Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 582

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As suggested by its title, the story’s main subject is death, an interest in much of Leo Tolstoy’s fiction, most notably in “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” perhaps his most famous short work. In “Three Deaths” the questions of how the different social classes respond to death, how the dying respond to it, how the living respond to those who are dying, and finally what role God has in the cycle of life and death are explored.

The story, structured as an elaborate network of implicit comparisons and contrasts, shows underlying similarities despite surface differences between the upper and lower classes in how they are affected by this certain fact of experience. Marya is surrounded by family, is relatively young, is impatient with slight physical discomforts caused by her maid, attempts to flee from death, holds off serious thought of it to the end, and dies in the spring. In contrast, Uncle Fyodor is without any family, is old, puts up with cramped discomforts over a stove, seems resigned to what will shortly happen, and dies in the autumn. However, what is important, Tolstoy shows, is that both characters come to the same terminus.

Those around Marya attempt to show almost every consideration and hesitate to speak to her explicitly about death (Marya finds even the word “die” frightening); in contrast, Seryoga bluntly asks for Fyodor’s boots (tantamount to saying that a dead man will not need them), and the cook, Nastasya, explicitly comments on corpses not needing new boots and complains (demurring “God forgive me the sin”) that Fyodor has too long been an inconvenience and should have died some time ago. However, Tolstoy shows through the exact inversion of these qualities in each class that whether rich or poor, humanity reacts with fundamental similarity to the dying. Marya’s tearful husband exclaims to God and covers his eyes while unfeelingly giving directions to a servant about where to put the wine he and the doctor are to enjoy; and, as Marya notes, he comes out of the station to inquire after her while insensitively still munching on his meal.

Similarly, though Nastasya is frank and unsentimental, she is sympathetic to Fyodor, apologizes for her earlier wish for his death, tries to make him comfortable, and dreams about him (the latter suggesting her spiritual sensitivity or only her concern about the old man, or both). To the two young peasant girls from the station, who are trying to peep at Marya in the carriage, the dying person is simply a curiosity; to Marya’s two very young children, she is a matter of indifference, as they continue to play their games just before and after her death. Thus, no matter what their social class, those around the dying are shown to have both their altruistic and their selfish, unconcerned moments.

God is referred to several times in the story, often in the exclamation “My God!” The emphatic allusion at the end of section 3 to Psalm 104 implies, considering all thirty-five verses of the psalm, that God has created a symmetrical, cyclical universe with an orderly round of spring and fall, day and night, delights and miseries, life and death, and goodness and wickedness. Nature, including several references to trees and birds, is described at length in the psalm, applying to the death of the tree in section 4, which, though sad for the tree, will happily supply a marker for Fyodor and space for the flourishing of other surrounding trees.