Tolstoy uses The Death of Ivan Ilyich to show his readers the negative consequences of living as Ilyich did. Ivan Ilyich made decisions based on what others thought and what would benefit him monetarily. As death approaches, Ilyich realizes that he squandered everything pure and meaningful in order to work and make money. His materialism and desire to conform made Ilyich’s life miserable and led to his demise.From the outset of the story it is clear that Ilyich did not live a full, rich life. When his friends hear of his death, they are more concerned with “what effect it would have on their own transfers and promotions or those of their acquaintances” (Tolstoy 32) than the loss of their friend. Ilyich failed to establish close relationships with them, and after learning of his death they seem almost indifferent: “There is, in fact, no reason to assume this incident can keep us from spending a pleasant evening” (36), one remarks. They attend the funeral only “to fulfill the tedious demands of propriety” (33). Even before the reader learns of the manner in which Ilyich lived his life, she sees that the consequences are grim. Geraism, Ilyich’s servant, serves as a foil. Even though Geraism is of a lower class than Ilyich, he is happy and knows what he wants; moreover, he is not burdened by the pressures of materialism. Ilyich admires Geraism because he “[does] everything easily, willingly, simply, and with a goodness of heart” (86) and, at the end, is the only person whose company he enjoys. Unlike Ilyich, who married Praskovya only because people of the “highest standing” thought she was a good choice (56), Geraism is free of societal expectations and can do as he pleases. While Ilyich dies at 45, Geraism lives well into old age, suggesting that an unhappy, burdensome life leads one to an early grave.One of Ivan’s main downfalls is his materialism and emphasis on work. As an example of his obsession with material things, he puts up drapes in his new apartment to make the place look like “the homes of all people who are not really rich but who want to look rich” (57). As for work, Tolstoy states that Ilyich strove for money and prominence “by spending less and less time with his family and, when obliged to be home, tried to safe-guard his position through the presence of outsiders” (52). Neglecting his family resulted ultimately in severe alienation. He recognizes his downfall on some level at the end of his life, admitting that “Perhaps I did not live as I should have,” but immediately returns to self-protective denial as “he immediately recall[s] how correct his whole life had been” (102). Tolstoy used The Death of Ivan Ilyitch to show that social conformity, materialism, and single-minded focus on work lead to unhappiness and isolation. While not an uplifting novel, Tolstoy’s work does benefit its readers – they conclude the story with greater appreciation for the need to live an honest, balanced life.
In his novella The Death of Ivan Ilych, Count Leo Tolstoy offers readers a glimpse into the life and death of a socially ambitious Russian gentleman, Ivan Ilych. During the story, Ivan’s character is revealed in several different ways: firstly, oddly enough, at his funeral, where the actions of his friends serve to portray Russian society as a whole. Tolstoy then uses flashback technique to recount Ivan’s life and his attitudes toward his family, his job, and his friends. Ivan’s lifestyle only solidifies Tolstoy’s perception of 1880s Russian society. From observing Ivan’s thoughts and actions, it becomes obvious that he wants nothing more in life than to be approved of by others, and to do everything properly. Through Ivan Ilych’s life and death, Tolstoy criticizes the society around him – a society overly concerned with propriety, conformity, and social approval. Tolstoy immediately begins his attack on Russian society at Ivan’s funeral, through the actions of his “friends”; more specifically, he focuses on their preoccupation with seemly behavior and job promotions rather than genuine mourning. The assorted gentlemen actually show their selfish tendencies even before the funeral – as soon as they hear of Ivan’s death, “the first thought of each of the gentlemen…was of the changes and promotions it might occasion among themselves or their acquaintances” (96). They then acknowledge the extent to which Ivan’s death has burdened them when they realize that “they would now have to fulfill the very tiresome demands of propriety by attending the funeral service and paying a visit of condolence to the widow” (97). During the actual funeral, Peter Ivanovich – one of Ivan’s closest so-called friends – is consumed with doubt as to whether he should cross himself, when he should bow to the widow, and how he should offer his condolences (97-98). His focus on these