Friday, September 23, 2016

standing still as if in thought - Tolstoy's "Master and Man"

Since I was commenting on Anton Chekhov’s struggles in the early 1890s with Leo Tolstoy, I should note a contemporary Tolstoy story, “Master and Man” (1895) that could almost be a Chekhov story.  By the end it is clearly Tolstoy, but if someone had printed it up as a Chekhov story it could have fooled me.

A merchant and one of his peasants – and a horse, itself a fine character – head into a blizzard.  The merchant wants to buy a piece of land, that’s all, so fighting the blizzard is just the usual short-sighted human idiocy.  There is a long tradition of Russian man-versus-blizzard stories, going back to Pushkin’s “The Blizzard” (1831) at least, and Chekhov wrote some himself.

Tolstoy wants the threat of the blizzard in order to write a variation on “The Death of Ivan Ilych” (1886) where death approaches quickly, but still slowly enough that the characters have a little bit of time.  A selfish man has the chance to do one selfless, meaningful act, that is the ethical core of the story.  Oddly, it has some close resemblances to Chekhov’s “Rothschild’s Fiddle,” where the selfless act is the creation of a melody.  Here it is more basic, the saving of another’s life.

Some of Tolstoy’s later stories are ethically dubious, especially when he is writing about sex, but I think this one is straightforward.  The style is straightforward, too, although not plain.  A lot of non-fussy detail.

Picking his way out of the dung-strewn stable, Mukhorty frisked, and making play with his hind leg pretended that he meant to kick Nikita, who was running at a trot beside him to the pump.

‘Now then, now then, you rascal!’ Nikita called out, well knowing how carefully Mukhorty threw out his hind leg just to touch his greasy sheepskin coat but not to strike him – a trick Nikita much appreciated.

After a drink of the cold water the horse sighed, moving his strong wet lips, from the hairs of which transparent drops fell into the trough; then standing still as if in thought, he suddenly gave a loud snort.  (Ch. 1)

Some of this matters later in the story – the relationship between the peasant and the horse, or the exact details of his coat – but the last paragraph would have been easy to omit.  But Tolstoy wants to get the horse right.

Those short paragraphs are characteristic.  “Master and Man” is a kind of adventure story.  It moves.  Even at the climax, with everything frozen in place, Tolstoy has to keep time moving.

Only in the final paragraph does the narrator accelerate, covering twenty years, bringing the story up to date (the survivor of the story died “only this year”).  The last line is unmistakable Tolstoy:

Whether he is better or worse off there where he awoke after his death, whether he was disappointed or found there what he expected, we shall all soon learn.

I read the Maude translation in Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy.


  1. That's a more pleasant Russian equine scene than the beaten to death in Raskolnikov's dream scene one I just read in Dostoevsky. The ending here is a bit more moralistic (ethical?) than I'd like, but even secondhand it ends with some narrative oomph. Point taken!

  2. It is a noble horse.

    I was impressed that late Tolstoy restrained himself, saving the moralistic tone for the very last sentence. Before that, he keeps his distance.