What a wonderful treat we have had to finish off our Nineteenth Century Literature with these two masterworks, “The Death of Ivan Illych” and “Master and Man”. Both stories present with such wonderful insight the ways in which humans delude themselves into believing in the self they carry around with them all day. Ivan Illych and Vasily Brekhunov are two such selves who are fully, arrogantly convinced that they are at the centre of the universe. Neither of them will brook any opposition, neither will show any kind of feeling, or tenderness for anyone or anything outside their frame of reference. Of course Tolstoy is exaggerating somewhat, but he is essentially right. This is the way most of us behave in our lives. It is not until we are up against the inevitability of our own mortality that something in us bends, breaks and we open up to feeling and to the realisation that there is something beyond our own ego. This is, in fact, what happens to both Ivan and Vasily:
Suddenly it grew clear to him that what had been oppressing him and would not leave him was all dropping away at once from two sides, from ten sides, from all sides. He was sorry for them, he must act so as not to hurt them: release them and free himself from these sufferings. “How good and simple!” he thought. “And the pain?” he asked himself. “What has become of it? Where are you, pain?”… He looked for his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it.”Where is it? What death?” There was no fear because there was no death. “The Death of Ivan Illych”
He remembered that Nikita was lying under him and that he had got warm and was alive, and it seemed to him that he was Nikita and Nikita was he, and that his life was not in himself but in Nikita…. And he remembered his money, his shop, his house… and it was hard for him to understand why that man, called Vasily Brekhunov, had troubled himself with all those things with which he had been troubled. “Well, it was because he did not know what the real thing was,” he thought, concerning that Vasily Brekhunov. “He did not know, but now I know and know for sure. Now I know!” “Master and Man”
Two wonderful moments in story-telling where the ego breaks and new light is let in. But in both these amazing stories the catalyst for this change is someone who comes from the peasant class, someone who is free from the arrogance, the spiritual emptiness of the ruling middle-class. They are Gerasim and Nikita. Nikita is an example of someone who despite the huge difficulties of his own personal circumstances has the ability to feel and sense the needs of the lives of who and what is around him. This is most strikingly expressed in his relationship with the horse Mukhorty and indeed with any animals (sheep, cats, fowls, dogs) that happen to come in his way. Here is the wonderful description of Nikita’s feelingful relationship with the horse:
“What, feeling lonely, feeling lonely, you little silly?” Nikita said in answer to the low whinny with which he was greeted by the good-tempered, medium-sized bay stallion, with a rather slanting rump, who stood alone in the shed. “Now then, now then, there’s time enough. Let me give you some water first,” he went on, speaking to the horse just as if to someone who understood the words he was using; having whisked the dusty, grooved back of the well-fed young stallion with the skirt of his coat, he put a bridle on his handsome head, straightened his ears and forelock, and having taken off his halter, led him out to water.”…
And there is more…. This is one of the most beautiful stories about the relationship between man and animals, showing that all sensitivity and love begins in our capacity to show affection and feeling towards animals… before we begin to imagine how we might be able to express the same to other humans (those extraordinary complex creatures)!