petty social niceties – and the similar attitudes of the others at the funeral – underscores Tolstoy’s criticism of propriety and superficiality in Russian culture. After the funeral scene, Tolstoy flashes back to the life of Ivan Ilych, revealing that Ivan was just as much of a conformist as his friends are. Ivan was unconcerned with whether or not his behavior was morally right; he simply wanted to ensure that whatever he did was done “with clean hands, in clean linen…and above all among people of the best society and consequently with the approval of people of rank” (106). Falling into this category were courtship and marriage, which was “considered the right thing by the most highly placed of his associates” (109), as well as his behavior at work towards said associates, whom he treated in a cordial yet patronizing manner (107). Ivan was similarly preoccupied with appearances; he bedecked his house with “antiques which he considered particularly comme il faut” (115). In fact, this obsession with the appearance of his house would later contribute significantly to his emotional and physical downfall.Unfortunately, Ivan was so preoccupied with gaining social approval that he ultimately sacrificed his life in an attempt to climb the social ladder. This reality is vividly illustrated during an episode in which Ivan is busily decorating his new house in St. Petersburg. He climbs on a stepladder to hang some drapes and suddenly slips off the ladder; however, he manages to break his fall and only knocks his side against the window knob (116). The trauma to his side never completely heals, though, and the internal damage it causes eventually leads to Ivan’s final suffering and death. This is a striking parallel to the circumstances in Ivan’s personal life. Ivan had been attempting to scale the social ladder, winning approval of high-ranking individuals, yet in doing so he had been unwittingly sacrificing both his family life and his emotional health. Tolstoy uses both this unfortunate emotional deficiency and its physical symbol to expose the many moral sicknesses afflicting the Russian culture of his day. Through Ivan’s seemingly futile existence as a would-be socialite, Tolstoy implores his contemporaries to evaluate their priorities in life. Ivan fails to comprehend the emptiness and uselessness of his life until he is literally on his deathbed, but his story may prompt others living the same type of lifestyle to reflect and make some much-needed changes within themselves. Tolstoy’s tale also serves to demonstrate that the corrupt society in which he lived – late nineteenth-century Russia – is actually quite similar to today’s culture, and that the themes presented in the novella are applicable to nearly every society. Either way, The Death of Ivan Ilych is a sad testament to the perils of living a life based entirely on appearances and pretenses.
Ivan Ilych is dead. His death is hardly what one would call “mourned”, and his family and friends think only of how they can profit from his timely demise. He has led a terrible life, and suffered through a generally meaningless existence. One might wonder how the title character in Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych” manages to find redemption in the process of his death. And indeed, his death is a process, in which he denies the lack of meaning in his life, questions it, accepts it, and attempts to redeem himself for it. It may seem a bit ludicrous that Ivan, who has led a life not much different from that of a self-absorbed lemming, can be forgiven for all of his sins in a matter of hours. However, through the process of dying, Ivan is redeemed. While his death is certainly painful and he struggles “as a man condemned to death struggles in the hands of of the executioner, knowing that he cannot save himself” (166), it ends in revelation, forgiveness, and joy.Ivan Ilych leads a trite life, as do his peers: conventional in every sense of the word. It is only in death, however, that he realizes this. Ivan not only allows himself to follow societal standards, but follows them with such accuracy that he seems to lose any individuality that he may have had to begin with. His home is “just what is usually seen in the houses of people of moderate means that want to appear rich, and therefore succeed only in resembling others like themselves” (138). Though this may seem unintentional, it is not; he tries, sometimes with difficulty, to make himself fit in. When he begins to have marriage troubles, he compares his marriage to life, in which his duties are “to lead a decorous life approved of by society” (134). Only in the midst of his death does he begin to question his life. Ivan wonders for the first time ever if his life was for naught, and if perhaps he could have lived a better way. The question