of commentary. The absent son and his brother who calls for the dissolution of the family are Brexunovs in statu nascendi, future masters. Nikita—the “non-master” [ne xozjain (XXIX, 4)], as he is called, and a repository of what Tolstoj saw as the best of peasant values—Nikita also has a counterpart. He is Petruxa, the patriarch's only married grandson. Petruxa invites the travelers in with cheerful aphorisms from his primer (the only book he owns), supports his father's arguments in favor of the inviolability of the family with a fable, and sends them on their way with his own South Russian version of the opening lines of Puškin's “Winter Evening” [“Zimnij večer”].6 The life Petruxa has made for himself represents the life Nikita might have led had he had his family behind him. Petruxa therefore rounds out the episode at the peasants' house, a scene that deepens Tolstoj's portrayal of the title characters by providing them with alter egos and evoking the conditions that shaped their lives.

In the last analysis, however, the issue central to each story is the view of death it propounds. That view in Three Deaths owes much to Rousseau, especially to the early philosophical treatises like Discours sur l'origine de l'inégalité des hommes in which he argues that the growth of civilization, or rather the growth of society in general, has corrupted all that is good and natural in man.7 Death in Three Deaths is less important in and of itself than in its capacity as a control, the ultimate control; it serves to measure the extent to which society has corrupted each of the protagonists. By the time Tolstoj wrote Master and Man, he had made his major statement on death, The Death of Ivan Il'ič [Smert' Ivana Il'iča, 1884-86].8 That he grants Brexunov an epiphany analagous to Ivan Il'ič's comes therefore as no surprise. Though not nearly so well developed, Brexunov's epiphany goes one step farther.

Širkina dies as she lived, surrounded by the people who maintained her illusions. “‘No, kiss me here. People don't kiss your hand unless you're dead. O God! O God!’” [Net, sjuda poceluj, tol'ko mertvyx celujut v ruku. Bože moj! Bože moj! (V, 63)]—these are her final words in the story. And when the sexton recites a psalm he does not understand over her corpse, the narrator asks rhetorically, “Has she finally comprehended these great words?” [Ponimala li ona xot' teper' velikie slova èti? (V, 63)]. Ivan Il'ič is in a position to comprehend them after his epiphany, but Tolstoj gave him neither the time nor the occasion to act on them. He gives Brexunov both. Brexunov's epiphany, like Ivan Il'ič's, involves his acknowledgement of the fact of his death and his understanding of its meaning, but instead of Ivan Il'ič's generalized pity for mankind Brexunov feels “that he is Nikita and Nikita is himself, and that his life is in Nikita, not in himself” [čto on—Nikita, a Nikita—on, i čto žizn' ego ne v nem samom, a v Nikite (XXIX, 44)]. His epiphany causes him to save Nikita's life.

Of course even Brexunov's epiphany would not have saved Nikita if Nikita himself had not lived as he did. Like Uncle Fedor, his counterpart in Three Deaths, he needs no last-minute enlightenment. When, lying half frozen in the sleigh, he feels his time has come, his reaction is simple: “‘Lord, Father, you must be calling me too. … Well, you can't die two deaths, but you have to die one’” [Gospodi, batjuška, vidno i menja zoveš'. … Nu, da dvux smertej ne byvat', a odnoj ne minovat' (XXIX, 45)]. Ironically, he does die two deaths: Tolstoj grants him a reprieve of another twenty years of life, a symbolic life after death.9 The story ends with his “second” death. Here again there is no epiphany, yet he knows enough to have pity on his wife and rejoice in his entry into the next life.

Parallel to Tolstoj's ideological evolution runs a stylistic one. Though more than three times as long as Three Deaths,Master and Man exhibits greater unity. This unity derives in part from the uniform setting. In Three Deaths the action switches from the country to the city and back to the country again. Moreover, Fedor dies in the fall, Širkina and the tree in the spring. Master and Man opens with the onset of a blizzard and—except for a paragraph-long epilogue—closes less than twenty-four hours later with Nikita's rescue. The storm clearly echoes its predecessor in “The Snowstorm” [“Metel'”], a story Tolstoj wrote in 1856, three years before Three Deaths. Like Master and Man it deals with a man and his servant who lose their way traveling by sleigh through a blizzard at night. Even some of the details are identical: another sleigh rushes past, a black spot looms up ahead. In the end, however, the characters in “The Snowstorm” reach their destination without mishap. And when Tolstoj describes the blizzard in “The Snowstorm,” he treats it simply as a phenomenon of nature, while in Master and Man he turns it into a powerful image of retribution, something much more than its physical self.10 It provides not only the classical unities of time and—to a certain extent—space; it provides a unity that comes of the skillful amalgamation of ideology and image.

