Master and Man
The theme of Tolstoy’s short story “Master and Man” is the spiritual conversion of a man facing death and coming to terms with the shallow nature of his life and transforming his last moments into worthy actions. Tolstoy employs the cold winter and the elements of nature to help propel Vasily and his servant on the road towards this transformation. Furthermore, contrasts and opposites are also minor themes within the story as a wealthy merchant and a poor lush of a servant teach each other important lessons in life.
The plot of Master and Man revolves around the trip of Vasili Andreevich Brekhunov and his servant Nikita to a distant village called Goryachkin to purchase land. The weather is poor and snow makes traveling difficult. Soon the two travelers lose their way and it becomes questionable if they should continue on with the trip. Vasili’s greed forces them on while Nikita knows that it is unwise yet he can say nothing because of his position as a servant.
Vasili and Nikita are at opposite ends of the social ladder and each are ruled by what holds them in that place – Vasili by the desire not to be shown up by his upper class rivals forces him to continue the trip out of pride and greed; Nikita must obey his Master and, even though his common sense tells him he is being unwise, he is driven on by his position of obedience. The relationship between the Master and Nikita is one of a dominant and overbearing employer and a poor desperate employee. Vasili knowingly cheats Nikita out of money and wages while Nikita is in no position to argue with his Master due to his social position and poor living circumstances.
The story comes to a climax when the two are hopelessly stranded in the cold and blowing snow. The Master is warm in his rich clothes and Nikita is slowly freezing to death. As Nikita begs the Master to give the money owed to him for his service to his son after his death, the master has a revelation that brings about spiritual transformation. Vasili lays down on the body of his worker and wraps him up in the flaps of his coat, bringing him back from the brink of death. This rescue brings Vasili’s first experience of true joy. The next morning, rescuers find the servant alive and the Master dead.