occurs to him, “what if my whole life has been wrong?” (164) At last, he realizes that just because society deems something correct, it does not necessarily make it “right”. He wonders whether he has spent his life as he should have, and comes to the conclusion that he has not. Though this is not the beginning of his death process, it is certainly the beginning of his revelation.Ivan evolves beyond merely realizing that he has lived his life inadequately. He sees that he has sucked his family into his petty world, and may have ruined their lives as well. The indifference with which he handles his family prior to his death is astounding. He simply wants to maintain the cover of a functional, normal family; even when he married his wife, his thoughts were not of love, but of himself and his image. He thought only, “Really, why shouldn’t I marry?” (133) knowing that he would eventually need to marry in order to properly “fit in”. He has even passed his air of indifference – one might even say callousness – onto his family. His wife falls in love with him before they are wed, then begins to hate him over the years. She wishes him dead, “yet she did not want him to die because then his salary would cease” (141). Ivan’s daughter, newly engaged, is annoyed with his illness because it brings with it a melancholy that dims the brightness she feels in light of her upcoming wedding. Even Ivan’s friends do not feel badly when he dies. Everyone connected to him feels only displeasure or annoyance that they now must perform the unpleasant duties associated with a death. On his deathbed, Ivan finally realizes the impact that he has had on his family, and attempts to reconcile with them. He knows that his life and death have been hard on them, whether their tears are sincere or not, and thinks to himself, “it’ll be better for them when I die” (166). This marks the first time in his life that Ivan thinks of somebody other than himself with genuine compassion and heartfelt sincerity. He does his best to apologize for the life into which he has submerged them, but manages only to get out, “sorry for him…sorry for you too” (166), and then fails at an attempt to say “forgive me.” Here, Ivan finally comes to understand what life should be about, and begins to be forgiven.In the final stages of his death, time stands still for Ivan, and he is able to find closure with himself, with his life, and with God. Throughout the process of his death, Ivan is in enormous pain. He screams constantly, and only ceases to feel pain when he realizes that his life was wrong. Immediately following his apology to his wife and son, he feels the pain “dropping away at once…from all sides” (167). He can no longer feel any pain at all, and asks himself where it has gone. Ivan finally moves past his fear of death. Previously, he did not believe that he could die, but he now realizes that death is not something to be afraid of. He asks himself where death has gone; his fear has disappeared because he has realized that he will be forgiven. Finally, Ivan has closure with God. In the beginning of his illness, Ivan blames God for his pain and suffering. He weeps because of “the cruelty of God, and the absence of God” (160). However, in the final stage of death, he is at peace with everything because he knows that “He whose understanding mattered would understand” (167). It is now, approaching death, that Ivan is finally redeemed. He understands that everything will be fine, and feels no fear or pain. Ivan Ilych dies, and in the moment of his death, he finds redemption.Ivan’s death is a slow, cruel process: he suffers for three long days in such terrible pain that everyone around him feels certain that his death is imminent. It is during this process, however, that Ivan is able to find redemption; any shorter period of time would be insufficient. He has led a meaningless life, a “wrong” life: he has made those around him suffer, and he has wronged himself, as well. Only when he realizes his mistakes and is filled with regret is his pain eased. Only when he sees the pain that he has caused and attempts reconciliation is he forgiven, and only when he is no longer fearful of death does he truly find redemption and joy. Ivan’s death is the result of his life, and it would have been very different had he paid heed to the inscription on his own watch chain: “respice finem” (130), or “look to the end”.
