Tag Archives: tolstoy

The meaning of life

Writers and artists in the 19th Century were preoccupied with trying to solve the question “what is the purpose of life on earth?” As an inhabitant of the 21st century how convincing did you find their answers?

Men through the ages have been looking at the question “What is the meaning of Life?”

“To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life.”
― Robert Louis StevensonFamiliar Studies of Men and Books

“The life of the individual has meaning only insofar as it aids in making the life of every living thing nobler and more beautiful”. – Albert Einstein

“You were made by God, and for God and until you understand that, life will never make sense”… Rick Warren.

“The sole meaning of life is to serve humanity”. – Leo Tolstoy

From the Mid 18th century people were no longer content with bowing to the aristocracy. People all over the world were rebelling against authority with violence and destruction.

The writers of the Romantic Period, and later in the Victorian Age were also rebellious. The difference being they took the adage “The pen is mightier than the sword” to heart and wrote what they thought. For the romantics, rebellion took the form of returning to nature. Wordsworth found beauty and nature to be liberating. He implored Samuel Coleridge and others to leave their books and return to nature for the lessons of life. William and Dorothy Wordsworth along with Samuel Coleridge became the first hippies. They sought redemption from a society that was becoming industrialised and a society where capitalism was more important than people’s lives.

The scholar Gypsy by Matthew Arnold was written after a 17th century tale of an Oxford scholar breaking free from the rigors of learning in college, to learn life’s lessons from the gypsies. he gained his redemption, his freedom.

Victorian writers sought more to bring to light the atrocities being committed in the name of industrialisation and the almighty dollar. They wrote to bring the truth to those who would listen. With each of his books, Dickens exposed the truths about child labour, poverty, and the inequality of the classes with the hope that his readers would be as equally appalled as he, and protest to bring about change.

In Silas Marner, Georg Eliott questioned the hypocrisy of the church and hierarchy. She showed that gold was the most important thing in Silas’ life after being betrayed by friends and fellow church goers. But Silas was not beyond redemption from his obsession with gold. When given a girl to raise, he exchanged the metal gold for the gold curls on Eppie’s head. When the aristocracy came to “rescue the girl from poverty”, the girl showed that love and loyalty were more important than money.

Oscar Wilde also wrote about the idiocy of the class system and showed that the relationships and issues important to the elite were not important at all, considering there were poor people rotting in the poor house and children in the workhouse.

Even in children’s literature there was rebellion happening amongst the writers as they sought for a better life for the children they were writing for and about. Popular nursery rhymes and songs are thought to tell the story  of the plague

“Ring a ring of roses,

A pocketful of posies,

A tishoo, a tishoo,

We all fall down.”


Waterbabies, written by Reverend Charles Kingsley, was about a boy named Tom who was a chimney-sweep. Tom fell from a chimney into the bedroom of an upper-class girl and realised how dirty (both physically and morally) he was and drowned while trying to wash the filth from his body. He wanted to be worthy of the squeaky clean girl whose bedroom he had fallen into. The story sought to address the problems of the poor, class differences, child labour and Christian redemption.

The rebellion and redemption was not limited by the borders of Britain. On the other side of Europe, Leon Tolstoy wrote that one thing is in common to all men; that is we die. It makes no difference whether poor or rich, our lives must come to an end. Tolstoy pointed out in ‘The death of Ivan Ilyich’, that life is about much more than making money and a position for yourself in society. Ilyich had the opportunity to reflect on his life and discover where he went wrong. It was too late for him to fix it, but he does apologise for his life and the mess he made of it for himself, his children and his wife. In Master and Man, Tolstoy also talks of the class system within Russia. It was the rushing to make money that lead to the death of the dishonest church warden, Vasili Andreevich, while the clear thinking peasant Nikita survived by being patient and accepting his lot. Nikita was redeemed of death and his debt to Andreevich.

The Romantic and Victorian era writers had one common theme, Redemption. Redemption from a society which valued the making of money more than the value of human life. The value of all human life, and equality of social status of all was the meaning of life to the writers of the 19th Century.

As an inhabitant of the 21st Century, I can state that the lessons of life that the writers of the 19th century were trying to tell were indeed important lessons, and still are. Perhaps more so. But I don’t think we have learnt those lessons. We are still discriminating against different people in society. Asylum seekers are treated appallingly here in Australia and elsewhere in the world. Women are not treated equally around the world by not only the Muslims, but are treated as an underclass in the western world as well. As long as there are churches who will not let women preach from their pulpits, and as long as  a woman’s pay is not equivalent to a mans in the same position, then we cant say we have got it right. We cant claim to have the answers to all the worlds problems when archaic laws prevent two adults who love each other from getting married. As long as there is one child in slavery, one person going hungry, one person who dies of an illness that is curable elsewhere in the world, we need to work harder.

“I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I do claim I can ask the right questions”. Dave McGettigan. (you can quote me).

But we all know the true answer….


Filed under 19th Century Literature, literature, Sumative Post 19th

It happens to us all

One thing is common to all men, that is death. It may be a cliche but from the moment we draw our first breathe, we begin to die. What a fatalistic way of looking at things. If we have the realisation from the beginning that we have a purpose in life, then we would strive to seek it and then achieve it. or would we. Would we forsake all else and strive toward the purpose in which our lives were destined?

“You were made by God, and for God and until you understand that, life will never make sense”… Rick Warren.

