Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 715
The unnamed narrator of the story (probably meant to be Leo Tolstoy himself) and his manservant Alyeshka start on an evening trip by sledge from Novocherkassk in the Caucasus to a destination in central Russia. As they ride, a winter storm begins, and soon the road becomes covered with heavy, thick snow. The narrator becomes concerned about getting lost and queries his driver about their chances of making it safely to the next post station. The driver is somewhat vague and fatalistic concerning the rest of the journey, suggesting that they may or may not get through. The narrator has little confidence in the driver, who seems inexperienced and sullen.
A few minutes later, the driver stops the sledge, gets down, and starts searching for the road that they have lost. Disturbed by this situation, the narrator orders the phlegmatic driver to turn back, giving the horses their head to seek out the post station from which they started out. To add to the anxiety, the driver tells a story of some recent travelers who got lost and froze to death in a similar storm.
Soon they hear the bells of three mail-express sledges coming toward them and going in the opposite direction. The narrator orders his driver to turn around and follow the fresh tracks of the mail sledges. The tracks and road markers quickly disappear in the drifting snow. The narrator himself now gets out of the sledge to look for the road, but soon loses sight of even the sledge. After finding his driver and sledge, a decision is again made to turn back and return to the station from which they started out.
Again they hear the bells of the mail express, which is now returning to their original starting point, having delivered the mail and changed horses. The narrator’s driver suggests that they follow them back. As the narrator’s driver tries to turn around, his shafts hit the horses tied to the back of the third mail troyka, making them break their straps, bolt, and run. The post driver goes off in search of the runaway horses while the narrator follows the first two sledges at full gallop. In better spirits now that he has somebody to follow, the narrator’s driver converses with his passenger affably, telling about his life and family circumstances.
Soon they run across a caravan of wagons, led by a mare without help from the driver, who is sleeping. They almost lose sight of the mail sledges, and the driver wants to turn around again, but they go on.
The old driver who went to get the runaway horses returns with all three and loses little time in reprimanding the narrator’s driver, whose inexperience created the problem in the first place.
The narrator begins to daydream, losing himself in the monotonous and desolate snowstorm and musing lyrically about the snow and wind: “Memories and fancies followed one another with increased rapidity in my imagination.” The narrator conjures up stream-of-consciousness images of his youth: the old family butler on their baronial estate, summers in the country, fishing, languid July afternoons, and finally a peasant drowning in their pond and nobody being able to help.
The narrator’s driver announces that his horses are too tired to go on, and he proposes that the narrator and his servant go with the post sledges. The baggage is transferred, and the narrator is glad to get into the warm, snug sledge. Inside, two old men are telling stories to pass the time. They give very short, blunt answers to the narrator’s suggestion that they all might freeze to death if the horses give out: “To be sure, we may.” After driving a while longer, the men in the sledge begin arguing about whether what they see on the horizon is an encampment. The narrator becomes sleepy and thinks that he is freezing to death. He has hallucinations about what it must be like to freeze to death, dozing and waking alternately.
The narrator wakes in the morning to find that the snow has stopped and he has arrived at a post station. He treats all the men to a glass of vodka and, having received fresh horses, continues on the next leg of his journey.
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