The one criticism of Tolstoy is that he was never able to write from a peasants point of view. All of his characters came from his own life experiences and when he did attempt to write a well rounded peasant character he never seemed able to really make them come alive on the page.
This is telling not just of Tolstoy but of all Russian society of his time. There was a sharp divide between those who have and those who have not, those who own land and those who work the land, those who give orders and those who follow. And Tolstoy was always painfully aware of this divide and saw how unfair it was – and not only Tolstoy but plenty of the Russian well-to-do were pained by this inequality in their society and much of the social change came from the privileged and not just from the ground up.
Tolstoy’s struggle with this “sin” in Russia society (a sin much like what Americans felt with slavery in the south) is apparent in nearly all his major works, especially in his two most famous characters: Pierre (in War and Peace) and Levin (in Anna Karenina). Both characters know what is right and wrong and try to live their life by a more moral and simple code of conduct. They go against decent society, are seen as outcasts and a little odd and eccentric, but in the end are enlightened unlike those who wallow around them.
Yet where Pierre goes through one tortured transformation and another and is never sure of anything except that he wants to be good, and where Levin instinctively knows what is right and wrong because he is ‘a good man’, this story takes a much bleaker look at the class divide.
Most obviously is the fact that Tolstoy uses a horse as a stand-in for the peasant class. Take what you will of this, but it there is no denying the implications of using an animal to represent a man. However, since we are reading Tolstoy we can look deeper into this and also understand how important horses are to Russian society in the 19th century (as they were important to everyone up until the automobile). Horses were a status symbol, took brave men into battle, drove the wealthy about, pulled farm equipment, and made possible all of civilization. Without the horse Europe would have been much like the Americas. So the importance of the horse cannot be understated meaning that though Tolstoy paints a picture of an entire class of people with that of a beast of burden, he does not do so out of spite, but rather because that’s the way people like him thought. It was not cruel, it was misinformed, and unenlightened, but not overtly meant to debase. Joseph Conrad famously has these same issues when describing black people in his novels and he can be fairly criticized but one has to be aware of the broader picture, too.
But what Tolstoy is trying to show in this story is how a trick of fate, in this case being piebald (black and white spotted) can mean the difference between a good life and one of servitude. Had Strider (the horse as we learn his name to be) not been piebald he would have never been gelded and would have had a fine life, but fate played its hand and ruined him with those spots that no man wanted on his thoroughbred. And what Tolstoy is saying here is that man, too is made the same way – a twist of fate determines if we live in opulent pleasure in the Winter Palace or sends us to work the fields until our backs break and we die starving in the winter. There is no real difference between men, just random chance.
This is radical stuff for 19th century Russian living under the autocratic rule of an absolute Emperor whose power is given to him by God above. The Emperor would not agree with anything Tolstoy has to say in this story because he would believe there is a difference between men: those who rule and those who serve and that distinction is made by God.
For us this might seem a little too “on the nose”, the point is pretty obvious and we all feel like we have learned the lessons of the past concerning class and society – especially Americans. Yet the lines are still drawn. Race and economics still divide us. We may not have actual slaves and serfs, but we’d be kidding ourselves if we said we all lived equally.
Yet we all die equally. And that’s what sets this story apart from Tolstoy’s other major works. The ending is bleak and painful. I felt as if Tolstoy was sick of treating this subject matter with kid gloves and finally just decided to lay the facts bare on the ground. Joyce, too, in Ulysses makes this very same point during the funeral and that rat who eats away at the corpses underground (it’s all the same to the worms).
The lesson is still valid today as it was when he wrote this and it will probably always be as valid because it’s unlikely we will ever live equally. Sure, we might try and we may start a revolution and force everyone to be equal, but we saw how that turned out for the Russians just a generation after Tolstoy wrote this.
And I do think Tolstoy almost managed to write one really good peasant character in this story with Strider because all he needed to do was realize there is no difference between peasant and gentry – they’re all the same breed so why bother even making a distinction?
Seems simple enough, right?
Yet it’s really hard to actually do both in fiction and in real life.