Another reason for the unity of Master and Man is its condensed hierarchy, the close relation between Brexunov and Nikita and—what is especially significant in this connection—Nikita and Muxortyj. In Three Deaths the tree, Muxortyj's counterpart, serves more as a means of bringing the other two deaths together than as the third member of the set.11 But in Master and Man Muxortyj plays an integral and all but human role. Nikita prefers Muxortyj to Brexunov as a conversation partner and continually praises his intelligence, his sharp nose and ears, his feeling for the road. Muxortyj communicates with actions, not words, and the two ominous hoofbeats he makes against the sleigh to announce his death to his friend Nikita are as eloquent in their own way as the reactions of either of the human protagonists.

Finally, the unity of Master and Man owes a great deal to Tolstoj's ability to raise seemingly insignificant details to the power of expressive leitmotifs. Like the recurrent details in War and Peace, though on a proportionately smaller scale, recurrent images like Nikita's amiable gooselike waddle or the frozen laundry flapping almost preternaturally in the wind enrich the story visually while tying it together structurally.

After achieving this high degree of structural unity, Tolstoj deliberately shatters it; he makes a last-minute change in the frame in which the story appears. The idyll he draws in the closing paragraph of Three Deaths harmonizes perfectly with the action immediately preceding it. It underscores the peace inherent in the death of the tree and brings out the moral that lies behind the story. In Master and Man he uses a much more radical device to bring out the moral: he introduces an entirely new point of view.

Earlier, when the cold begins affecting the mental processes of Brexunov and Nikita, Tolstoj prepares the reader at least partially for the change that takes place in narrative voice in the final paragraph; he introduces narrative monologues, that is, he replaces the objective narrator—one who merely describes the characters' thoughts and feelings—with a subjective one—one who relays their thoughts and feelings from within. The narrator of a narrated monologue identifies with his character, he all but becomes the character. He remains a narrator in that he refers to the character in the third person. Here is how he records the first part of Nikita's dream: “He had dreamt he was driving a cart of his master's flour from the mill and had missed the bridge while crossing the stream and gotten stuck. He dreamt he had crawled under the cart and tried to lift it by straightening up his back. But how strange! The cart wouldn't budge, it stuck to his back, and he couldn't either lift it or get out from under it. It was pressing down hard on the small of his back. And how cold! He obviously had to crawl out” [Prisnilos' emu, čto on edet s mel'nicy s vozom xozjajskoj muki i, pereezžaja ručej, vzjal mimo mosta i zavjazil voz. I vidit on, čto on podlez pod voz i podnimaet ego, raspravljaja spinu. No udivitel'noe delo! Voz ne dvigaetsja i prilip emu k spine, i on ne možet ni podnjat' voza, ni ujti iz-pod nego. Vsju pojasnicu razdavilo. Da i xolodnyj že! Vidno, vylezt' nado (XXIX, 44)]. The two exclamations are especially telling; they blur the distinction between narrator and character. Tolstoj did not use narrative monologues in Three Deaths, though they occur throughout War and Peace only several years later.

The radical change in narrative voice that comes in the final paragraph begins when the narrator announces that Nikita did not die until this year [tol'ko v nynešnem godu (XXIX, 46)]. With a single turn of phrase he lifts the story out of the historical past and sets it down in the context of the reader's present, his day-to-day existence. Then he draws the reader even more directly into the story by asking him “Is [Nikita] better or worse off where he has awakened after this real death? Is he disappointed or has he found there what he expected?” [Lučše ili xuže emu tam, gde on, posle ètoj nastojaščej smerti, prosnulsja? razočarovalsja li on, ili našel tam to samoe, čto ožidal (XXIX, 46)]. And in his response, the final words of the story, he makes another sudden and highly effective shift—reminiscent of a traditional closing formula of Russian fairy tales—from the omniscient third-person narrative to the painfully personal “We shall all soon learn” [My vse skoro uznaem].12 While in the narrated monologues the narrator maintained a modicum of anonymity by means of a third-person stance, here he brings his own, first-person viewpoint into the open. And while in the narrated monologues he identified with his characters, here he identifies with the reader.