Like death or abandonment, alienation is one of the deepest-rooted fears experienced by human beings. As social creatures, humans have the need to identify themselves as one of a group, whether that group is a family, a culture, or a religion. The experience of alienation is one of violation of a person’s need for acceptance. Both Leo Tolstoy in The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Franz Kafka in Metamorphosis use alienation as a central theme to comment on the human need to experience love and acceptance. Both Ivan Ilyich and Gregor Samsa experience in their respective tragedies a great deal of alienation, which separates them from the groups to which they have been comfortably attached for most of their lives. Both authors trace the theme of alienation by exposing the displacement experienced emotionally, psychologically, and physically by their central characters.The physical changes that plagued both Ivan Ilyich and Gregor Samsa were the forces that perpetuated further alienation. These physical changes are important to note because not only did they change the appearances of the characters, but they also affected the way those around them viewed them, and deeply influenced the way both men viewed themselves and others. Though the physical changes may seem to be the least tragic part of both stories, by physically distinguishing the men as different from those around them, the authors are better able to comment on the mental isolation which becomes the worst part of both men’s misfortunes. The physical alienation felt by both characters is therefore an impetus for the other forms of alienation that later affect Gregor and Ivan.Both men undergo disturbing physical transformations that change their lives. Gregor’s physical change is obvious immediately in the first sentence of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. As soon as he awakens, Gregor finds “himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect [. . .] lying on his hard shell-like back and [. . .] he could see his curved brown belly, divided by stiff arching ribs” (Kafka 76). This physical transformation begins a series of events in which Gregor is alienated from his family and acquaintances. Gregor’s transformation is all encompassing; not only does he look completely different, but his voice, his tastes, and his abilities have undergone serious alterations also. This complete physical change is only partially his physical alienation. Gregor is also physically distanced from those around him. He is physically isolated from his family as they lock him in a room and are unable to even look at his monstrous form. Gregor’s adjustment from being a daily traveler with his job to being a literal prisoner in his home is one way in which the reader can identify with the drastic alienation Gregor experiences as a result of his physical transformation. The door to his bedroom becomes a barrier rather than an opening to the world, and the reader witnesses the great difficulty that Gregor has: “he clenched his jaws desperately on the key” (Kafka 86).Ivan physical alienation is less dramatic than Gregor’s, but also begins a series of alienations. Instead of a dramatic alteration of appearance, Ivan physical transformation is a slow deterioration of the body, which for most of the story is unnoticeable. Though the sickness causes pain for Ivan, the physical changes do not become apparent until almost two-thirds of the way through the story when his brother-in-law visits. Even Ivan is unaware of his physical transformation, as is shown when his brother-in-law “opened his mouth to gasp but checked himself,” and Ivan asks, “What is ithave I changed?” (Tolstoy 85). Ivan, like Gregor, is also physically isolated from his former life. He, too, was confined to his room after his sickness began to hinder his formerly sociable lifestyle, and is subjected to watching his loved ones go about “in a whirl of social activity” (Tolstoy 80). Tolstoy exposes the alienation his character feels through the long and solitary hours in which Ivan constantly questions his misfortunes and rages against death while his family goes about their daily lives.The alienation experienced by both characters is also exposed through psychological methods. Ivan and Gregor both experience changes in how they are able to view themselves and their relationships with others. Though both constantly reach out to lessen the effects of the alienation they are experiencing, neither is able to maintain the psychology they had before misfortune struck. Ivan’s realization of his mortality is an extreme change in his psychology and allows him to deepen his formerly shallow existence. For example, during a game of cards, which he used to enjoy greatly, Ivan watched and “he saw how upset Mikhail Mikhailovich was while he himself did not care. And it was dreadful to think why he did not care” (Tolstoy 82). This change in Ivan further alienates him from his acquaintances because they have not reached the same level of enlightenment as Ivan. This psychological alienation is yet another reminder of Ivan’s separation from others. He has matured through facing his mortality, and his growth has placed a barrier between him