These two literary classics dare to pose difficult existential questions: What is the meaning of life? Was my life of value? Why am I dying? The narrative employed in Tolstoy's novella is linear and realistically detailed. The style of Olsen's story, set in the United States about a century later, is allusive, moving in psychological time, from the senses, voices, and scenes in the present to memories of the past.
Other differences are sharper still: Tolstoy's Ilych is a self-satisfied czarist official; Olsen's protagonist, Eva, once a proletarian revolutionary, is a sixty-nine year-old dissatisfied working-class housewife, mother, and grandmother. Tolstoy focuses entirely on the life of a "model" man of his generation, who is successful professionally, though less so in his private life. Ultimately, though, Olsen and Tolstoy demand that readers examine their lives, and consider questions about pain, suffering, inequalities, fate, and one's life work.