31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 9: “Master and Man” by Leo Tolstoy

May 9, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy

Count Tolstoy is rightly regarded as one of the great practitioners of the novel form. But beyond his undisputed masterpieces, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Tolstoy also wrote a number of powerful shorter pieces, which are often forgotten in discussions of the man and his work. As John Bayley asserts:

Tolstoy’s stories are in some sense founded on a paradox. They are carefully and beautifully composed tales by a genius who did not give his whole allegiance to this formal method of composition. It is an exciting paradox, and like many such paradoxes in art it produced with some incidental defects powerful and unforgettable results.

Surely the best known and most critically hailed of Tolstoy’s shorter works is his 1886 novella “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” but among his lesser-known works, the story “Master and Man,” written in 1895 (relatively late in Tolstoy’s career), is a brilliantly crafted piece, a work of spiralling terror, the outcome of which is both inevitable and unexpected.

The premise of the story is simple: on the day after St. Nicholas’ Day, businessman Vasíli Andréevich Brekhunóv sets out with his manservant Nikíta to seal the purchase of a tract of land. Despite an encroaching blizzard, Vasíli insists that they go at once, because he is afraid that the piece of land will get snapped up by someone else if he hesitates. Accordingly, Nikíta hitches the family’s trusted horse, Mukhórty, to a sledge, and the two set off into the snow.

It is not difficult to predict what transpires. Mukhórty wanders off the road, the signposts for which have been buried under increasingly high snowdrifts, and the two men become hopelessly lost. They come across the home of a wealthy landowner who offers them drinks and a room for the night, but Vasíli, convinced he will lose the land he wants to purchase if he waits, insists on pressing forward, despite the driving snow and the fact the night is falling.

“Master and Man” is, among other things, one of the coldest stories ever written. Tolstoy’s descriptions of the blizzard and its attendant effects on the two wayward travellers are vivid and horrifying, as is the sense of dislocation and disorientation the two men succumb to:

“Now then, friend, stir yourself!” he shouted to the horse, but in spite of the shake of the reins Mukhórty moved only at a walk.

The snow in places was up to his knees, and the sledge moved by fits and starts with his every movement.

Nikíta took the whip that hung over the front of the sledge and struck him once. The good horse, unused to the whip, sprang forward and moved at a trot, but immediately fell back into an amble and then a walk. So they went on for five minutes. It was dark and the snow whirled from above and rose from below, so that sometimes the shaft-bow could not be seen. At times the sledge seemed to stand still and the field to run backwards. Suddenly the horse stopped abruptly, evidently aware of something close in front of him. Nikíta again sprang lightly out, throwing down the reins, and went ahead to see what had brought him to a standstill, but hardly had he made a step in front of the horse before his feet slipped and he went rolling down an incline.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” he said to himself as he fell, and he tried to stop his fall but could not, and only stopped when his feet plunged into a thick layer of snow that had drifted to the bottom of the hollow.

Mukhórty is more attuned to the realities of the landscape than either of his human companions, who under Vasíli’s direction drive the horse to ever more exhausting extremes, all the while succumbing to an increasing sense of panic at their worsening plight.

Of the two humans, Vasíli is the more desperate, and when it becomes apparent that the horse is physically incapable of pressing on through the storm, his thoughts turn to what he considers the injustice inherent in the possibility that he might die and lose all the material possessions he has spent his adult life accumulating:

He lay and thought: 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 of how those others had made and were making it, and how he, like them, might still make much more.

Moreover, as a man of property, he values his life more dearly than he does that of his peasant manservant, whom he has been lax in paying what he owes in wages. (He rationalizes his parsimoniousness in the most craven manner, even trying to convince his servant that his stinginess is actually generosity: “What agreement did we draw up with you? … If you need anything, take it; you will work it off. I’m not like others to keep you waiting, and making up accounts and reckoning fines. We deal straight-forwardly. You serve me and I don’t neglect you.”) When it becomes apparent that the two will likely not survive the night, Vasíli takes the horse and makes off, convinced that his life is more important than Nikíta’s: “As for him … it’s all the same to him whether he lives of dies. What is his life worth? He won’t grudge his life, but I have something to live for, thank God.”

Tolstoy’s story is obviously an acerbic dissection of class pretensions, but it is also a Christian parable, in that Vasíli’s final act, although not entirely altruistic, involves at least a degree of self-sacrifice. There are layers to these two characters, and despite the predictable trajectory of the plot, the outcome of the story is not certain until the very final pages.

Nevertheless, “Master and Man” exemplifies Poe’s idea of the “single effect” as a driving force in a short story:

A skilful artist has constructed a tale. He has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents, but having deliberately conceived a certain single effect to be wrought, he then invents such incidents, he then combines such events, and discusses them in such tone as may best serve him in establishing this preconceived effect. If his very first sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then in his very first step has he committed a blunder.

In its absolute inexorability, Tostoy’s story carries forward in precisely the manner Poe suggested. This idea would not sit well with the Count himself, who felt that such an approach represented a reduction of the ideal toward which art should strive. He decried art that made obvious the artist’s intentions at the outset: “From the first lines one sees the intention with which the book is written, the details all become superfluous, and one feels dull.” About “Master and Man,” Tolstoy was divided in his own mind: while he was composing it he wrote in his journal that “[i]t is rather good from an artistic point of view,” only to later conclude, “I have sinned, because I am ashamed to have wasted my time on such stuff.” In this final judgment, history has proven the genius wrong. “Master and Man” remains in print, and although it is not one of the titles immediately associated with Tolstoy’s name in the popular consciousness, it remains a potent and wrenching work of art.