and his friends.Gregor is psychologically alienated because although he is an insect, he still has the thought process of a human being. This dichotomy proves a difficult shift in Gregor’s psychological well-being. He is torn between hopes of returning to his human form, and his comfort as a monstrous insect. One scene that marks his psychological alienation occurs when his sister and mother are attempting to move the furniture out of the room to make Gregor’s movement easier. Despite the advantages of having less furniture to impede his movement, Gregor’s desire to keep his room like it was when he was human is overwhelming: “no doubt he would be free to crawl about unimpeded in all directions, but only at the price of rapidly and completely forgetting his human past” (Kafka 103). Another example of psychological alienation occurs at Gregor’s death. At this point in the story, the reader must realize all that has happened to Gregor: not only his physical form has been irrevocably changed, but his place as the caretaker of the household, and his place in society have been altered. Gregor’s last thoughts before his death point to the psychological alienation he feels. He no longer is concerned with his own well-being, but that of his family and “his own opinion that he must disappear was if anything even firmer than his sister’s” (Kafka122). This psychological alienation forces Gregor to change his ideas of his own importance.Both of the authors reveal their main characters to be emotionally alienated from others also. For example, Ivan’s emotions are most often kept hidden from those around him. Several times in the text, Tolstoy hints to the reader that Ivan desires an emotional connection to those around him, but he is unable to connect because he wishes to keep a strong appearance in front of his colleagues. Even before Ivan learns of his impending death, he is emotionally isolated from others, as is revealed in his relationship with his wife and family. Ivan is emotionally alienated and has “the need to fence off a world for himself outside the family” (Tolstoy 57). After his illness begins, Ivan realizes the dangers in this emotional alienation and tries to reach out, but finds himself unable to do so because of social conventions. Ivan longs for human affection:He knew that he was an important functionary with a graying beard, and so this was impossible; yet all the same he longed for it [. . .] Ivan Ilyich wanted to cry, wanted to be caressed and cried over, yet his colleague Shebek, a member of the court, would come and instead of crying and getting affection, Ivan Ilyich would assume a serious, stern, profound expression [. . . ] Nothing did so much poison the last days of Ivan Ilyich’s life as this falseness in himself and in those around him. (Tolstoy 105)Gregor also suffers from emotional alienation. As the main source of income for the family, he has an emotional attachment to them as dependents. His love for his family, particularly his mother and sister, is shown through Gregor’s thoughts after his transformation. His desire to remain emotionally connected with his family, particularly his younger sister, is presented during the scene in which Gregor listens to his sister playing the violin: “It seemed to him as if the way were opening towards the unknown nourishment he craved” (Kafka 117). Kafka uses this scene to show the effects of the emotional alienation that Gregor experiences, and how he, like Ivan yearns for love and acceptance, despite his monstrous form.Both Tolstoy and Kafka use the theme of alienation to show the deepest emotions of those who have suddenly experienced a great change. Because both Gregor and Ivan experience a life-changing event, they are forced, through alienation, to question their own worth. By analyzing the psychological, emotional and physical aspects of alienation is The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Metamorphosis, the reader sees the similarities in the two characters’ positions as they are suddenly forced to reflect on their own importance and question their autonomy.
“It is as if I had been going downhill while I imagined I was going up. And that is really what it was. I was going up in public opinion, but to the same extent life was ebbing away from me. And now it is all done and there is only death.”