Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
The story has much realistic, specific detail. Details of setting, including not only sights and sounds but also smells, are described with great vividness and emotional effect, such as the closeness of Marya’s carriage, which “smelt of eau de Cologne and dust.” Also, like his fellow realists Gustave Flaubert and Anton Chekhov, Tolstoy does not shun the scatological component of reality, considering it not only the basest but also the most basic level of experience, noting that with the advent of spring in Moscow comes not only beauty: “Streams of water hurried gurgling between the frozen dung-heaps in the wet streets of the town.”
However, like Fyodor Dostoevski, Tolstoy in this story—as in much of his work—endows realistic details with symbolic import. The smell of Marya’s carriage, for example, is part of the network of symbolic contrasts in the story, the eau de cologne of the upper-class setting representing a foil to the smell of the confined carriers’ quarters: “a smell of human beings, baking bread, and cabbage, and sheepskins.” Similarly, the careful physical description of Matryosha in the story’s opening paragraphs creates a symbolic antithesis between her robust vitality and Marya’s moribund decay.
Besides the symbolic applicability of Psalm 104 to the story (its own cyclical symmetry corresponding to the story’s) and the symbolism of Nastasya’s dream (which suggests that death has been a joyful release for Fyodor), perhaps the most clearly demarcated symbolic portion of the work is the long, descriptive passage in section 4, personifying the tree. The tree “trembles in dismay” in its roots as it is about to come down, while surrounding trees display “their motionless branches more gladly than ever in the newly opened space.” The tree’s death thus is shown to be a parallel to the human deaths. The concluding sentence of the story recalls both the hymn of praise to God the creator in Psalm 104 and the mixed joy and mourning of the human deceased’s loved ones, who are happy to be alive but not unmindful of their loss: “The sappy leaves whispered joyously and calmly on the treetops, and the branches of the living trees, slowly, majestically, swayed above the fallen dead tree.”