The numerous similarities between Three Deaths and Master and Man merely highlight their differences, differences arising from such divergent aspects of Tolstoj's life as his reaction to the emancipation of the serfs (the condensed character hierarchy and the discussion of the disintegration of the extended peasant family), his conversion (the emphasis on epiphany and moral responsibility), and his increased stylistic repertory (the use of salient detail, interest in folk literature, experimentation with narrative voice). Indeed, the two stories juxtaposed give a clear picture in microcosm of his spiritual and literary development.


  1. The contexts in which these deaths occur differ greatly. On her way abroad for treatment of consumption Širkina is detained at a post station on a nasty fall day; the coachman is talking the dying Fedor into giving him the boots he will soon no longer be needing. Fedor agrees, but only on the condition that the coachman promise to put up a marker at his grave. That night Fedor dies. In the spring Širkina dies as well, and the coachman finally fashions a cross for Fedor's grave—from a tree he has chopped down for the purpose.

    Brexunov has Nikita harness Muxortyj to his sleigh even though a blizzard is brewing; he has an important deal to conclude. Before long they lose their way in the snow, and by morning Brexunov and Muxortyj have frozen to death.

  2. For a recent discussion of this phenomenon in “Three Deaths” alone, see Miloslav Jehlička, Vypravěčské umění Lva Tolstého (Prague, 1970), 68-73. Jehlička calls it parallelism. Boris Èjxenbaum, in his analysis of the story in Lev Tolstoj (Leningrad, 1928), I, 329, calls it superposition [naloženie]. Neither mentions “Master and Man” in connection with it.

  3. The volume and page numbers in parentheses after excerpts from Tolstoj's works refer to L.N. Tolstoj, Polnoe sobranie sočinenij v devjanosta tomax. Jubilejnoe izdanie (Moscow, 1928-58).

  4. Communication with Brexunov is in a sense doomed before it begins; his name derives from brexun, a colloquial word denoting someone who habitually lies or talks through his hat. When Brexunov tries to converse with Nikita, he chooses such topics as the affair Nikita's wife is having with a cooper or the inferior horse he is trying to sell him at an exorbitant price. Otherwise he merely queries or commands: “‘Well, what is that?’” [“Nu čto?”], “‘There's something black up ahead. Go see what it is’” [“Von čto-to vperedi černeet, ty tuda pojdi pogljadi”], “‘What's wrong?’” [“A čto?”], “‘You're lying!’” [“Vreš!”], “‘Now look how far off we've gone! What are we going to do?’” [“Viš' ty, kuda sbilis'! Kak že byt'-to?”], “‘Where are we anyhow?’” [“Gde že èto my?”]. These speeches (XXIX, 12-13) immediately precede and follow Nikita's light-hearted exhortations to Muxortyj cited above. Elsewhere Nikita carries on civil conversations with poultry, sheep, and a dog.

  5. An early indication of Tolstoj's concern over the disintegration of the peasant family occurs in the First Epilogue of War and Peace, when the narrator describes how Nikolaj Rostov has been managing the estate at Bald Hills: “He kept the peasant families as large as he could, not allowing them to break up” [Sem'i krest'jan on podderžival v samyx bol'šix razmerax, ne pozvoljaja delit'sja (XII, 255)]. Tolstoj evidently approves.

  6. Several of the images in the poem reflect the scene at the peasants' house. Besides the opening lines Petruxa quotes to describe the stormy night [“Burja s mgloju nebo skroit', vixri snežnye krutjat', až kak zver' ona zavoit', až zaplačet' kak ditë” (XXIX, 23)], it contains the figure of a traveler tapping at a window [To, kak putnik zapozdaloj, / K nam v okoško zastučit] and a reference to the cup that cheers [Vyp'em sgorja; gde že kružka? / Serdcu budet veselej].

