Master and Man
by Leo Tolstoy
"He, like all people who live with nature and know want, was patient and could wait calmly for hours, even days, without feeling either alarm or vexation” ― Leo Tolstoy, Master and Man
Reading the tale, Master and Man, seems appropriate in the midst of winter. Tolstoy wrote this tale about a decade after The Death of Ivan Ilych and Winter cold is so important in the story that it becomes yet another character by the end of this sophisticated parable. Snow and biting winds gust from its pages. Its climactic event, the transferal of heat from one body to another, has a resonance that cannot be denied, but my question would be: can it be believed?
The story begins just following the attendance of a merchant, Vasily Andreich Brekhunov, at the winter festival of St. Nicholas. Brekhunov immediately turns his attention to an opportunity to become richer. On a dark afternoon, despite the threat of a storm, he sets out to secure the purchase of a wood at a bargain price. He takes his "kind, pleasant" servant Nikita with him, a man Brekhunov values but insensitively exploits. He pays him half what he should, and then "mostly not in money but in high-priced goods from [his] shop."
The main arc of the story is the passage from life to death, one of Tolstoy's frequent concerns (as was dramatized in Ivan Ilych). There are plenty of symbols in the narrative and the tension almost immediately begins as Brekhunov and Nikita leave the village of Kresti ("The Crosses"). The narrator describes the breaking of limits in this passage:
"As soon as they passed the last [building], they noticed at once that the wind was much stronger than they had thought. The road could hardly be seen...The fields were all in a whirl, and the limit where sky and earth met could not be seen."
Nikita drowses and they become lost, riding across bleak fields "with clumps of wormwood and straw sticking up from under the snow." They come to the village of Grishkino, receive directions and set off again. The snowstorm has intensified. Again Nikita drowses, again they get lost in "the slanting net of wind-driven snow". Night is falling. They travel in a circle.
They come again to Grishkino.
This time they seek shelter at a wealthy household of the Taras family in the village. The contrast created between the cold loneliness of the wilderness and the cozy warmth of human habitation is striking. Nikita, icicles melting from his beard, drinks "glass after glass" of tea and feels "warmer and warmer, pleasanter and pleasanter". They could safely stay with the Taras family but Brekhunov again insists they must resume their journey.
They get lost a third time, in darkness this time, and the horse Mukhorty is too tired to carry on. Nikita prepares for a night outdoors, with Brekhunov in the sleigh and himself in a straw-lined hollow. Brekhunov smokes and thinks about "the sole aim, meaning, joy, and pride of his life – of how much money he had made and might still make". But these thoughts fade into the "whistling of the wind, the fluttering and snapping of the kerchief in the shafts, and the lashing of the falling snow against the bast of the sleigh."
Over the next few pages Tolstoy tracks Brekhunov's shift from discomfort and irritation to panic. He decides to take Mukhorty and abandon Nikita – "'it's all the same if he dies. What kind of life has he got!'" – who is losing his toes to frostbite, and realizes he is probably going to die. "This thought did not seem especially unpleasant to him, because his whole life was not a continuous feast, but, on the contrary, a ceaseless servitude, which was beginning to weary him."
On a floundering Mukhorty, Brekhunov travels in smaller circles across a hostile, almost alien landscape, coming twice to a clump of wormwood – "growing on a boundary … desperately tossing about under the pressure of the wind" – that appears to mark the grim border of existence. He "sees he is perishing in the middle of this dreadful snowy waste" and realizes the horse has brought him back to the sleigh (and to the one man whom the horse loves). Then, amazingly, he scrapes the snow from Nikita and lies on top of him. In the morning Nikita is alive and Brekhunov is dead, frozen as if crucified, "his open mouth...packed with snow."
There is something strange about Brekhunov's sudden and unlikely transformation from exploiter to saviour, which Tolstoy outlines but does not precisely describe. Brekhunov's thought that "'Nikita's alive, which means I'm alive, too,'" does not comport with the unmistakably Christian symbolism of the story. There are many instances of the number three in the story, but the most insistently repeated symbol is that of the circle. This is a traditional symbol of the unity of life and death, the Chain of Being. In spite of this the moment of transformation seems at best coincidental and more likely forced. Does it represent a new form of interconnection for Brekhunov that did not exist previously, or is it a form of redemption or absolution for a life of greed and insensitivity?
"Master and Man" is a complicated tale. Do we really know these two characters who are identified primarily by a couple of essential characteristics? To paraphrase a popular song: "Is that all there is, my friend?" Nikita is kind and pleasant, but he's also a drunk who chopped up his wife's most treasured clothes. Brekhunov is odious but he sees himself as a "benefactor" (although this may merely be relative to his forebears who owned Russian "souls"). In the end these two along with the horse Mukhorty are trapped in a hostile world in a bitter and blinding snowstorm. The story only becomes a classic with the stroke of Tolstoy's pen whose clarity and simplicity of style is peerless.
View all my reviews