Master and Man

Master and Man

By | 2015-02-11T15:28:48+00:00 May 25, 2012|Books, Culture, Virtue & Moral Life|

The narrative climax of Leo Tolstoy’s Master and Man finds the two main characters, Vasili Andreevich and his servant Nikita, trapped for the night in a snowdrift, struggling to survive against the gathering intensity of a storm.

Vasili is portrayed as a wealthy man, not of the older Russian nobility, but of the rising middle class, which was transforming Russian society during Tolstoy’s lifetime and which occupies a central thematic role in many of his short stories. In the midst of this societal change, Vasili’s servant Nikita stands as a reminder of something older: a peasant completely dependent on his master in all respects. At its heart, Vasili’s relationship with Nikita stands as symbol of the most basic human bond, which unites men in the commonality of the human condition, regardless of class or wealth.

Prior to being trapped in the snowdrift, the pair stops in a peasant village to rest and warm themselves. There they are greeted with great hospitality, of the simplest and most honest kind. Vasili is restless, however, and refuses to stay the night. Heedless of the storm, he is driven on into the gathering night by the urgency of his economic concerns, hoping to reach his destination in time to close a business deal. As the two depart the town, the peasant Petrushka—a stock character in Russian folk literature who usually takes the part of jester or narrator—speaks a paraphrase of the opening of stanza of Alexander Pushkin’s Winter Evening:

Storms with mist the sky conceal,
Snowy circles wheeling wild,
Now like savage beast ’twill howl,
And now ‘tis wailing like a child.

These words occur both at the beginning and at the end of the poem itself, which recounts the experience of winter—in the Russian sense of the term. A sense of fatalism predominates, and it seems that whatever comfort this life can offer is to be found in friendship—in sharing a song and, perhaps, a glass. For Pushkin, the fatalism of the storm signifies something deeper than mere physical suffering or even death. It represents the moments of human failure that are now an irrecoverable part of the past, but which can be redeemed, at least partially, by a renewed commitment to the man beside us:

“Let us drink, dearest friend
to my poor wasted youth . . .
Our hearts at least will be lightened.”

Pushkin seems to propose that there is something in the nature of friendship that renders life’s difficulties bearable. It is a source of warmth amidst the fury of the storm.

For Aristotle, friendship is distinguished from other loves as the love that wills the good of the other. While we might love a horse or a glass of wine because of what it can do for us, to love another person as a friend is to will his good, not for our sake, but for his. St. Thomas Aquinas proposes that our understanding of Christian charity should begin with this concept of natural friendship. For Aquinas, our supernatural love of God and of neighbor is premised on a natural analogue. Friendship builds the bonds of natural kinship that unite men of all classes in their common humanity, and, along the lines of this same foundation, supernatural charity builds the City of God.

As the storm intensifies, Vasili and Nikita find that they have lost the path. Their sledge overturned, they are disoriented and chilled to the point of despair. But Vasili does not lie idle, waiting for death. He remembers all that he has to live for, all the things that are most important to him: his land and his profits. Comparing himself to Nikita, who has nothing, he judges the value of his own life to be infinitely more than that of his servant. So, while Nikita sleeps, he takes the horse and leaves him to die in the snow, saying, “It’s all the same to him whether he lives or dies. What is his life worth? He won’t grudge his life, but I have something to live for, thank God.”

It is the horse that finally leads Vasili back to Nikita. Nature itself, Tolstoy seems to suggest, militates against the selfish reasons and loves that had led Vasili so far astray: it draws him back to his fellow man, and opens the way for grace. Seeing Nikita in the snow, Vasili is moved with pity, and he makes a choice that effects a complete reordering of his life and loves. In the morning, after the storm subsides, the villagers find him, spread out cruciform on top of a still-living Nikita. At the cost of his own life, he had shielded his servant from the worst of the storm.

During the night, as he sacrifices his own life for that of his friend, Vasili finds that he can no longer understand the loves that previously drove him: his money, his house, his business. In friendship—that prelude to charity—all self-love fades. Indeed, he rejoices in this newfound love and exclaims, “Nikita is alive, so I too am alive!” Then, as he dreams in half sleep, he hears someone calling to him. It is the same person who had told him to lie down on Nikita in the first place, but this time the mysterious voice simply says, “Come.” Vasili, overcome with joy, replies, “I am coming, I am coming!” and then breathes his last.

Image: Ilya Repin, Tolstoy Plowing

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