  7. For an account of Tolstoj's indebtedness to Rousseau, see Paul Boyer, Chez Tolstoï (Paris, 1950), 57-58, 77-78.

  8. After the appearance of “The Death of Ivan Il'ič” it is more to the point to look for disciples than mentors. Heidegger, for example, mentions Tolstoj when discussing his “man stirbt / ich sterbe” dichotomy, that is, the opposition of the abstract notion that man is mortal to the individual's acceptance of his own mortality. “L.N. Tolstoi,” he notes, “hat in seiner Erzählung ‘Der Tod des Iwan Iljitsch’ das Phänomen der Erschütterung und des Zusammenbruchs dieses “man stirbt” dargestellt.” See Martin Heidegger, Sein und Zeit, 11th ed. (Tübingen, 1967), 254.

  9. The ambiguity of the situation is quite subtle: “When Nikita was awakened, he felt certain that he had died and that what was happening to him was taking place in the next world rather than in this one” [Kogda Nikitu razbudili, on byl uveren, čto teper' on uže umer, i čto to, čto s nim teper' delaetsja, proisxodit uže ne na ètom, a na tom svete (XXIX, 45)].

  10. Käte Hamburger compares “The Snowstorm” with Master and Man in greater detail in Leo Tolstoi. Gestalt und Problem, 2nd ed. (Göttingen, 1963), 110-11.

  11. Èjxenbaum, Lev Tolstoj, 330.

  12. Boris Uspenskij traces the extension of the device to belles lettres in Poètika kompozicii (Moscow, 1970), 189-91. His examples include authors who shift to the second person as well as the first. In “Master and Man” Tolstoj combines the two in his first-person plural pronoun (we = you + I).

    Uspenskij also discusses Tolstoj's use of narrated monologue (58-61) with examples from War and Peace.

Richard F. Gustafson (essay date 1986)

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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 himself and his position” (vi). He certainly thinks he is not like everyone else. “With me it's not like with them others where you gotta wait and then there's bills and fines. We go on honor. You serve me and I'll not abandon you” (i). He believes he is a “benefactor.” This kind master lives for all and loves his neighbor as himself. “I desire for you as I do for myself.” Brekhunov lives according to his conscience and will do no harm to a soul. “Let the loss be mine. I am not like others” (ii). Brekhunov the master has no doubt about himself or his virtue as a master. He knows who he is and what he must do. The church elder, he seems a man of faith.

Because he is the master, Brekhunov is the one to whom the world belongs. But to the merchant master the world that belongs to him is the sum total of his acquisitions. For him, then, to live (zhit') means to acquire (nazhit'), and the task of life is to acquire for himself as much as possible. At the center of the story, therefore, he visits with an old man whose son wants a share of his father's land, and Brekhunov gives him his sound advice: “As for sharing, my friend, don't give in. You have acquired it, you are the master” (vi). The master is the one who is removed from human relatedness. The height of Brekhunov's spirituality, as a consequence, “the one thing that comprises the aim, meaning, joy, and pride of his life” is the contemplation of the process of acquisition, “how much money he had acquired and could still acquire, how much money other people he knew had acquired and did have, and how they did and do acquire it, and how he, like them, could still acquire a great deal of money.” The emblems of himself, then, are his “house with the tin-roofed barn” and his two fur coats. The contemplation of these acquisitions gives him the confidence of his accomplished mission. “What have I done in fifteen years?” he asks himself, as he limns his possessions. “And how did it happen? Because I remember my task, I strive, not like others, and then the task gets done. … Labor and the Lord will give.” Brekhunov is content, “satisfied with everything that belongs to him and everything that he has done” (i). The merchant master is the one to whom the world belongs because, he believes, he has accomplished his task. God gives His grace, but Brekhunov believes he is self-sufficient. The master does not need others.

Because he is the one whose task is to acquire, Brekhunov lives off the past and for the future. His mental life consists in summing up the past and calculating the future. He lives by his watch and for a goal. This goal he sees ever ahead of him; he constantly strives for it. Thus he spends his life for some future acquisition which in the future will become his past accomplishment, the sign that he has lived and lived well. His son is not the one he loves and who loves him but the one “who in his thoughts he always calls his heir” (i). Brekhunov is a successful merchant master, however, because, although he is content with his past, he must ever keep on the move. His characteristic phrase is “Forward march” (da i marsh). Furthermore, the successful merchant not only sees his task still ahead, he knows the way to it. He could even go it alone, he believes, and he certainly knows how to get there. He definitely has the mind of a master and does not know that Christ teaches us to live in the present.

