Just when you think Tolstoy has covered every major literary theme, he turns the page and guides us into the biggest theme there is! In Part Five, Tolstoy tackles the raw truth of death...and its influence over how each of us chooses to live our lives.
While the reality of death is the great definer of us all, the most powerful truth...is love. Tolstoy expresses in one simple and brilliant gesture just how powerful this theme is to him. The only chapter in the entire book that's titled is Chapter XX—Death.
As Kitty and Levin travel to Moscow to help Levin's dying brother, we travel the road of life and death in excruciating depth. While Levin searches for intellectual answers to the unknowable, and trembles in fear around his brother, Kitty's pity fills her with the instinctive need to help—and above all—hope. Paralyzed by the power of death and in awe of Kitty and Agafya's compassion, Levin realizes that even the greatest masculine minds don't know a hundredth part of what women know about life and death. "The proof ... lay in their knowing, without a moment's doubt, how to act with dying people and not being afraid of them." (p. 496)
I love Tolstoy's description of Kitty's force as she takes care of Nikolai. "She had in her that excitement and quickness of judgment that appear in men before a battle, a struggle, in dangerous and decisive moments of life, those moments when once and for all a man shows his worth and that his whole past has not been in vain but has been a preparation for those moments." (p. 497) War might define a man's purpose; ministering to life and death defines a woman's.
In a moment that gave me goose bumps, Tolstoy creates a visceral scene of anguish. Levin literally feels death in his brother's bones, and doesn't know how to accept or express his love and fear. "The sick man [Nikolai] kept his brother's hand in his own. Levin felt that [Nikolai] wanted to do something with his hand and was drawing it somewhere. Levin yielded with a sinking heart. Yes, he drew it to his mouth and kissed it. Levin shook with sobs and, unable to get a word out, left the room." (p. 495)
The horror of death is matched only by its power and mystery. As Levin watches his brother's face and listens to his dying words—of all things—he is jealous. "For the dying man something was becoming increasingly clearer which for [Levin] remained as dark as ever. 'Yes, yes, it's so,' the dying man said slowly, distinctly. 'Wait.' Again he was silent. 'So!' he suddenly drew out peacefully, as if everything had been resolved for him. 'Oh Lord!' he said and sighed heavily. ... [Levin] felt that he lagged far behind the dying man. ... If he had any feeling for him now, it was rather envy of the knowledge that the dying man now had but that he could not have." (p. 501)
Even a nine-year-old boy knows the secret that escapes Levin: Love conquers all, even death. Although Countess Lydia and Karenin have told Seryozha that his mother is dead, or at least dead to him, Seryozha doesn't believe the people he loves can die. Seryozha's innocent faith is reinforced when Anna wakes him with kisses on his birthday. His dream is real...his love has triumphed over death.
Just as Anna is life and love for Seryozha, so Kitty is for Levin. The powerful cycle of life, love and death goes on and on. It's poignant and fitting that Chapter XX—Death—ends with the beginning of a new life! "No sooner had one mystery of death been accomplished before his eyes, and gone unfathomed, than another arose, equally unfathomed, which called to love and life." (p. 505) Kitty is pregnant!
The ultimate mystery is death. The ultimate answer is love...and life goes on. Keep reading!