Themes and Meanings

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Vasili Andrevich Brekhunov is the quintessence of greed. Making money is his raison d’être, his fundamental dynamic, his only obsession. For this he will risk and ultimately lose his life. If the wages of sin are death, then he is rightly doomed, because even when in mortal danger he still thinks of all the wealth that will be his. He “thought ever of the one thing that constituted the sole aim, meaning, pleasure, and pride of his life—of how much money he had made and might still make, of how much other people he knew had made and possessed, and how those others had made and were making it, and how he, like them, might still make much more.”

Materialism corrupts his entire vision. He cheats and shortchanges everybody, especially Nikita. He is supposed to pay his servant eighty rubles a year but gives him half that amount, in reluctant driblets and often in the form of payment in kind, for which he charges Nikita too much. However, Brekhunov can still hypocritically pose as Nikita’s benefactor, “If you need anything, take it,” he says to him, “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.”

Nikita is bound to his master symbolically as well as practically. He knows that he is being cheated but figures that such is his lot in life and accepts it: “He felt that it was useless to try to clear up his accounts with him or explain his side of the matter and that as long as he had nowhere to go he must accept what he could get.” It is this spirit of resignation that makes him fearless in the face of death, accepting fate calmly. Nikita is Leo Tolstoy’s noble savage, the perfect fool, one of the meek who shall inherit the earth. His master is the self-centered egotist, the epitome of a wasted life. His values are so bound up with getting and possessing that he is utterly defenseless in the presence of death. He rationalizes his desertion of Nikita by contending that he has so much more to live for, because he is a man of property and his servant is not.

Brekhunov’s sacrifice produces his redemption. However, in the context of the plot, although not in terms of Tolstoy’s Weltanschauung, this is accidental—indeed, almost whimsical. Before death comes, Brekhunov begins to hallucinate; he tries to move his arms and legs but cannot; then he understands “that this was death, and [he] was not at all disturbed by that.” He wonders why he has been troubled with all the material things in his existence. Death now seems as natural—not an interruption of one more business deal—and as acceptable, as much a part of the flow of life, as his symbiotic relationship with the man he saves.

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