Master and Man tells the story of a man on a mission of acquisition, removed from the world of human relatedness. Brekhunov and his servant Nikita go off into the snow and cold because the master feels he “has to go” (iii). While the master thinks he knows the way, Nikita is the one whose task is to try to stay on the road. Nikita is the man, the “worker,” the “non-master” (i). He is the one who has “no home,” but lives out in the world, with people (v ljudjakh). He has the sense of human relatedness. He is known for his hard work and, although he does not care for his job, “he has to live until he finds another place and he takes what is given.” A drunkard, he does not now drink; a husband and father who provides for his family's care, he silently lets his wife continue her affair with the cooper. Nikita has no possessions or aspirations. He has no past he can live off of and no future he would want to live for. Nikita lives in the present, although he does not know this. He is where he is and lives where he lives and does what he does. At the center of the story, when the master tells the master how to be a master, Nikita drinks his tea and keeps warm. On the journey Nikita knows that he does not know and cannot know the direct path to the goal, but he does trust to his horse and listen to the wind; he tries to follow them. When he fails, however, he is neither surprised, annoyed, or dismayed. He knows he is helpless. Nikita did not want to go on this trip and has nothing to gain for himself, but he is there, and he is his master's servant and his master wants it, so he keeps on trying to stay on the road. Nikita, like his “kind and obedient” horse, is the one who does the will of the one who sends him (v). He is a man of the Lord.

Since he is the one who does the will of the one who sent him, Nikita knows how to live and love. He lives his life, not trying to get to the goal of his desires, but by responding to the needs of the moment, both for himself and others. His characteristic phrase is not “forward march” but the name with which he addresses others, “dear heart.” He is known for his “kind” (dobryj) nature (i). This kindness is expressed in his treatment of his horse. He feeds and tends her with loving care. When Brekhunov and Nikita are overcome by the snow and the cold, Brekhunov cares for himself, Nikita for his horse. He is guided by one idea: “it will be warmer for you” (vi). When on their journey, they encounter the ones who are celebrating the holiday, racing gaily along to wherever, Brekhunov is buoyed up by their spirits and feels ever more strongly the urge to march forward; Nikita is astounded at those “Asians” who beat their horse so violently (iii). When he believes he is dying, he calls to Brekhunov, asks that his final wages be given to his “boy or his wife, it makes no difference,” and then begs forgiveness from the master (ix). He has no fear of death and in the end lives on. Nikita, who knows he is the servant called to do his master's will, even when the master seems to have abandoned him, is the man of faith.

Master and Man is a journey of discovery, not for Nikita but for Brekhunov. The men get lost in the emblematic expanse of nature because Brekhunov keeps thinking he knows the way, seeing his goal just ahead of him. Over and over again—“again” is a key word in the story—Brekhunov espies “something black” which he hopes will be what he is after or a marker on the path to what he is after; what he sees keeps on turning out to be fragments of the lonely, desperate, abandoned world: some vines, an isolated tree, frozen wash on a clothesline, a tall wormwood “desperately reeling in the wind” (viii). Each time they chase after the image of Brekhunov's desired goal, they get lost; often they find themselves back where they started. Because Brekhunov cannot learn from his suffering, the quest for the goal of his desire ahead in the future becomes a crescendoing vicious circle until Nikita realizes they must stop right there and spend the night. At this point Brekhunov becomes overcome by “fear” for his life (vi). He now repents of his past, which for him means regretting he had not stayed with his master friend, where it was “quite warm and merry” (iii), and that he had brought along Nikita whom he sees as the cause of his problem (vi). To stay his fear, Brekhunov does what he always does: he gets busy and moves on; “Forward march.” He rides off on the tired horse, abandoning Nikita in search of the goal of his desire. The vicious circle begins again. Brekhunov gets off the tired horse, determined to find the road all alone, but now the horse abandons him and he is “alone,” buried alive in a snow drift, pinned down by the weight of his two fur coats (vii). His sin has returned as his punishment.

