Tolstoy’s story, “Three Deaths” (1858), has been condescended to by his greatest critics. This is what Bakhtin wrote:
“This work, not large in size but nevertheless tri-leveled, is very characteristic of Tolstoy’s monologic manner.
Three deaths are portrayed in the story – the deaths of a rich noblewoman, a coachman, and a tree. But in this work Tolstoy presents death as a stage of life, as a stage illuminating that life, as the optimal point for understanding and evaluating that life in its entirety. Thus one could say that his story in fact portrays three lives totally finalized in their meaning and in their value. And in Tolstoy’s story all three lives, and the levels defined by them, are internally self enclosed and do not know each other. There is no more than a purely external pragmatic connection between them, necessary for the compositional and thematic unity of the story.”
Shkhlovsii contrasted the story with what he and the formalists regarded as the exemplary Tolstoy story, Kholstomer, about the death of a horse.
“The young Tolstoi was rather naïve in the way he constructed his parallel structures. Inn order to work out the theme of “dying”, that is, in order to illustrate it, Tolstoi felt it necessary in ‘The Three Deaths” to carry out three subthemes: the death of the mistress of the house, the death of the peasant, and the death of the tree. The three parts of the story are connected by a specific motivation: the peasant is the lady’s coachman, and the tree is chopped down to serve as a cross on the peasant’s grave.”
Bakhtin, of course, is setting up his game, with Tolstoy on the one side and Dostoevsky, that great unfinalizer, on the other. Dostoevsky’s characters, with their open, dialogic natures, may die, but cannot be summed up. Their emblematic moments tend to end badly. The body of saintly Father Zosima, in The Brothers Karamazov, gives off a vile smell of decay. In the Devils, Stepan Verkhovensky actually stops being a clown and a stooge at the end, and becomes a tragic Lear. Whereas, in Bakhtin’s view, Tolstoy’s finalized characters all end, like Ivan Illych, tied up in the sack. The three deaths, in Three deaths, conform to this pattern, in his view. What’s in death’s sack is what life is.
Shkhlovskii, perhaps Tolstoy’s greatest critic and much more sympathetic to what Tolstoy is doing, looks at Three Deaths as a sort of sketch for Tolstoy’s better work, in which the device of which he is a master, ostranie – estrangement, making strange – and the devices he has inherited from the folk tale and skaz deeply structure the overall vision. Estrangement is surely a thrust against finalization. Tolstoy, on this reading, is like Ezekial, down in the valley of the bones: “And he said unto me, Son of man, can these bones live? And I answered, O Lord GOD, thou knowest.” It is not for him to say yeah or nay to the Lord’s question.
Or, to take another stab at answering Bakhtin – yes, he is correct that Tolstoy does look at his characters from the ‘optimal’ pont of death; but this is not the same thing as finalizing them. Death is, of course, a leveler in Three Deaths. The very title, with its quantitative modifier, projects a certain radical equality into the story, the equality of the scythe that lops off the stalks of wheat regardless of their height. In the Christian sense, death is a tremendous leveler – for he who is first in the social world is still last, in that he will die. Death is not simply loss to others – it is an imminent, shaping loss to oneself, which is already in the midst of every gain. Ultimately, this is the reason death is on the side of making strange – if and when it becomes familiar, all the social ties are snapped.
Tolstoy’s contemporaries – particularly Grigor’ev - noted the accusatory force in the title. But Tolstoy, as a writer, threw them off, and still disconcerts us, because, for all his sense of death, he is a great describer of the animal life. His descriptions are not cold disavowals of sensual pleasure – Tolstoy obviously enjoys strong tastes, strong excitements, white bosoms, military glory, and physical strength. One has a sense that he is blindsiding the reader by being at once so intensely attuned to the sensual thrill and so aware of its annulment in death. This comes out most strongly when he writes about the life of women, who he can’t help but judge from his sensualist’s view, and who he then turns around and blames for arousing this feeling in him. It is the familiar demonic gesture of patriarchy, but made, here, with Tolstoy’s narrative genius. Still, the general point, whether it is the death of the petty aristocratic woman in Three Deaths or the death of Ivan Illych is that the sensual pleasures in which the happiness of life consists are, from the point of view of the absolute loss of death, nothing at all. Everything is built, every labour is made, in order to gain these sensual moments – and they are all naught.
