Leo Tolstoy’s The Darling has the main character, Olenka, as the one described as the darling, suggesting that her beauty is such when she is happy and content that she glows with radiance, she emits an aura of loveliness. However, her beauty, her happiness is superficial. For Olenka does not have substance. The story describes Olenka as someone who was always loving somebody. She cannot be without an attachment for long, or else she grows despondent. Her sense of happiness even manifests through her physical attributes – she puts on weight when she is attached and happy, and she loses weight when she is left alone.
In a way her sense of self is reflected through her physicality. When she is attached and she feels that she is full – she has opinions about everything, she feels alive, hence she becomes robust. When she is alone as when her current husband dies, she finds that she loses ideas and opinions, and she grows thin. What does this say about a woman? Tolstoy’s story shows that a pleasant woman, a desirable woman is one like Olenka – happy to love, to accept fully the loved one, to the point of utter submission – mentally and emotionally.
Olenka is a darling because she offers no resistance, no assertiveness, no will of her own. She simply parrots what the man in her life believes in, and she believes that she is happy in that. The story adds a powerful commentary on what is expected of a woman when Olenka, orphaned, thrice widowed and left alone suddenly finds herself in a maternal role to Sasha. The woman in all stages is then complete – when she still has parents her duty is to serve them until they die, as Olenka did, taking care of her sick father all day and night until he passed away.
When her father died, Olenka became a paragon of being a wife – she supported her husband’s ideals and dreams and adopted his methods and attitudes thoroughly. And then when the husbands are gone, olenka took on the role of a mother – feeling everything that little Sasha goes through, treating him like a little child in need of her protection and love even when in reality he is not her son. The story then suggests that woman finds fulfillment only when she fulfills her roles as daughter, wife and mother, and that these roles have certain expectations.
The story even points out that Olenka needs to love – that is her way of finding fulfillment – not by looking within herself but finding a male to latch herself onto. The Darling thus raises an important question – what does being a woman mean? Is Olga to be taken as the image of an ideal woman? The treatment of the story ridicules Olga’s helplessness and blind devotion to the men in her life, how she falters when she is left alone having her mind empty having no opinions about anything.
It is clear that Olenka has no substance – without men she is nothing, she is not alive. But women have the same capabilities as men, the same mental faculties, the same limbs, the same needs. Women should be able to stand on their own even without men. but in the story, even society thinks well of a woman who fits the “ideal” woman, calls her darling. For when she is unattached she is seen as empty, like a ghost in a shell.
The theme of life and death is examined in Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, where he uses his characters to critique the artificial life that people live in society characterized by materialism and shallowness. Tolstoy puts forward a picture of society with striking honesty and insight: individuals do not behave as individuals but rather aspire to be like everybody else, trying to live a correct life as appropriated by norms, striving to have a comfortable life accentuated with material wealth even if their spiritual life and human relationships are dry and empty.
With his narrative, Tolstoy then poses the question of what is important in life, how life should be led, and ultimately, how important life is and how people take it for granted by deluding themselves into believing they are exempt from death. Most of the characters in the story are portrayed as materialistic social climbers, who equated material wealth and position in society as determinants of success and happiness. Ivan, his wife and daughter, his supposed friends, all troubled themselves with appearances – they were preoccupied with proper decorum and attires, of looking well off, of having power over others.
But these are all temporal, for these things do not really matter in the face of death. Ivan finds out that what is important is living one’s life according to one’s own vindication, not blindly following trends in society which results in a shallow, routine, meaningless life. He belatedly understood that empathy and recognizing the individual as an individual with thoughts and emotions rather than as subjects with mere faces is what mattered.
Only Gerasim and his son are the ones in the story that have empathy and humanity in them – in Gerasim it is made obvious by his understanding that everybody, regardless of position or appearance, are in the end equal, with the same fate waiting for them, especially when he said, “We shall all of us die, so why should I grudge a little trouble? ”. The son, on the other hand, is the only one in Ivan household who showed any feelings for his dying father – he took his father’s hand and kissed it while crying. This can be taken as the boy was young, he was still innocent and not yet tainted with the demands of society.
Ivan himself was dissatisfied with the boy because he behaved differently from him and his wife and daughter, but in his last days it was his son who showed him that there is a human soul in the world who regarded his life important. Also, this depiction of the innocence in childhood is mirrored in Ivan’s experiences: the only times he felt truly alive was when he was a boy, before he went to Law School. Being assimilated into society, he found that he trapped himself into a prison of standards, and lived a largely artificial life.
Tolstoy showed that an artificial life is characterized by materialism and social climbing. At the beginning of the story, we find Ivan dead but his friends were chiefly concerned with the position that he will be vacating, the promotions and changes in the workplace and what they have to gain from it, all the while denying to themselves that they will meet Ivan’s death. Even in his wake, his friends put a show of grievance because it was what was required of “friends”, but were more interested in playing bridge. They did not see the inevitability of death and suffering, of the hollowness of their lives.
Peter Ivanovich, Ivan’s perceived closest friend, somehow felt disturbed and concerned, but rushed to quell these feelings because he reasoned he was alive and Ivan dead and it should not be any reason to “hinder their spending the evening agreeably”. When he was still alive, Ivan himself saw how he had lived superficially in the way his doctors treated him, as though he was some subject whose sentence they hold in their hands, his life not really of importance, but their perception that they were important and significant was what gave them satisfaction and purpose.
Ivan himself acted the same way with the accused brought before him – he reduced them to facts on paper and did not see them as individuals, he got married for it was expected of a man of his station and chose a bride not out of love or devotion but out of the social status it will benefit him. In the end, the story teaches that material wealth and position in society are not what matters. In the face of death, one looks back at the quality of life that he has led, and the most precious times would be the ones he felt most alive, when he was free and himself.