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a synopsis and analysis of the play by Leo Tolstoy

The following essay on The Power of Darkness was originally published in The Social Significance of the Modern Drama. Emma Goldman. Boston: Richard G. Badger, 1914. pp. 276-82.

The Power of Darkness is the tragedy of sordid misery and dense ignorance. It deals with a group of peasants steeped in poverty and utter darkness. This appalling condition, especially in relation to the women folk, is expressed by one of the characters in the play:

MITRICH: There are millions of you women and girls, but you are all like the beasts of the forest. Just as one has been born, so she dies. She has neither seen or heard anything. A man will learn something; if nowhere else, at least in the inn, or by some chance, in prison, or in the army, as I have. But what about a woman? She does not know a thing about God -- nay, she does not know one day from another. They creep about like blind pups, and stick their heads into the manure.

Peter, a rich peasant, is in a dying condition. Yet he clings to his money and slave-drives his young wife, Anisya, his two daughters by a first marriage, and his peasant servant Nikita. He will not allow them any rest from their toil, for the greed of money is in his blood and the fear of death in his bones. Anisya hates her husband: he forces her to drudge, and he is old and ill. She loves Nikita. The latter, young and irresponsible, cannot resist women, who are his main weakness and final undoing. Before he came to old Peter's farm, he had wronged an orphan girl. When she becomes pregnant, she appeals to Nikita's father, Akim, a simple and honest peasant. He urges his son to marry the girl, because "it is a sin to wrong an orphan. Look out, Nikita! A tear of offense does not flow past, but upon a man's head. Look out, or the same will happen with you."

Akim's kindness and simplicity are opposed by the viciousness and greed of his wife Matrena. Nikita remains on the farm, and Anisya, urged and influenced by his mother, poisons old Peter and steals his money.

When her husband dies, Anisya marries Nikita and turns the money over to him. Nikita becomes the head of the house, and soon proves himself a rake and a tyrant. Idleness and affluence undermine whatever good is latent in him. Money, the destroyer of souls, together with the consciousness that he has been indirectly a party to Anisya's crime, turn Nikita's love for the woman into bitter hatred. He takes for his mistress Akulina, Peter's oldest daughter, a girl of sixteen, deaf and silly, and forces Anisya to serve them. She had strength to resist her old husband, but her love for Nikita has made her weak. "The moment I see him my heart softens. I have no courage against him."

Old Akim comes to ask for a little money from his newly rich son. He quickly senses the swamp of corruption and vice into which Nikita has sunk. He tries to save him, to bring him back to himself, to arouse the better side of his nature. But he fails.

The ways of life are too evil for Akim. He leaves, refusing even the money he needs so badly to purchase a horse.

AKIM: One sin holds on to another and pulls you along. Nikita, you are stuck in sins. You are stuck, I see, in sins. You are stuck fast, so to speak. I have heard that nowadays they pull fathers' beards, so to speak -- but this leads only to ruin, to ruin, so to speak.... There is your money. I will go and beg, so to speak, but I will not, so to speak, take your money.... Let me go! I will not stay! I would rather sleep near the fence than in your nastiness.

The type of Akim is most vividly characterized by Tolstoy in the talk between the old peasant and the new help on the farm.

MITRICH: Let us suppose, for example, you have money, and I, for example, have my land lying fallow; it is spring, and I have no seed; or I have to pay the taxes. So I come to you, and say: "Akim, give me ten roubles! I will have the harvest in by St. Mary's Intercession and then I will give it back to you, with a tithe for the accommodation." You, for example, see that I can be flayed, having a horse or a cow, so you say: "Give me two or three roubles for the accommodation." The noose is around my neck, and I cannot get along without it. "Very well," says I, "I will take the ten roubles." In the fall I sell some things, and I bring you the money, and you skin me in addition for three roubles.
AKIM: But this is, so to speak, a wrong done to a peasant. If one forgets God, so to speak, it is not good.
MITRICH: Wait a minute! So remember what you have done: you have fleeced me, so to speak, and Anisya, for example, has some money which is lying idle. She has no place to put it in and, being a woman, does not know what to do with it. So she comes to you: "Can't I," says she, "make some use of my money?" "Yes, you can," you say. And so you wait. Next summer I come to you once more. "Give me another ten roubles," says I, "and I will pay you for the accommodation." So you watch me to see whether my hide has not been turned yet, whether I can be flayed again, and if I can, you give me Anisya's money. But if I have not a blessed thing, and nothing to eat, you make your calculations, seeing that I cannot be skinned, and you say: "God be with you, my brother!" and you look out for another man to whom to give Anisya's money, and whom you can flay. Now this is called a bank. So it keeps going around. It is a very clever thing, my friend.
AKIM: What is this? This is a nastiness, so to speak. If a peasant, so to speak, were to do it, the peasants would regard it as a sin, so to speak. This is not according to the Law, not according to the Law, so to speak. It is bad. How can the learned men, so to speak-- ... As I look at it, so to speak, there is trouble without money, so to speak, and with money the trouble is double, so to speak. God has commanded to work. But you put the money in the bank, so to speak, and lie down to sleep, and the money will feed you, so to speak, while you are lying. This is bad -- not according to the Law, so to speak.
MITRICH: Not according to the Law? The Law does not trouble people nowadays, my friend. All they think about is how to clean out a fellow. That's what!

As long as Akulina's condition is not noticeable, the relation of Nikita with his dead master's daughter remains hidden from the neighbors. But the time comes when she is to give birth to a child. It is then that Anisya becomes mistress of the situation again. Her hatred for Akulina, her outraged love for Nikita and the evil spirit of Nikita's mother all combine to turn her into a fiend. Akulina is driven to the barn, where her terrible labor pains are stifled by the dread of her stepmother. When the innocent victim is born, Nikita's vicious mother and Anisya persuade him that the child is dead and force him to bury it in the cellar.

While Nikita is digging the grave, he discovers the deception. The child is alive! The terrible shock unnerves the man, and in temporary madness he presses a board over the little body till its bones crunch. Superstition, horror and the perfidy of the women drive Nikita to drink in an attempt to drown the baby's cries constantly ringing in his ears.

The last act deals with Akulina's wedding to the son of a neighbor. She is forced into the marriage because of her misfortune. The peasants all gather for the occasion, but Nikita is missing: he roams the place haunted by the horrible phantom of his murdured child. He attempts to hang himself but fails, and finally decides to go before the entire assembly to confess his crimes.

NIKITA: Father, listen to me! First of all, Marina, look at me! I am guilty toward you: I had promised to marry you, and I seduced you. I deceived you and abandoned you; forgive me for Christ's sake!
MATRENA: Oh, oh, he is bewitched. What is the matter with him? He has the evil eye upon him. Get up and stop talking nonsense!
NIKITA: I killed your father, and I, dog, have ruined his daughter. I had the power over her, and I killed also her baby.... Father dear! Forgive me ... You told me, when I first started on this life of debauch: "When the claw is caught, the whole bird is lost." But I, dog, did not pay any attention to you, and so everything turned out as you said. Forgive me, for Christ's sake.

The Power of Darkness is a terrible picture of poverty, ignorance and superstition. To write such a work it is not sufficient to be a creative artist: it requires a deeply sympathetic human soul. Tolstoy possessed both. He understood that the tragedy of the peasants' life is due not to any inherent viciousness but to the power of darkness which permeates their existence from the cradle to the grave. Something heavy is oppressing them -- in the words of Anisya -- weighing them down, something that saps all humanity out of them and drives them into the depths.

The Power of Darkness is a social picture at once appalling and gripping.

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