Macchars don’t wear sweaters

Three Deaths by Lev Tolstoy

Posted on: February 9, 2007

This short story by Leo Tolstoy is a contemnplation of death. The story, which is set in turn of the 20th century Russia, is woven around the deaths of a gentlelady, a peasent driver and finally, that of a young tree in the heart of the woods.

The tale has an aura of profound sadness, and is a detached musing of the phenomena which is truly an enigma – death. One might endlessly reflect on the question of death, whether or not an afterlife exists, how one might live considering the imminentness of death, but the fact remains – we all must face death – our own, and that of people close to us. And that is what the narrative of the story is woven around – how the doomed from three aspects of life and those around them face approaching death.

In his “Death of Ivan Illych”, Tolstoy has studied the question more deeply and intensely, and has also tried to attribute meaning and extract answers from the phenomena. But here, he just detachedly describes the ultimate event which towers above and belies all human reasoning and understanding.

The gentlelady is a young married woman, who is suffering from consumption, and is certain to die soon, but this fact has been disclosed from her. All life has been as if sucked out of her body, and she is a faint shadow of her former beautiful and zestful self, betrayed only by her dazzling eyes. Her deathly appearence is contrasted with the appearence of her hand maid who is lovely and full bodied, and whose mind is occupied with the thoughts of life and living and everyday mundane matters. Again and again in the story Tolstoy has contrasted that which is alive and resonating and beautiful, with that which is decaying and dying. As if to underline the poetry of Nature which is impersonal, amoral and impartial to human sufferings and tribulations, involving constant cycles of decay and regeneration. 

The gentlelady strongly beleives that a trip to France will help her regain her fast failing health. Her husband has to cook up excuses to stop her because the trip will surely cause immediate death. This, she begrudges him, and will carry the feeling to her last moment. When she ultimately realises that she must die soon – she is resigned, and at the same time full of anger at her husband for not taking her to France. The pain of her family – her husband, her mother who has to witness the death of her young daughter – is immense, and somehow they dont quite understand the event, and maybe, the dying woman herself does not understand it.

The second is an old peasant driver, lying sick on an oven in a restroom for coach drivers. He is somehow more aware of and in tune with his imminent death as are the people around him. The attitude is matter-of-fact and there is no attempt to resist or bemoan the event. On the night he dies, his neice dreams that he is on his feet again and has offered to help her cut wood from the jungle. And perhaps this is true, as the old man has been released from the shackles of his old and ailing body and his spirit soars in some distant plane.

The third death is that of a tall young tree in the heart of the woods. A few powerful chops from the woodcutter and the tree comes crashing down, its thick boughs and green leaves fall on the forest floor with a resounding thud which echoes throughout the thick woods, causing a clamour of birds fluttering from thier perch high up in the thick green foilage and small snimals scurrying for cover….


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