Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 455

Two forces—or sets of forces—are at work in Leonid Andreyev’s The Life of Man. One set is human and social: Man’s talent and innate nobility are ranged against the mediocrity and meanness of his natural inferiors. For all of its abstractions, the play does comment on the life and values of a particular milieu—the world of the successful professional. The portrayal of Man’s early poverty and final ruin, unlike that of his prosperous middle years, has more to do with artistic symmetry than with social issues. Andreyev is rounding out the curve of beginning and ending. The conflict between Man and his fellows arises not because Man is an architect—a creator—and they are not. The conflict rather arises from their envy of the fortune his talent has accrued for him, and their tally includes not only Man’s money, but his “luck” as well: his fame, his Wife, his beautiful Son. They envy what Man has, not what he is.

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There are obvious autobiographical elements in the play, especially in the romance between Man and his Wife, in Man’s love for grandness and gesture, and in the crowds of hangers-on. Andreyev almost seems to predict his own artistic decline and death, twelve years before the fact.

The confrontation between spiritual superiors and inferiors on this earth is secondary to Andreyev’s chief obsession, which is the relationship between Man and the mysterious force shaping his life. Someone-in-Gray always seems to emerge from a wall, and critics have speculated on what the author meant by that gray, wall-like inevitability—God, fate, philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s “will”? Whichever of these Someone-in-Gray may represent, if any, only one thing is certain. The enigmatic power controlling Man’s destiny is huge, indifferent, inexorable and, if Someone-in-Gray is any indication, entirely humorless. There is cosmic irony here, on an immense and dramatic scale; moreover, it is deadly serious. No clowns or sardonic laughter lighten the tone, and even the Family, the Old Women, and the Drunkards are more ominous and horrific than they are comic. Man himself is self-consciously, pompously serious—a monumental figure even in his own eyes.

The solemnity of speech and tableau create an air of hopelessness and futility. Contemporary audiences largely missed what Andreyev considered to be Man’s triumph—his rebellious spirit in the face of defeat. The exact source of the harpies, hypocrites, and madmen concerns Andreyev less than the vividness of the scenes they act out, and he is most interested in Man’s defiance of them and what they represent. His attempts to dramatize metaphysics leave the nature of the universe a melodramatic given; it is human nature in conflict that attracts him.

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