–The Death of Ivan Ilych, Leo Tolstoy (144-145)In American society in particular, it is often difficult to fully register the moral point made by Bergman and Tolstoy about the true meaninglessness of public repute; but Ivan’s commentary on his life awakens that nagging awareness in the recesses of one’s conscience, that while basking only in the glory of “public opinion” we risk a moral regression of equal magnitude – the more terrible reality that a meaningful, thoughtful life is “ebbing away.” The Death of Ivan Ilych and Wild Strawberries each shed light on the danger of mechanical living. Isak Borg and Ivan Ilych undergo the ironic tragedy of social success. Ivan’s life tells the story of a typical bourgeouis social climber; focused on doing everything that is “expected” of him, his lack of attention to personal virtue renders him ultimately “le phenix de la famille” (Tolstoy, 102)- the phoenix to the failing. Comparably, Bergman’s professor Isak witnesses the ugly paradox of his academic nobility. While traveling forward in his car to receive his honorary degree – a seeming climax to his lifelong climb up the social ladder – we see Isak all the while riveted to the past as he becomes spiritually enlightened to the implied falsehood and deception of his life to date.The banal nature of the lives led by Isak and Ivan is portrayed as inexcusable; they cannot be regarded without horror and disgust, thanks to Tolstoy and Bergman’s powerful account of a disgraced life. The spiritual breakthroughs which come to pass in the aged lives of Ivan and Isak are imbued with a great sense of immediacy, and with the pain of lost opportunity. The issue at hand in these works can be identified, to a certain extent, with Pascal’s wager – one must make a choice for his life to bear any semblance of meaning. A particular scene in Wild Strawberries comes to mind, where an old man takes the “fifth” rather than offering any insights into a debate over God’s existence. He remains silent, but his silence has incredible impact. The two opposing characters freely discuss the magnanimous issue, while the old man’s silence reveals his lifelong failure to broach the all-important question. In this scene, the old man, aside from Isak, exemplifies le phenix de la famille, and his nonparticipation in the discussion, remaining silent, has a wholly saddening affect on the viewer.Furthermore, the damage falls in various corners of the existences of Isak and Ivan. While the lateness of their “resurrection” from a spiritually devoid lifestyle is certainly shameful, Tolstoy and Bergman show that even their character’s death may not be sufficient to end the consequences of his life’s sin of moral disregard. As the characters confront not only death but the foreboding question, “What if I have done everything all wrong?,” we see their shaky spiritual footing seeping into their children’s generation. Evald, no doubt resentful towards a pervasive sense of meaninglessness from his upbringing, has claimed to “hate” his father Isak, despite Isak’s belief that their relationship is strong. Specifically, it is Evald’s father’s refusal to submit to human sympathy or any sort of familial sentiment that remains with Evald. Isak’s son accordingly comes to believe, “It’s absurd to bring children into this world,” reflecting his father’s relentlessly practical reasoning. It is just as Ivan, after the birth of his child, responds only as if he is irritated by its presence, and what’s more refers to the baby primarily as “it.” In these moments of Bergman’s film and Tolstoy’s novella, the extensive dangers of an unexamined life are most unsettlingly palpable.Ironic timing makes Ivan Ilych’s reflective journey particularly brutal. Redemption from a life “most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible” (Tolstoy, 102) can release Ivan only unto death. Isak Borg’s spiritual crisis, beautifully rendered in Ingmar Bergman’s film, Wild Strawberries, resonates similarly to the realization of Tolstoy’s famous protagonist. The life-examination that faces each character is a redoubtable blessing, a process whereby Ivan and Isak undergo a vital enlightenment to the bleakest realities of the triteness of their lives; the brutality which complicates what might otherwise be cause for a healthy, conscientious transformation, we find, lies in the characters’ realizing each of their lives to have been mistakenly lived and to be, incidentally, nearly over. Tolstoy and Bergman each make the choice that his character’s epiphany should come to pass when death is imminent, thereby emphasizing how indispensable it is to evaluate one’s life while one is living it. The irreparable crime of a wasted life is left for Isak Borg and Ivan Ilych to remorsefully acknowledge, and left for us as a most pressing and cautionary message: take pause on the social ladder and reflect before it is too late.
