Master and Man – a short story by Leo Tolstoy

For my fifth week of “Project: Deal Me In!” I drew the three of diamonds, which led me to the famous Leo Tolstoy short story, “Master and Man.” And how appropriate that I happened to read it this week, as winter has just dealt much of the country a staggering blow. Here in Central Indiana, our portion of this storm was mostly ice and sleet, making travel hazardous and even convincing me to work from home yesterday. What does this have to do with Master and Man? Well, this story by Tolstoy takes place during a blizzard in Russia (where I’m sure they would laugh at our reactions to this latest storm here in America).

*****Warning: some spoilers follow*****
The “master” and the “man” are – quite naturally – the main characters in the story. The master (Vasili Andreevich Brekhunov) and his servant (Nikita, a local peasant) strike out into the teeth of a strengthening blizzard (with the aid of perhaps the third main character, the I’ll-fated horse Mukhorty) so that Vasili can be the early bird and purchase a tract of land before his competitors know it’s on the market and react themselves. We learn a little of how poorly Vasili treats Nikita (perhaps an alcoholic, but currently “on the wagon”), and we also see, in contrast, how well Nikita tends to and cares for the horse.

Vasili’s single-mindedness in pursuit of monetary gains leaves him not very well-stocked with common sense. His eagerness to arrive at their destination leads him to try an imprudent short cut, and they get lost more than once (whenever anything goes wrong, in his mind it always somehow happens to be anybody’s fault BUT Vasili’s, where the true blame lies). After stopping at a small village not far from their destination, they decline offers to stay the night (well, Vasili declines on their behalf) and they strike out again, this time to get completely lost and stuck in a kind of ditch. Nikita advises there is nothing for them to do but spend the night where they are. Their sledge (carriage) is not big enough for them both to stay “inside” so of course Vasili takes shelter inside while poor Nikita and the Horse do the best they can vs. the elements.

The last few chapters detail what must be a very long night for everyone, and how they each deal with the situation tells a lot about them. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but in the end a familiar Tolstoy theme reigns, and we have kind of a not happy, but not completely sad either, ending on our hands. This story can be read for free online in many places, one of which is the link below.

What do you think of Tolstoy? Have you stuck to his shorter works (as I have us far), or have you read the imposing volumes, War and Peace and Anna Karenina? I did make a small step this year and actually purchased War and Peace, but I haven’t started it yet, even with the temptation of a couple bloggers hosting War and Peace read-alongside at present.



  1. Alex said,

    February 3, 2011 at 12:16 pm

    Tolstoy… I guess I’m intimidated by him. I’ve only read Resurrection and saw the movie with Helen Mirren about her life. I’m determined to read Anna Karenina someday, though! And I’ve heard that one of the versions of the W&P audiobook is really good.


  2. Jay said,

    February 3, 2011 at 12:57 pm

    Me too Alex! I was contemplating including a photo of him in the post, and he even LOOKED intimidating… 🙂

    I’ve read a few other short stories by him over the years, and I do like him (I kind of like all the Russian authors for some reason, it seems…)



  3. Dale Barthauer said,

    February 3, 2011 at 4:45 pm

    SPOILER ALERT!!!!!!!

    I finished Master and Man last night, Jay. I enjoyed it a lot. Although one of the things about it that I’ve continued to think about is the rather abrupt change in Vasili’s attitude toward Nikita. He didn’t just grudgingly change a little. He did a complete 180 degree change.There wasn’t a lot of detail explaining his change. It was very sudden. I guess Tolstoy was trying to say that this change was somehow supernatural/spiritual? He also seemed to realize that it was his fault that they didn’t spend the night inside when they had the chance.

    I’m now reading The Death of Ivan Ilyich which was in the same book that I had as Master and Man. I also own War and Peace but have never read it. My edition has 1444 pages. I have read The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky which is rather long also, but only 936 pages (at least in my edition). TBK is great. One of my favorites! I own The Idiot by Dostoevsky, too, but have never read it, either. I may have to start a Russian author required reading project after I finish my epic poem project , which is coming along quicker than I thought it would.


    • Jay said,

      February 3, 2011 at 6:47 pm

      Hi Dale,
      Yes, I agree that it was a little strange how – “All of a Sudden” – Vasili undergoes his change of heart. I’m glad he did, though, for poor Nikita’s sake. I guess we should remember he had been drinking vodka earlier, though. :-). Apparently, this is a common Tolstoy theme (As I learned from the subsequent “drive by research” that I did): characters coming to realize that relationships with their fellow humans are what’s important – rather than, say, an obsession with accumulating rubles…

      I’ll have to look into The Death of Peter Ilych. I’m sure that one’s available on line for free somewhere as well. For a moment I thought that one was a selection in one of our club’s “short story months,” but I think I’m confusing it with Dostoevsky’s Inquisition.

      Speaking of Dostoevsky, I’ve read Crime and Punishment, but not The Idiot (which I do own, at least). I’ve also read Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, and a bunch of Chekhov’s shorter works. As you may remember, the latter’s “The Black Monk” is one of my all time favorite short stories…



      • Jay said,

        February 4, 2011 at 5:49 pm

        “Ivan Ilyich” I should say. Maybe I was thinking of Tchaikovsky. 🙂


  4. Melody said,

    February 3, 2011 at 7:26 pm

    I’ve read W&P and AK but only one of his short stories (Kreutzer Sonata). I enjoyed them all, although the latter two were read too many years ago to remember properly. I like how Tolstoy thinks, so even the philosophical parts of W&P were fascinating to me. (And you really shouldn’t be intimidated by it, the writing is fluid.) I’d like to read all his published works at some point.


  5. Jay said,

    February 4, 2011 at 5:52 pm

    Hi Melody,
    Kreutzer Sonata is one of the stories in a collection I just downloaded (for 99 cents!), and I hope to get to it soon. Many of his short stories are actually kind of long, I’m noticing.

    I truly do plan to read War and Peace this year. One of my friends has read it, and I hate that he has that “over me.” 🙂


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