But Brekhunov is resurrected from his snowy grave. At the turning point in his journey he realizes he has “lost his way.” No sooner does he see that he is lost than he again sees “something black,” but now he sees, not the image of his desire but of his goal: his horse guided him back to Nikita. His “fear” somewhat past, he busies himself caring for the horse in order to keep his mind off his fear. At this point Nikita calls to him, makes his dying request and begs forgiveness. “Suddenly” Brekhunov starts digging Nikita out of the snow and then lies down on top of him to keep him warm. He even resorts to his usual boasting, “that's how we are,” but then “to his great amazement” he can no longer speak, and tears flow from his eyes. Like Karenin in his moment of forgiveness he experiences a “majestic tenderness” but Brekhunov thinks the tears prove that he had “really gotten frightened.” He does not view his act as a sacrifice but a “weakness” and therefore sees no great merit for him in it. Because of this he experiences “joy he had never felt before.” His dream that follows clarifies this experience of the sudden joy of life: “the one he has been waiting for has arrived,” but he is not the one he expected but “someone else,” “the very one who called him and told him to lie on Nikita.” Now he knows that “he is Nikita and Nikita is him, that his life is not in himself but in Nikita, that if Nikita is alive, he is alive.” The merchant master is dead. But there is miraculously born another, who speaks of Brekhunov in the third person, who cannot fathom why “Brekhunov had been occupied with what he had been occupied,” who himself “now knows what the task is.” In his act of love here and now Brekhunov discovers who he is and what he must do. In a profound sense in his own action, but despite himself, he becomes a man of faith.

Master and Man may well be Tolstoy's most disguised piece of autopsychological fiction, but still, like his other works, it is an image of his experience of life. It is not based on a specific documented event as is Lucerne, nor does it work out a moment of encounter with death, as does The Notes of a Madman, but it is quite literally a trying out in images of Tolstoy's most profound experience of his faith. Like The Death of Ivan Ilych, it gives narrative form to a metaphoric statement of Tolstoy's dilemma. This statement was made in What Is My Faith? written some ten years before the story.

I am lost in a snowstorm. One [person] assures me, and it seems to him so, that warm fires and a village are just right ahead, but it just seems to him and to me because we want it. When we go toward the fires they are not there. But another [person] takes off through the snow. He walks around a bit, comes out on the road and shouts to us, “Don't drive anywhere, the fires are in your eyes; you'll get lost everywhere and you'll perish. The firm road is right here, I'm standing on it and it will lead us out.” Now that's not much. When we believed in the fires flashing in our blinded eyes, there was always just ahead a village, a warm hut, salvation, rest while here there's just a firm road. But if we listen to the first we'll surely freeze, while if we listen to the second we'll surely get out.


In this metaphoric statement the one person (“I”) lost in a storm which is an emblem of life suddenly becomes two different selves: one who represents his desires, the other the certitude of the way; one who represents the personality, the other the divine self; one who leads to death, the other to the way out of death. In the story these two selves are fleshed out as two separate characters, Brekhunov and Nikita. These characters are given a place in the social and economic milieu of Russian life of the mid-nineteenth century, and they are endowed with a simple psychology based on two opposed moral and religious attitudes to the world. The Tolstoyan drama of the call to true life, of the desire for relatedness and the need to be a Resident, is then cast into the form of a journey of discovery, and Brekhunov, the personality, goes through a series of cumulative awakenings, including hearing the voice of death, until in the end he truly encounters Nikita, the emblematic divine self who is the one who loves, and suddenly Brekhunov discovers the way. Master and Man is a parable made from Tolstoy's inner experience of the unceasing struggle to find his way to love, of his continuing discovery of his mission, which is not his teaching, his family, his art, or being the master, but the inner divine call to love his neighbor as himself.

This representation of the self as two different selves embodied in two different and opposed characters, one of whom is called to be like the other, is not new. It is just a fine articulation of a method which underlies all Tolstoy's major fictions. As we have seen, in them, but of course variously, Tolstoy represents his struggle for faith by opposing two sets of characters: on the one hand, Nikolenka, Olenin, Prince Andrew, Pierre, Levin, and Nekhlyudov; on the other hand, Maman and “she,” Maryanka, Natasha, Kitty, and Katyusha. The female figures are all emblematic residents who embody and reveal the way to divine love. In the later, short fictions these female figures are replaced by male peasants who serve the same function as do the emblematic figures of the beloved in the genres of the rich and learned. Natalya Savishna is the first such figure, both female and peasant. All Tolstoy's major heroes are representations of the personality lost in life, but on a journey of discovery with or in search of an emblematic self. At the end of the journey, only in moments and just in the moment, they encounter their emblematic divine self and see the way to love. Master and Man is the perfect type of this autopsychological and theological prose that I call emblematic realism.


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Further Reading