Poor Ivan Ilych is plagued by not one, but two diseases. While his “floating kidney” ends his life, it is a temporal disease – which is actually healed as his kidney disease progresses – that ruins his life. Ivan spends his life in a small temporal space – he managed to “dismiss his past” (51) and instead spend his life focused on his physical trappings and social standing. In his writing Tolstoy made a large effort to fight this condition, “the prejudice of . . . [temporal] closure” (8), which he saw as pervasive in Russian society. But intriguingly, in addition to the characters in the story who have this closed view, the narrative of the first chapter – and the first chapter alone – shares this diseased sense of time in so far as a narrative can be assumed to convey some attitude about time. This singularly diseased chapter works to involve the reader in the attitude that the book then goes forth to destruct Ivan’s temporal disease is first recognized in the opening line of the 2nd chapter, when the narrator tells us that Ivan’s life had been “simple and commonplace – and most horrifying” (49). Where does the horror lie, if not in the simple commonplace events of Ivan’s life? It seems to lie in Ivan’s approach to life, which the narrator indicts Ivan’s approach to life when, in censorious terms, he tells us that Ivan “had succumbed to sensuality and vanity” (50). Sensuality suggests much more than an erotic approach to life – and we know from the text that eros was no driving force in Ivan’s life. Instead sensuality points to a worldview that is focused on sensual or empirical information rather than thought or emotions. Ivan’s concern for those things empirical, and thus immediate, involves a temporal narrowing. When Ivan recognizes his temporal disease in the weeks before his death, he understands that what he gave up for his sensuality, was the “friendship and hope” of the his youngest days (119). Friendship, one thing he had abandoned, is a condition that ties one to the social relations of the past. Hope is a condition that ties one to the future. He dropped his concern with the past and future so that he could devote himself to the empirical. When he leaves one job his so-called friends “had a group photograph taken and presented him with a silver cigarette case, and he set off to assume his new position” (52). No mention is made of Ivan’s emotional history with these people; the only concern here is physical objects. Contributing to this temporal narrowing is the vane sense of social standing that is disconnected from moral ideas about social relations and instead concerned with the immediate impact of these social relations. Among those temporal diseases that Morson catalogues, Ivan’s obsession is closest to the “Isolated Present,” where “the present may grow so intense that it almost banishes both memory and anticipation” (201). Unlike the diseased whom Morson categorizes – George Mead or even Aleksey Ivanovich in Dostoevsky’s The Gambler – Ivan never thinks to justify his approach. Instead he seems to have a blasé faith that the past has no significance and the future holds little worth thinking about. This laissez-faire attitude toward time is indicted, in the end, as “senseless and disgusting ” (120). For most of the novel, the attitude of the narrator stands in stark contrast to the attitude of Ivan and his comrades. In the first line of the second chapter, the narrative calls Ivan’s life “horrifying,” an immediate criticism of Ivan’s capitulation to sensuality and vanity. The narrator’s explicit disagreement with the vanity of Ivan’s life emerges when, soon after calling Ivan’s life horrifying, he calls Ivan’s father a “superfluous member of various superfluous institutions” (49); obviously not a view shared by Ivan’s father, or Ivan, who followed in his father’s footsteps. Throughout Ivan’s story, the narrator reminds us of his disagreement with the sensual, vain attitude of the characters; when Ivan is in the afterglow of building his beautiful house, the narrator reminds us that: “In actuality, it was like the homes of all people who are not really rich but who want to look rich, and therefore end up looking like one another” (66).But the essence of the narrator’s attitude lies not in how the narrator disagrees with Ivan’s view of life, but rather what the narrator affirms through the temporally open structure he creates. If we assume that the moment of narration is just after Ivan’s death, the entire novel, after the first chapter, is a completing analepses. The first moments of the second chapter, where there are a number of prolepses of different reach, is particularly temporally autonomous. Beginning with the near-reachable analepses that Ivan “died at the age of forty-five,” the narrator quickly jumps back to Ivan’s father, his superfluous positions already mentioned, and his three sons. This far-reaching analepses allows us to understand the family and childhood out of which Ivan emerged – forces us to see Ivan as emerging from a past. Immediately after this far-reaching analepses, and before entering Ivan’s young adulthood, the narrator provides a very short reaching analepses, where he discusses what Ivan became in his later