The Empty Drum by Leo Tolstoy
In The Empty Drum by Leo Tolstoy we have the theme of jealousy, class, control, fear, happiness and power. Taken from his Walk in the Light collection it becomes clear to the reader after reading the story that Tolstoy may be exploring the theme of jealousy. The King is jealous of Emelyan because his wife is so beautiful. He does not consider that Emelyan, who is a peasant, should have such a beautiful wife. It is as though the King believes that Emelyan’s wife is a class above him and as such she should marry the King. If anything by giving Emelyan so many different tasks the King is trying to control Emelyan and break his spirit. However nothing works and Emelyan completes all of the tasks that have been asked of him.
There is also a degree of fear in the story that does not just come Emelyan being afraid he might not finish his daily tasks. The servants who advise the King are also afraid of what the King might do to them should they not succeed in breaking Emelyan’s spirit. It may also be a case that Tolstoy by pitting the King against Emelyan is highlighting that class may not necessarily be a condition when it comes to success. The King inherited everything he has while Emelyan has had to work hard. The fact that Emelyan’s wife eases his mind constantly allows for the reader to see that she is a good woman who truly loves the hard-working Emelyan. If anything Tolstoy could be highlighting the importance of having a good woman behind a man. They too can bear some of the problems their husbands might face in life.
There may be some symbolism in the story which might be important. The differences between the hut that Emelyan and his wife live in when compared to the King’s palace is nothing special. However the hut is full of love and happiness. Two things that the King does not possess. One would expect the King to be happy because he is in control and has power but he is beaten by Emelyan and his wife. Symbolically Grandam is an important character. Just as Emelyan’s wife is wise so too is Grandam. If it were not for Grandam’s suggestion Emelyan would have failed in his task. The empty drum could symbolize control and power. When Emelyan bangs the drum the soldiers follow him and the King briefly loses power over his army.
The end of the story is interesting as Emelyan and his wife will go on to live a happy life without any interference from the King. They will live without wanting unlike the King who, though he has many things, always seems to want more. Which may be the point that Tolstoy is attempting to make. He may be suggesting that the King, despite his possessions, remains unhappy and greedy. All he has is power and he abuses this power. Rather than looking after his subjects the King wants more from them than he is prepared to give back. If anything the King acts selfishly throughout the story.