Master and Man: short story by Leo Tolstoy

Review of Master and Man by Leo Tolstoy

This tale of tragedy, written in 1895, gives us a world so real, you hang on every twist and turn in the plot. Tolstoy presents a view of Russian aristocracy and peasantry in diametric conflict. As in Anna Karenina, the story is told from the omnipotent viewpoint, i.e. the author gets into the minds and personalities of the two principal characters, via mental ruminations and dialogue.

 

Our protagonist is Vasili Andreevich Brekhunov. Andreevich is a wealthy landowner and trader in real property and livestock. He is out to close another deal before his upper class rivals eclipse him. It's the eve of the St. Nicholas feast in Orthodox Christian Russia of the 1870s. Andreevich is a greedy man, with designs on some land that is a few miles from his own estate. It is winter and the weather is cold, snowing and threatening to worsen. Undeterred by the dangers, he is going to brave the deadly Russian winter in a sledge drawn by a small horse and his trusted servant, Nikita to guide him. He sets off for a journey that should take a few hours at most. And here is where a tale begins, that grips the reader's attention and never lets go.

 

 

All of the elements of epic story-telling are in place. Nature in her huge majesty is set against two men, a small horse, harnessed to a sledge, and human unbridled ambition. That is the external theme, but the interior story examines the nature of relations between a landowner and his obsequious servant underling. In this complex analysis we find the real message Tolstoy seeks to impart.

 

Nikita is a laborer that for many years has been a lush. It has led him to such perdition, that his own wife, no longer resides with him in the shanty shack, that serves as the peasant living quarters on the Brekhunov estate. He is hopelessly indebted to the sly, and exploitative Andreevich. His wages are paid to his wife and doled out to him as needed. Of course, Andreevich cheats him, and he knows that but with the engrained subservient mentality of a 19th century peasant, he accepts his luckless fate. He has also sworn off drink since an embarrassing incident during the last feast. He is a happy-go-lucky man that is at peace in the natural world in which he lives. He loves the animals to which he attends and gladly takes all the underhanded chicanery, his master, Andreevich deals him. Nikita is the perfect opposite of Andreevich. Where Andreevich is continually plotting to gain, Nikita is content to enjoy the small pleasures of his downtrodden life. Nikita is by no means the antagonist of this story. This role is given not to a character, but to the weather itself. It is the pernicious Russia winter storm that will thwart all of Andreevich's plans. It is the fierce blizzard that Andreevich is fighting not his competitors, though he doesn't realize this. These two so very different men are thrown together by Andreevich's desire to have more. The consequences of this union are revealing about the notions of life each carries within.

 

Soon after setting off from Brekhunov's estate for the village of Goryachkin, they go astray and lose their bearings on the dirt roads that are marked with high wooden stakes. At that time in Russia, there was nothing like a national highway system. In fact, very few paved roads existed even in urban areas. The only means travelers had to know where they were heading during winter was with a primitive system of wooden stakes that indicated the direction of the road. In many areas the snowstorm, which is increasing as they go, has completely covered these markers. They fall into a quagmire of life-threatening proportions.

 

Tolstoy depicts the nature of human social relations from this point on. Andreevich is determined to continue with the sojourn, though it may well kill him and Nikita. His avaricious desire won't let him be out-traded. Nikita on the other hand, only seeks to serve his master, though he knows it is folly. Everything in his breeding tells him to continue this trip is against reason. But, peasants aren't expected to reason, so he continues. They travel from one village to another, seeking their goal: Goryachkin. They are welcomed into the home of a middle-class family, and are implored to wait out the storm. Andreevich, however will have none of it. They set off again, and again they are lost. As this tale continues, Andreevich becomes more and more obsessive and Nikita is resigned to death. I won't describe anymore of this powerful tale. To do this would destroy a work of art. I leave it to the reader to discover what actually happens.

 

I will say, what Leo Tolstoy gives us, are two persons on opposites sides of a human equation. The master is power drunk and the man is will lacking, accepting his fate, within the will of his master. Neither can control themselves and both are destroying themselves. What is Tolstoy saying in this story? Was he beckoning us to question our outlook on life's drama? Was he trying to bring forth deep emotions; sympathy or scorn for oppression and avarice, or tender care for both characters? This is why Man and Master is such great fiction. The reader is left to make their own conclusions about the meaning of this story.

 

In this tale, you can feel the wind blowing against your face as it does to the characters. You can imagine the smell of the forest, and the bone-chilling cold of the night in a vast wilderness. The fear of death by freezing, you feel, as Nikita stumbles and slides in the snow, you do too. The increasing sense of desperation Nikita and Andreevich sense, you feel as you follow them into ever greater danger. Tolstoy uses his descriptive powers to bring this environment and persons alive to the reader. As I finished this story I had a sense of having been in that place. I said to myself why hasn't anybody made this into a film? Well, Hollywood just doesn't like great literature anymore I guess?

 

Ken Wais 10/11/2002

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