Master And Man Summary

Leo Tolstoy

Master And Man

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Master And Man Summary

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“Master and Man” (1895) is a short story by Russian author Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy is widely ranked among the greatest writers of all time with such classics as War and Peace (1869), Anna Karenina (1877), and the novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886). His output also includes plays and essays.

In “Master and Man,” Vasili Andreevich Brekhunov, a landowner, departs from the village of Kresty for a short journey with Nikita, one of his peasants. It is a cold winter day, the day after the feast of Saint Nicholas, and their destination is the home of the owner of a forest. Vasili shows little patience as he is in a hurry to get to the town to conduct his business. This business is trying to purchase that forest to procure wood at a low price before any other interested parties are able to get there before him. Nikita is kind and pleasant. Although he is valued by his master, he is also exploited by him. He is underpaid for his services and is paid not in cash, but in goods from his master’s shop.

A blizzard arises which could potentially slow or stop the travelers, but Vasili insists they continue on their way. As they do so, they lose their way on the road, traveling in circles. They need to set up camp. As the story progresses, they get lost again and look for comfort at a wealthy household. This is juxtaposed against the bitter cold and loneliness of the wilderness in which they are lost. Nikita begins to warm up while his master, whose clothing is much more suited to the elements, insists they continue on their way. Once again, they get lost. It is dark and even Mukhory, the horse they have with them, is too exhausted to continue. Nikita gets things ready for the night out in the open.

The peasant, suffering from hypothermia, is near death. Vasili leaves Nikita to die. He takes the horse and leaves. Eventually, Vasili has a revelation, reaching a higher moral and spiritual level. He returns to Nikita and lies on him, keeping him warm throughout the night. Vasili leaves himself more exposed to the elements, leading to his own death as he saves his peasant’s life. Nikita loses several toes due to frostbite.

Vasili’s transformation represents a recurring theme in the work of Leo Tolstoy. Living one’s life for the benefit of others is where true happiness is achieved. Like much of Tolstoy’s work following Three Deaths in 1859, the passage from life into death is critical to the plot of “Master and Man.” Vasili becomes the savior of the man he had simply been using. There is a religious symbolism to the character’s actions, although it might not necessarily be a singular connection. Christian imagery is possible, as is Buddhist imagery, with the line, “Nikita’s alive, which means I’m alive, too.”  The characters are trapped between life and death, in a limbo of sorts, a long way from the main road in a snowstorm.

Master and Man and Other Stories collects ten of Tolstoy’s pieces. They draw mostly on his own experiences and are constructed with realism and compassion. “The Two Hussars,” for example, deals with the relationship between father and son. Other stories in the collection underscore Tolstoy’s belief that literature, and all arts, should serve a moral purpose. “What Men Live By” concerns an angel sent to earth to learn the existential rules of life, while in “Two Old Men,” a peasant gives up his planned trip to the Holy Land to help his neighbors. The title story is especially representative of the latter period of the author’s career where his work was guided by the spiritual and moral conflicts that Tolstoy experienced in his life. The story is widely praised for its powerful emotional content despite the feeling among some critics that the transformation of Vasili happens too quickly to be believable. Also pointed out frequently are the parallels between the character’s transformation and that of the title character of The Death of Ivan Ilyich.

An obsession with death was a force in Tolstoy’s life. The New Yorker made reference to this in an essay about the author saying, “It is important to remember that when Tolstoy wrote The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Confession, preoccupied with dying as both those works are, he was still only in his fifties; he was to live another twenty-five years. Human mortality was for him, in large part, a philosophical dilemma. He also (as we see in The Death of Ivan Ilyich) relished the writer’s challenge of intimately exploring the processes of dying—when it was something he could only have observed from the perspective of the living. It was a challenge that so intrigued him that he is later supposed to have asked his friends and followers to quiz him about the experience of his own death as he was going through it.”