But the latter is not an easy thought to keep in mind, as, after all, it may not be true. For death too can be looked at from the sensual moment – and from that moment, what is it? O Lord thou knowest – that is, it is an unknown for the individual, but one thing is known -- it is merely the end of me. There’s a great communist element in sensual enjoyment, and life is not a possession at the nerve ends, at the skin, in the mouth and stomach, coming out of the ass. It is something like a flood, a broad sweep, which tugs and carries the lonely and deluded me, who thinks he is doing all the work .
The estranging shock in Three Deaths is that the final death counts as much as the death of the noblewoman or the peasant:
“The ax rang more and more frequently; the white chips, full of sap, were scattered upon the dewy grass, and a slight cracking was heard beneath the blows. The tree trembled with all its body, leaned over, and quickly straightened itself, shuddering with fear on its base. For an instant all was still, then once more the tree bent over; a crash was heard in its trunk; and, tearing the thicket, and dragging down the branches, it plunged toward the damp earth. The noise of the ax and of footsteps ceased. The warbler uttered a cry, and flew higher. The branch which she grazed with her wings shook for an instant, and then came to rest like all the others their foliage. The trees, more joyously than ever, extended their motionless branches over the new space that had been made in their midst. The first sunbeams, breaking through the cloud, gleamed in the sky, and shone along the earth and heavens. The mist, in billows, began to float along the hollows; the dew, gleaming, played on the green foliage; translucent white clouds hurried along their azure path. The birds hopped about in the thicket, and, as if beside themselves, voiced their happiness; the juicy leaves joyfully and contentedly whispered on the tree-tops; and the branches of the living trees slowly and majestically waved over the dead and fallen tree.”
Although Bakhtin writes of this death as external to the other two, it isn’t quite true – the axe rings out because of a promise that the noblewoman’s coachman made to the dying peasant, in exchange for that peasant’s new boots. The promise was to put a cross on his grave, and the tree is to be measured and cut up into that cross. And the smallest reflection will tell you that one couldn’t just go out and cut down a tree in Russia – those trees were property, and they were being felled to feed industry The indebted nobility in Russian novels are always selling forested land. There’s a cash nexus connecting tree, peasant and noblewoman – as Stiva, Anna Karenina’s brother, well knew.
Of course, Bakhtin is right that the tree’s death – a silent fall, which briefly disturbs the birds, which go back to their singing, just as the trees spread their branches in the sun – gains its artistic power from being in contrast with, paralleled by exterior to, the peevish end of the noblewoman and the humble end of the peasant. Here again, things are arranged in such a way that we have two paths we can follow to Lady Shirkinskaya’s death. One would go through Tolstoy’s usual, incredible irritation with women. Their voices, their pleas, their bodies – everything irritates him. And that irritation trembles through the death scene like a barely suppressed anger:
“The sick woman dropped her head in token of assent. "O God! Pardon me, a sinner," she whispered.The cousin went out, and beckoned to the confessor. "She is an angel," she said to the husband, with tears in her eyes. The husband wept. The priest went into the sick room; the old lady still remained unconscious, and in the room beyond all was perfectly quiet. At the end of five minutes the confessor came out, and, taking off his stole, arranged his hair."Thanks be to the Lord, she is calmer now," said he. "She wishes to see you."The cousin and the husband went to the sick room. The invalid, gently weeping, was gazing at the images. "I congratulate you, my love," said the husband."Thank you. How well I feel now! What ineffable joy I experience!" said the sick woman, and a faint smile played over her thin lips. "How merciful God is! Is He not? He is merciful and omnipotent!"And again with an eager prayer she turned her tearful eyes toward the holy images.Then suddenly something seemed to occur to her mind. She beckoned to her husband."You are never willing to do what I desire," said she, in a weak and querulous voice.The husband, stretching his neck, listened to her submissively."What is it, my love?""How many times I have told you that these doctors don't know anything! There are simple women doctors; they make cures. That's what the good father said. ... A shopkeeper .... Send for him." ..."For whom, my love?" "Good heavens! You can never understand me." And the dying woman frowned, and closed her eyes.”
