Leonid Andreyev’s short story Lazarus begins with a celebration of life, which is also a denial of death. Later in the story this denial is crushed and death emerges victorious over everything.
Lazarus is met by his relatives and friends as if he was a man returning from a war, and like a war veteran who had been exhausted by the war and needed psychological revival which could only be tenderly bestowed by those who loved him.
“They surrounded him with tenderness”, they surrounded him with life.
This welcome is a kind of filing the late dead man with life, as if the life which was given back to him was not enough, as if they were afraid that death would take him back if they were not “lavish of their eager attentions, spending the greatest care upon his food and drink and the new garments they made for him”. They adorned him with “colors of hope and laughter”, just like a bridegroom.
This effort on the side of his friends and relatives can also be interpreted as a denial of death. They are behaving as if death was something to be quickly forgotten about. It is interesting that people are not asking him what happened in the grave, how it felt to die; these questions would recall death. They are, on the contrary, trying to make him and themselves forget that death ever existed.
The effort to surround Lazarus with life can be explained in this way. They are hiding death. They are covering it with all that represents life so that it won’t be seen. It is not the joy of life that they are cherishing; it is the fear of death that they are running away from.
It is an attack on death, an attack without acknowledging the enemy.
Their behaviour can also be considered a mania; it is similar to the unexpected and uncanny laughter of the people who, under the heavy burden of a recent loss, suddenly begin laughing like madmen while they had been weeping bitterly. The laughter of the latter is certainly not intentional. They laugh because their burden is too heavy to bear, and in their desperation they forget themselves, turn kind of unconscious, not knowing what they are doing, and do something quite irrelevant with what they are supposed to do, namely crying. Friends and relatives of Lazarus are likewise desperate. It is not life risen from death that they are face to face; it is death that has miraculously risen and come alive, as alive as death could be. As those who have lost their beloved ones are supposed to cry, relatives and friends of Lazarus are supposed to be rather afraid and curious before the man who has come from the dead and who looks like one dead. He is bearing all the signs of death as we are told at the very first paragraph. He has “evil peculiarities” but it takes a long time before people notice it. In fact, people notice it at the beginning but, as is usually the case with people, they have their explanations. I don’t know how the author put in Russian but the way it is in the translation is marvelous; it is the first sentence of the third paragraph:
“That which was new in Lazarus’ face and gestures they explained naturally”. There is a double meaning here: There was something strange about Lazarus but they explained it because they had to, because the urge to explain is in human nature, their explaining it is natural. We want to explain everything and resize them to fit the boundaries of our perception and its traditions. Secondly, they think the signs are natural, that is, made by nature. They obviously refrain from thinking or admitting how terrible death must be to have left such traces on a man who has passed through it but for several days. Instead, they say it is just something natural, like the bleeding of one’s knee when one falls on it, or the bruises one gets upon an accident. Death is not clearly acknowledged as the prime cause of it. They say it was “his severe illness and the shock”.
Details of “the aspect of Lazarus in his second life” are suggestive of a recently buried man, but a dead man. There were bruises and cracks on his skin. Soon these seem to disappear but they partly remain on his skin to the extent that “it looked natural only to those who had seen him buried”. These traces of death were already thought to be natural by those who had seen him buried but others, who in this case represent an objective view, do not think Lazarus looks natural. It can be argued that Lazarus’s friends think it natural because they know the reason behind his unnatural appearance. But I’d rather argue that they chose to think what they find most convenient. Again, there is a denial of death. The same denial can be observed in people’s attitude regarding the astonishing change in Lazarus’s character. The emphasized change “astonished no one and did not attract the attention it deserved”. Lazarus used to be “cheerful and careless, a lover of laughter and harmless jest” Now, however, “he was grave and silent; neither he himself jested nor did he laugh at the jests of others”. The contrast between what he used to be and what he is now is sharp and it is emphasized. This contrast is the contrast between a live man and a dead man. From the description of what Lazarus used to be, we are to understand that he was life itself. The words describing Lazarus before death, “cheerful and careless, a lover of laugher and harmless jest”, are words that we normally use to describe a man full of life. But the words “now he was grave and silent; neither he himself jested not did he laugh at the jests of others” can describe a dead man. Lazarus was life. There was nothing wrong with that. It was even pleasing. He probably reminded people of the beauty and joy of life. Then he died. There was nothing wrong with that, either as it is quite natural and expected. Then, however, he was back, but not alive. Here is the problem. We all know that we will die. But we seem to live oblivious of the fact most of the time. Death is real, we know. But we are not worried about it as long as it doesn’t remind us of its existence. In other words, death doesn’t matter as long as it is out of life. Lazarus, however, is death in life. He is dead but he is in life. People cannot reconcile these two facts. But they can conceal one of them.
Lazarus represents death in life. He “sat at the festive table among his friends and relatives”. But he had the “face of a corpse”. His garments were “gorgeous and festive, glittering with gold”. He was in life, but not alive. He had changed, and “horribly changed”. But this was “undiscovered”. It is not that no one discovered it, but that no one wanted to discover it. They ignored, avoided, and pretended not to see the changes. They did not discover it; on the contrary, they covered it. In part II, however, “someone recklessly lifted the veil”. The word reckless is defined as “marked by defiant disregard for danger or consequences”.