Picture credit: Pushkin House 2014

I have just finished reading ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’ by Leon Tolstoy. I hated the story, I loved the story. My conflict arises because it described the death of a man suffering from (I speculate) cancer. My own father died of cancer some years ago. I knew it was a long illness for him and at times a very painful distressing time for him. Tolstoy seems to have an intimate knowledge of the thoughts and pains of a dying person.

I watched my father deteriorate from a strong capable man to one who aged way beyond his years; before his time. He was too young to die. Unlike Ivan Ilyich, my father achieved. It was not just his professional life in which he excelled. He was the loved father of four boys, grandfather to many before he passed. He was adored by many and liked by all. My father had a professional life that made all the boys in my class envious. He was able to take us on many flights in helicopters and planes in his capacity of an Aeronautical Engineer. He strove to make life good for my mother and his family. He achieved that goal. When he retired early due to illness, he decided to pass on his knowledge to assist schoolkids in learning about the theory and practicality of flight. He went to the high school of the town in which he retired and offered to assist the kids to build a real aeroplane. One that could be registered and flown. He achieved that goal.

It was also in his retirement that he learnt the beauty of wood. In the Australian bush, some trees developed a pimple like growth on their trunk. These are called Burls. They are distinguished by the inner pattern of not rings, but more like squiggles throughout the wood. My father learned to make all manner of things from wood, from pens to coasters and bowls to much larger projects.

Picture Credit: Cliff Baker, West Virginia Woodturners Association

But I saw him waste away. He gave up smoking in an attempt of maybe extending his time on Earth, but in the last few months, I noticed that he took it up again. Like Ivan he had resigned himself to death as being inevitable.

Ivan Ilyich strove to achieve position in society. He strove to accumulate ‘things’. he did so not just for his own benefit, but for the benefit of his family. Perhaps for his own benefit as well, because if he found favour with his wife, he could then be relieved of her whining.

This book not only made me look at my own mortality and the futility of accumulating things, but to reassure myself that my purpose for life is now on track. In hindsight, I can see that in the past my actions and inaction, my own need for wealth and seeking favour from society ( as Ilyich attempted to do when setting up his house in Petersburg) had caused hurt to others. My goal in life now is to not accumulate wealth but to share beauty with those unable to see it for themselves. I do that with my art, photography and writing on a semi professional level, and by volunteering for social justice causes and organisations to assist those less fortunate than myself.

I was not able to be there in the last days for my father. This is something that has grieved me as I look at the past with regret. Ivan Ilyich also looked at his life with regret. I hope that at my death, I can look back on my life, not with regret, but with a small amount of humble pride.

There are 3 Victorian novels that I have looked at so far in my studies of 19th Century Fiction. Hard Times by Charles Dickens, Silas Marner by George Eliot and The death of Ivan Ilyich by Leon Tolstoy. The three main characters all have the same need, redemption, although not all three saw that need.

Thomas Gradgrind in Hard Times needed to be redeemed from his rigidity. “All men must be amused”, Mr Sleary pointed out, and for Gradgrind, a shock or two were needed to make him sway from his path.

Picture Credit:Charled Reinhart, found on http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/reinhart/ht2.html


George Eliot wrote that Silas Marner had a need for redemption. While some see the book as pointing out his need of a religious redemption, it was his obsession with gold and the accumulation of it that he needed to be redeemed from. That redemption came in the form of his sweet foster child Eppie. The Gold metal had been exchanged for the Golden curls upon her head. She tore from him his depression over loss, and gave him a new purpose in life, that being to care for Eppie. Interesting to note that when his metal gold was restored to him, his golden haired child was being claimed by another. The child would not be torn from his grasp as his gold coins had been, and justice prevailed when he could  his child chose to remain with him rather than be tempted by the lure of gold. Eppie had become more important to him than the lifeless metal.

Photo is a still from the movie made in 1985

Leon Tolstoy portrayed Ivan Ilyich as a man in need of redemption from life. Life for him had been a painful existence; before, and after his injury which led to his eventual death. Life in the presence of his wife was mundane at best. He did his utmost to spend as little time as possible with her. I believe he loved his children although he saw many of them die before he. His remaining daughter unfortunately was becoming a younger version of his wife, with her need for being prim and proper, whereas his son truly had compassion for his father. It was his son who cried as his father drew his last breath. To everyone else, his dying, or taking his time doing so, was a mere inconvenience. At the very beginning of the book we see that upon his death, his colleagues were looking at the question of who was to fill his position, which bought with it a hefty salary. Ilich becomes aware of his need for redemption when he was in the greatest pain. He wanted relief from the pain, relief from his wife and others. He saw himself a burden to others and to a man who was mostly independent and solitary this was devastating. Ivan Ilich wanted to be free of it all.

I was fond and grateful to the young servant Gerasim, who patiently cared for his master at the sunset of life. Gerasim could be compared to the palliative care people who cared for my father in his last days.

It happens to all of us, death. It happens to all of us, the realisation of the need for redemption. With the 3 characters in our books, redemption came at different times. Gradgrind was saved. Silas Marner found his redemption in time to make a difference to his future. Unfortunately Ivan Ilich discovered his need too late. I implore you, to seek redemption while it can be found, before its too late.

“Yet, when I surveyed all that my hands had done

and what I toiled to achieve,

everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind,

nothing was gained under the sun” Ecclesiastes 2: 11







Filed under 19th Century Literature, Best Critical Post 19th, literature