Saturday, June 15, 2013

Book Review: Master and Man, by Leo Tolstoy (1895)

Master and Man is the story of Vasili Andreevich and his servant Nikita.  Both men set out on a journey to a nearby town and are caught up in a snow storm.  This is a character study that focuses mainly on the master, Vasili Andreevich.  His character evolves during the course of the story and Tolstoy charts those changes for us.

Vasili Andreevich is cheating his servant, Nikita, by not paying him what he is worth and then not paying him what is promised.

Vasili Andreevich did not pay Nikita the eighty rubles a year such a man was worth, but only about forty, which he gave him haphazard, in small sums, and even that mostly not in cash but in goods from his own shop and at high prices.

When Vasili Andreevich does pays Nikita any money, he does it in a way to give the feeling that he is a benevolent person.

'What agreement did we ever draw up with you?' said Vasili Andreevich to Nikita. '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.'
And when saying this Vasili Andreevich was honestly convinced that he was Nikita's benefactor, and he knew how to put it so plausibly that all those who depended on him for their money, beginning with Nikita, confirmed him in the conviction that he was their benefactor and did not overreach them.

This is the key to the entire story.  Vasili Andreevich believes he is Nikita's "benefactor".  Vasili Andreevich wants to be thought of as his benefactor.  Let's examine that for a moment.  The idea of a benefactor in those days was someone on whom you are depended, someone from whom you benefit.  It was just as important in older societies as our jobs are in our society.  And for Vasili Andreevich it was a point of pride that he took care of his dependents, that he was a good benefactor.  There we have it.  You see, underneath all his self-delusions is the idea that he "wants" to be a good benefactor.  Whether to show good standing in society or for moral reasons, he still "wants" to be a good benefactor and he wants his servants to think of him that way.  He helps delude himself into believing he is a good benefactor by trying to convince Nikita and Nikita's wife that he really is helping them, that he's being good to them.

I've known people like that.  The more people tell you this is a good deal, the more you should question it.  I can think of some scammers I've known that continually remind you they are not cheating you, they are "helping" you.  So we realize that people like that have always been around.  They find their niche in any society throughout history.

Tolstoy was a Christian.  It's important to note that because much of his writing reflects some form of Christian morality or redemption, or in some cases the idea of an afterlife.  It's reflected either in the philosophy behind the story or in the actions and motives of some of the characters.

In Master and Man, we see a redemption of sorts by Vasili Andreevich.  He is motivated by money.  His purpose in setting out on the journey is to buy land that he believes is worth more than he will pay for it.  He goes over it in his mind again and again, thinking of how much he stands to gain and how much his wealth will increase.  That sounds like greed but I don't blame him for that.  It's every man's desire to better himself.  But Vasili Andreevich is so caught up in the idea of this particular deal that he goes out in the storm when he should have stayed the night along the way.

What happened in that storm?  I'm going to give away the ending, so get ready.  They are lost, they are stuck in the snow, and they have to spend the night.  Vasili Andreevich, as the master, takes the best place - in the sledge.  Nikita curls up in the snow under a blanket.  But Vasili Andreevich eventually crawls out, gets on the horse, and rides away leaving Nikita alone to die.  Vasili Andreevich wanders around, gets lost, and ends up back at the sledge where he finds Nikita has crawled into the sledge.  Nikita is freezing to death and believes he will die.  He asks his master to pay his family what is owed him.

Here we have the interesting part.  Vasili Andreevich has a change of heart.  He crawls in and lays on top of Nikita, warming his body.  Vasili Andreevich freezes to death.  The horse freezes to death.  Nikita survives.  His master had truly become a good benefactor after the end.

It's a nice little story, but I wonder if Vasili Andreevich would have had such a change of heart if he - after getting on the horse and riding away - had found his way to a warm shelter?  What if he didn't end up back at the sledge?  It's only by chance that he finally decides to warm up Nikita, saving his life.

But I shouldn't be too hard on him.  What he did in the end made up for whatever his intentions were.

The theme is straight out of a class based society.  In modern day American, I am equal to my boss, to the rich and poor, even to the president (although politicians may disagree!).  So it's hard to understand where people are coming from when we read literature of that time period.  The idea that certain members of society are not only considered better than others, but are considered more worthy of living, is foreign to us.  The servant sacrificing himself for his master.  That's an old theme.  I've seen it many times in old books.  In fact, a good servant is expected to sacrifice himself for his master.  That's just how it was.  So this was a nice twist on that.  And the idea of a master as protector and benefactor goes back at least to feudal times in the high-middle ages (1000-1400 A.D.)  The lord of the manner expected service from the peasants, and in return the peasants expected protection from the lord of the manor.  That two way street was often lost in later class-based societies.  It felt like Tolstoy was not in any way condemning the concept of master and man, but reasserting the original intent behind it.

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