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Overview and Context of "Master and Man" by Leo Tolstoy


"Master and Man" by Leo Tolstoy is a short story about a landowner named Vasili Andreevich Brekhunov and his servant, Nikita, who embark on a journey during a snowstorm. The narrative explores themes of greed, self-sacrifice, and the true meaning of life. As they struggle against the elements, Vasili undergoes a moral transformation, ultimately sacrificing himself to save Nikita.

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Can you explain the story "Master and Man" by Leo Tolstoy?

Tolstoy's "Master and Man" is counted as one of the greatest short stories ever written by some critics and a labored treatise on Tolstoyan philosophy by other critics. In either case, it is agreed that the overall synopsis of "Master and Man" is that a singled-focused, some say egotistical, master in the heartland of Russia wants to strike a business deal on a day when the heartless Russian weather is set against him. The master's loving young wife, the mother of his children, convinces to take the serf (servant) Nikita with him so that he won't be traveling alone. While on the journey, with the master's thoughts always focused on the culmination of the business deal, Nikita and he progress on their way but are lost in the bowels of a Russian snowstorm.

In order to understand the story, it is important to understand two things about the master, Vasili Andrevich Brekhunov. The first is that he carefully characterized by Tolstoy as a man who has a loving wife whom he values highly, just as he values their offspring. This draws the picture of the master's human side, his personable side. The second is that he is clearly obsessed in profound single-mindedness on accumulating wealth and goods. He takes liberties with Nikita's wages; he appropriates church funds for personal business transactions; he puts the possibility of closing a good deal above valid considerations for his safety as illustrated by his willingness--no, his single-minded determination--to go out in dangerous weather across deserted frozen snow covered expanses in the hope of making and closing a good business deal for the purchase of a grove of trees at half their value.

Nikita represents the ideal of pastoral simplicity, some critics say he is Tolstoy's nobel savage. He is sincere, transparent in his motives and needs; he is pragmatic and practical about his situation knowing that since he can't go anywhere (serfs stay with the land they live on), he had best not stir up anguish over the master's poorly reconciled payment accounts. Nikita is ready to go where his master requires, when he requires it and is therefore willing to accompany him on this ill-judged journey for oak trees.

On their travels they get lost three times, rejecting hospitality twice. The third time, the horse falls into a ravine, the sledge follows and master and man are trapped. Nikita recognizes the truth and releases the horse from the harness and sets up a makeshift pole with flag so they might be found and dug out from under the snow--falling hard and fast--in the morning. The master chooses to try to escape on the back of the horse, which stumbles, shakes off the master and runs back to Nikita, with the master running behind. They find Nikita lying in the sledge and he says that he is dying. The master has a quiet epiphany, and, realizing that Nikita's life is valuable after all, opens his copious fur coat, lays down on top of Nikita and gives up his own life to save Nikita's. Thus the master Vasili has learned the truth about life; has atoned to Nikita for past injustice; and has found the elusive road--the one to spiritual righteousness--the one Nikita already knew.

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When does "Master and Man" by Leo Tolstoy take place?

Leo Tolstoy's short story "Master and Man" takes place in Russia, during nighttime in winter (December 8th) most likely some time in the 1870's:

"It happened in the 'seventies in winter, on the day after St. Nicholas's Day."

This could, in theory, refer to the 1770's or earlier, but seeing as the late 1800's are Tolstoy's era it would make sense to set the story then.

This is an unpleasant time in Russian history for most people...life was hard and the labor long.  The laborer in the story was probably little more than a peasant/serf and subject to being taken advantage of by his employer...indeed, as is the case in this story.

"Andreevich did not pay Nikita the eighty rubles a year such a man was worth, but only about forty, which he gave him haphazard, in small sums, and even that mostly not in cash but in goods from his own shop and at high prices."

This is a good example of how the setting of a story and its placement in time can have a good deal of impact on the events portrayed in it.

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