On the other hand, the artist in Tolstoy – which sees what the person doesn’t want to see, and writes it down – has already noted the weakness of the husband, his trust in doctors, his indecisiveness. If the woman is querulous, what is this but an almost physical flailing, like that of some drowning person who is being pulled down by the person who is supposed to be saving her? Trapped by her sex – for traveling to Italy, which she thinks will be good for her lungs, is out of the question if her husband doesn’t accompany her, whereas surely, the other way around, he would have gone without his wife without hesitation – she beats everything about her with her tongue. Unlike her husband, she is not, superstitiously, tied up in a belief in doctors – which has more to do with class than with science.
The peasant Feodor’s death, which connects Lady Shirkinskaya’s to the tree’s, occurs on a stove in a hut. And its real effect is not the death itself, but the fact that, dying, the peasant has no use for his new boots, and trades them to the coachman, Seryosha, for the promise of burial and a monument.
I love this part of the story:
"You take the boots, Seryoha," said he, conquering the cough, and getting his breath a little. "Only, do you hear, buy me a stone when I am dead," he added hoarsely."Thank you, uncle; then I will take them, and as for the stone, -- yei-yei! -- I will buy you one."There, children, you are witnesses," the sick man was able to articulate, and then once more he bent over and began to choke."All right, we have heard," said one of the drivers. "But run, Seryoha, or else the starosta will be after you again. You know Lady Shirkinskaya is sick."Seryoha quickly pulled off his ragged, unwieldy boots, and flung them under the bench. Uncle Feodor's new ones fitted his feet exactly, and the young driver could not keep his eyes off them as he went to the carriage. "Ek! What splendid boots! Here's some grease," called another driver with the grease-pot in his hand, as Seryoha mounted to his box and gathered up the reins. "Get them for nothing?" "So you're jealous, are you?" cried Seryoha, lifting up and tucking around his legs the tails of his overcoat. "Off with you, my darlings," he cried to the horses, cracking his knout; and the coach and barouche, with their occupants, trunks, and other belongings, were hidden in the thick autumnal mist, and rapidly whirled away over the wet road. “
There is a tale, a semiotic tale, to tell about boots, gloves, and other things that fit in Tolstoy. Of course, the peasants of Russia were dependent on the cottage industry of boot and shoemakers – no mass produced footwear for them. Boots that fit, well made boots, were naturally beautiful in the eyes of Seryosha. But this joy in a thing fitting is written all over Tolstoy’s work. There’s a reversible semiotic here – the fit of things – for instance, boots that fit the feet – and the grip of things. Good guns, whips, and handles of all kind please Tolstoy. And he likes to see the fit and grip of things in action. When Levin, in Anna Karenina, puts on the ice skates and effortlessly slides over the frozen pond, losing himself in the shapes he makes, this is the ecstasy of fitting. To slip into a groove and fill it and have power over it – this is a part of the sensual life that Tolstoy goes out to. A charge or raid, a dance in a ballroom – movements within a groove, a set pattern, crafted to the power of the mover, were intrinsically beautiful to him.
But of course the boots are Feodor’s boots, and him giving the boots up is a sign of his approaching death. Fitting takes a cruel turn here. What Tolstoy does not like in women is their lack of a tactile sense of grip and fit. Not that this is true of all women – but remember Tolstoy’s greatest heroine, Anna Karinina, dies on a railroad track – dies squashed lying on a thing that is engineered to the most precise fit.