So, that someone has disregard for death. That means, all the others present at the party were careful about Lazarus and they had regard for death. This confirms the point we have been making in this article that they have been hiding death. This sense of hiding is further strengthened with the veil. Therefore, it was there, the truth, behind the veil, and everyone knew it; they just didn’t lift it as they weren’t reckless. The reckless man “uncovered the truth in its ugly nakedness”. The question that the man puts is what we would normally expect to be put to a man who had risen from the grave: “what was There?”. It is a very very simple question, and it is only natural for a man to ask it under the circumstances. It is even incredible that nobody asked it until this point in the story. However, the reaction that this question brings about is one of shock and surprise, as if it was the last question that a man could think of. Moreover, even the reckless man is shocked. When he put the question, “no thought was clearly defined in his mind”, in other words, it was thoughtlessly asked; and when he repeated the question “again his thoughts lagged behind his words”. If they hadn’t, he wouldn’t have asked it, which is clearly stated in the story, too. The truth that Lazarus had been dead is revealed. What?!
“Only now it seemed to have occurred to them that for three days Lazarus had been dead”. That is incredible. How many times can a man see a person who has been raised from the dead?
How many times has it happened in the history of man? Only once; and these people were the eyewitnesses of that miracle. So, how can they not have recognized until now that Lazarus had been dead? Have they forgotten it as if it was just a detail to be easily forgotten? Of course, not. The word “seemed” explains everything (“it seemed to have occurred to them). The truth about Lazarus was a taboo. Of course they all knew the truth and had been fully aware of it. But they were consciously or unconsciously avoiding, denying and hiding it. They didn’t dare to face it until one man thoughtlessly, not bravely, defied it. His behavior was blasphemous. Similarly, the good, generous, and kind behavior of the people towards Lazarus until that time were like offerings to evil spirits. They had taken every measure in order not to provoke the anger of those spirits, which are, in this case, death embodied in Lazarus. Now that all was let loose, and they could do nothing to revert it back, they desperately and naively expected what was to come, and “awaited the words of Lazarus anxiously”.
But Lazarus “was silent, cold and severe, and his eyes were cast down”. This is the most dreadful pose that Lazarus could effect. Fear is great as long as it is coming because we don’t know it.
We know that there is something dangerous, something deadly approaching us. It is coming nearer and nearer. We don’t know what it is, what it looks like, how it works, what it does. But once
it is come, we see it, we learn of it, we define it. Compare the following statements for effect: You are going to be shot dead tomorrow at eight o’clock am in front of the prison walls, and you are going to be killed somehow somewhere sometime within three months. The basic quality in anything that inspires fear is the fact that it is unknown. Lazarus chooses to remain unknown, he didn’t answer. He even avoided his looks, “his eyes were cast down”, so that people wouldn’t be able to know anything by looking into them. In a way, he led them to ponder upon the severity of the blasphemy just committed. It is then that they begin to admit, rather than recognize, the evil peculiarities of his aspect: “as if for the first time, they perceived the horrible bluishness of his face
and the loathsome corpulence of his body”. Suddenly, as the veil is drawn, all that has been hidden reveals itself; the cover of life that they had used to hide the truth disappears; “silence fell upon” the musicians, their instruments waver, “as though song itself were dying”, “then all was quiet” like death. Death, which “had reigned” like a king upon Lazarus, is now reigning over all.
Then the reckless man asks the question for the third time, but this time hopelessly. This question is like the last words of a dying man, said weakly and as a last symptom of life, trying his chance with life for the last time. It seems to have been asked on behalf of the whole company. The tense silence is the answer again. Then “the livid blue hand” of Lazarus that “lay motionless” on the table “moved slightly” and all “sighed with relief”. It was as if they were suspended between life and death, and the continued silence and stillness meant that death was reigning. This is why they sighed with relief when Lazarus’s hand moved. But now they were face to face with what they had feared and avoided, death itself: death, of which we live oblivious and owe our lives to that oblivion. Now death is in life and it is alive. It is never to be forgotten by those who behold it, and all who meet Lazarus can but behold it. It wasn’t Lazarus that was raised from the grave but it was death’s messenger embodied as Lazarus. Life loses all meaning for those who meet him because they can’t forget the fact that everything is going to be devoured by death. “The guests stared at one another stupidly, not knowing why they had come together or why they sat around this rich table”. They felt that “it was time to leave; but they could not overcome the lassitude that spread through their muscles. So they continued to sit there, each one isolated, like little dim lights scattered in the darkness of night”, like half dead men scattered and half buried in a grave. Now that death is always in their mind, time is dead, too, because it is passing and past. Why should they leave? Are they late? Late for what?
Death, which has been described as a mysterious king until this point is now deified: it has “measureless power”. Death is a god and Lazarus his messenger. It is ironic that like all messengers, Lazarus is not taken care of, not cared for, and avoided after disclosing his message. Those who had denied his god are cursed. It is also ironic that curse is the message that Lazarus is bound to deliver, that death is not dead, that death is not far away, that death is not a detail, that death is omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent as it is the god. Lazarus, the messenger, might be ignored by people, but he delivers the message most effectively, probably more effectively and successfully than any other prophet had done. All those who receive the message instantly become converts of this religion, and begin to believe in death, which is their god, and then they stop believing everything else. They are so faithful believers that they always think of their god, they are obsessed with it. They had lived all their lives with the blasphemous denial of death. Now they deny life. Their new god decreed “Let there be dark” and all was dark.