“The Empty Drum” is a short story by Leo Tolstoy, first published in 1891. Based on a Russian folk tale, it tells the story of a laborer and his wife who are treated unjustly by the king. This analysis of “The Empty Drum” starts with a summary then looks at a theme and symbolism.
“The Empty Drum” Summary
A day-laborer, Yemilyan, avoids stepping on a frog on his way to work. As he continues walking, a beautiful young maid calls to him, asking why he isn’t married. He doesn’t have enough money and doesn’t have a place for them to live. She says if they work hard and go to the city, things will be fine.
They go to the city, get married, and live in a little cottage. One day, the local king notices Yemilyan’s wife. He compliments her and they talk a while; she expresses satisfaction with her husband.
He thinks of her all night, wondering how to steal her from Yemilyan. He consults with his servants who advise him to hire Yemilyan and work him to death. Then he can take the widow for himself.
Yemilyan is summoned and goes, but his wife, of her own accord, stays home and tells Yemilyan to come home to her in the evenings. Yemilyan is given more work than two men could finish, but somehow he gets it done. The next day, he’s given even more, but again, he finishes. At home in the evening, his wife makes him comfortable. She tells him not to look back or ahead on his work but to just do what is in front of him and everything will be fine.
Yemilyan works for a week, his workload increasing each day, but he always finishes and goes home in the evening. The king’s servants see that manual labor won’t break Yemilyan; they advise he be given skilled work instead. Yemilyan works a second week on these tasks and again finishes everything and goes home at night.
“The Empty Drum” Summary, Cont’d
The king is angry with his servants for their failure. They can’t explain his success, speculating there must be magic involved. They have a solution—order Yemilyan to build a cathedral opposite the palace in a single day. If he fails to complete the task, he will be executed.
Yemilyan is informed and goes home dejected. He wants to flee with his wife. She insults his courage and says fleeing is hopeless; they would be found by the army. She tells him not to worry, to eat, sleep, and get up a bit earlier in the morning. She wakes him in the morning and sends him off with nails and a hammer.
Arriving at the site, Yemilyan finds a nearly complete cathedral. He puts the finishing touches on it by evening. On seeing the completed cathedral, the king is frustrated. Threatened with punishment, the servants come up with a new task—Yemilyan must make a river to flow around the palace with ships on it.
Returning home discouraged, Yemilyan informs his wife of the situation and again wants to flee. She tells him to obey, carry out his usual routine, and everything will be fine. She wakes him in the morning, telling him there’s only one mound at the harbor that needs leveling.
“The Empty Drum” Summary, Cont’d
Yemilyan finds a river flowing around the palace with ships on it. He levels the one remaining mound. The king is vexed with this additional failure. He consults with his servants again to come up with an impossible task. They come up with a task in the form of a riddle—”Go somewhere, you know not where, and bring back something, you know not what, and if you don’t bring it, I will cut your head off.”
Yemilyan puts the riddle to his wife. She thinks and then advises him to go to her grandmother and ask for her goodwill. She will give him an item. Then he’s to go to the palace, where she will also be, knowing they will take her.
Yemilyan sets out. He talks to some soldiers along the way, but they can’t help him. He finds the old woman, the peasant mother, at her cottage in the forest. She spins flax and weeps. Yemilyan tells her his story and current predicament. She stops weeping and gives Yemilyan some food.
She gives him a ball and tells him to roll it and follow it until it leads to lodgings for the night. He will find what he needs there—something that people obey more than their parents. He’s to take it to the king who will, of course, say it’s the wrong thing. Because it’s wrong, Yemilyan is to break it and fling it into the water. This will save his wife.
“The Empty Drum” Summary, Cont’d
Yemilyan takes his leave. He follows the ball to a big house in a great city by the sea where he stays the night. In the morning, the father and mother of the house tell their son to do some work, but he puts it off and goes back to sleep.
A loud sound in the street makes the boy and Yemilyan go outside. It’s a man beating a drum. He won’t give it to Yemilyan, so he follows the man until he stops to sleep.
Yemilyan takes the drum to the palace and announces his presence. The king won’t look at the drum. Yemilyan beats it, which summons the king’s army. They follow Yemilyan’s command. The king returns Yemilyan’s wife and demands the drum.
Yemilyan continues beating the drum and leads the army to the river. He breaks it and throws it in. The soldiers scatter. Yemilyan and his wife return home and live happily. The king doesn’t bother them anymore.
(End of “The Empty Drum” Summary)
“The Empty Drum” Theme: Power
The plot of “The Empty Drum” depends on the extreme power imbalance between Yemilyan and the king.
Wanting Yemilyan’s wife, the king uses his power to take her from him. He has the power to assign Yemilyan whatever task he wants, with the penalty of death for failure. He doesn’t even have to give the appearance that his requests are fair; the whole point of the jobs is that they are supposed to be impossible. Indeed, they would have been, if not for the magical powers of Yemilyan’s wife. Yemilyan can’t complain to anyone that he’s being treated unfairly.
The king’s power is based on the army he commands (see question below). The army would bring Yemilyan in for execution if he failed any of his tasks. Yemilyan’s wife knows fleeing is futile because the army would find them.
We see a power reversal when Yemilyan brings the drum to the palace. For the first time, he’s able to make a stand. The king tells him to come back tomorrow, but Yemilyan refuses, saying he will enter the palace if the king doesn’t see him now.
What does the drum symbolize?
The drum symbolizes power. The king’s power is based on the army he commands. When Yemilyan beats the drum, they shift their obedience to him.
At this point, the king realizes his power is slipping away, and he quickly returns Yemilyan’s wife, demanding the drum in return. Yemilyan keeps the power, continuing to beat the drum and leading the soldiers away. When he breaks the drum, he breaks the hold the king had over the soldiers and they disperse.
The story makes a point of telling us the drum is empty. This seems to represent the hollowness of the king’s power. The army obeys him, but they will easily shift their allegiance to someone else if circumstances change. Their loyalty isn’t real. It’s based on fear and threat of punishment, just like Yemilyan’s obedience.
With the drum broken and discarded, the peasants are now symbolically free from the king’s oppression.
I hope this “The Empty Drum” summary and look at a theme was helpful.