Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Leonid Andreyev uses the biblical account of Christ’s resurrection of Lazarus as the seed of this story, which explores life, death, and illusions of human immortality and invincibility. By presenting Lazarus’s five encounters—with an artist, a drunkard, two lovers, a sage, and a ruler—Andreyev argues that even the most revered of human accomplishments are futile against death.

Attitudes in Western civilization have long held that artists achieve immortality through their work. The story of Lazarus presents an opposing perspective. Although Romans claimed that the work of Aurelius was so beautiful that it achieved immortality, Aurelius himself was dissatisfied. He felt that something was eluding expression in his work. The “supreme beauty” that eludes reproduction is life or soul. When he first meets the sculptor, Lazarus sees not a man but a visage that resembles bronze. Already Aurelius has been diminished from man to work—that is, the sculptor is himself likened to a work of art.

Humans also use wine to mask pain and horror, the ultimate pain and horror being death. Lazarus forces on the drunkard a realization of all that he drinks to avoid, shattering his illusions. After this fateful meeting, the drunkard’s pleasant wine-induced dreams give way to fearful visions. Drink no longer has the power to dissolve death.

Likewise even love, though a powerful, celebrated human emotion, ultimately fails to triumph over death. Even learning, philosophy, wisdom, understanding—all of these, personified in the sage, are powerless against death. The final challenge comes from the great Caesar Augustus, the emperor of the Eternal City. His power, pride, courage, and authority are inconsequential against death, represented by Lazarus. In his rage at having to confront and accept this truth, Augustus orders Lazarus to be blinded. Augustus dares not kill this messenger of death, so he exercises his power only to this limit of maiming Lazarus.