Tolstoy’s characters are clichés: the greedy master and his long-suffering, submissive servant. Brekhunov sets off on his pilgrimage to satisfy his lust for riches; Nikita comes along because it is his duty. The action takes place in a world increasingly devoid of landmarks, a world becoming increasingly alien. Tolstoy throws his characters back on themselves. However, although the crisis affects Nikita very little, save for the loss of a few toes, it completely changes Brekhunov.
The author is hard-pressed to make his main character’s spiritual conversion convincing. He does so by toning down Brekhunov’s hard edges, making him less of a stereotype. He makes him good-natured even while being the most unreconstructed of cheats, presenting him as more intrinsically manipulative than really evil. He becomes recognizable in the same way as, say, a shyster lawyer or a smiling used-car salesperson who tells one that the wreck he is selling has only been driven to church on Sundays. On this level, the reader can more readily come to terms with his character. However, Tolstoy is still exposing the reader to his own set of values; he is trying to persuade the reader to accept his view of the necessity of service to other human beings. He is showing the reader, through allegory, the sterility of materialism.
Tolstoy has a hopelessly lost Brekhunov going around in circles trying to find the path to salvation. Where Brekhunov believes his safety lies turns out to be nothing but wormwood. Liberation from such a hollow existence can come only through spiritual transformation. The death scene is not entirely convincing, but Tolstoy makes it more believable by making it mundane. The merchant gives up his life in the same manner that he has previously shown in his business deals: “Suddenly, with the same resolution with which he used to strike hands when making a good purchase.” The spiritual result is not diminished, for such joie de vivre is in perfect keeping with exhilaration shown by saints in the hour of their martyrdom. As Brekhunov is dying, he is overcome with an ecstasy that is so pedestrian that the story’s great theme seems as natural as the snowstorm that serves as its setting.