life; “one strict to carry out whatever he considered his duty,” along with the more scathing criticism of his “sensuality and vanity” (50). Before entering an analepses of intermediate-reach – the bulk of Ivan’s life – the narrator provides an analepses on either side, to make the reader aware of what Ivan came from, and what he is heading toward. The structure of this second chapter points to a different conception of time than Ivan’s – one in which the past and future do matter. The narrator does not allow us to see Ivan as a temporally isolated figure, as Ivan himself does. For most of the rest of the novel, the narrator follows Ivan’s life from young adulthood, and the narrative supplies its own past. We see events leading to other events, in a very clumsy sort of duration – not the type of duration that Bergson would have wanted, but better than viewing events as entirely isolated. In providing these past and future events the narrator does not express a deterministic view of time, but he does provide a sense of consequence for Ivan’s actions, that Ivan himself is missing. Like almost all the peripheral characters in the novel, those in the first chapter – actually an epilogue to the rest of the story – share Ivan’s diseased view of time – banishing emotion to focus on vain, immediate concerns. When Ivan’s colleagues hear about Ivan’s death, the first response to the news, by Vasilyevich is, “Now I’m sure to get Shtabel’s post” (36). The word “now” points to the temporal position of the thoughts of these characters. But unlike in the rest of the novel, in this first chapter the narrator shares the diseased view of time. This is first apparent through the lack of dissent in the wake of the comments of Vasilevich and other like-minded men. In the entire chapter the narrator provides nary a word of criticism of these characters. While the narrator never explicitly affirms their ideas about time, in the micronarrative the narrator does adopt the characters closed view of time, by almost never referring to the past or future. Though he does delve into the past for a moment early in the chapter, when he relates that “Ilyich had been a colleague of the gentlemen assembled here . . . He had been ill for some weeks” (35), this is really only said as a preface for understanding the job vacancy that is open for the other men in the law courts. There is also one prolepses, where the narrator asserts his grasp on time outside of the immediate present, when predicting that “Pyotr Ivanovich was not destined to play cards that evening” (40). But this anomalous prolepses (not least of all because it is wrong – he does end up playing cards that night – a curious fact that I will leave alone), only opens up a moment immediately after the present one – that could be considered part of the extended present. These brief references to the past and future that the narrator does make serve as important signals that the narrator does have the power to refer to moments outside of the present, but has decided not to.As in Ivan’s own life, the abandonment of past and future leads to a narrative focus on the empirical and immediate. The narrator follows Pyotr Ivanovich, and we learn that “Pyotr Ivanovich stepped aside to let the ladies pass and slowly followed them up the stairs,” and “Pyotr Ivanovich went in bewildered, as people invariably are, about what he was expected to do there,” and sees “an old woman was standing motionless,” and smells the “faint odor of decomposition” (38-9). The narrator tells us nothing about Pyotr’s past experience at funerals, or the past experience of anyone Pyotr encounters. Only the immediate empirical facts are given.This leads to a shared conception of Ivan in the narrative and the story in strictly present terms: an abandoned post and a dead corpse. There are a few isolated moments where the characters themselves consider Ivan’s past – Ivan’s wife recalls his suffering – but even these details are given “strictly in terms of their unnerving effect upon Praskovya” (45). As a result Ivan is transformed into a set of empirical datum, a stinking corpse with “rigid limbs” a “yellow waxen forehead,” and “protruding nose” (39). This dead man, lying in his coffin, becomes the representative figure of the chapter – he has no past and no future (there is reference to a “church reader”, but none of the familiar talk about the deceased going to a better place) – he is a static form.The macronarrative too, is complicit in presenting an isolated view of time. Four small scenes are covered in the chapter: the revelation of Ivan’s death in the Law Courts; Pyotr at home with his wife, Pyotr at the funeral, and Pyotr at the card game. These are the events of a completely isolated afternoon and evening. Neither the character nor the narrator makes reference to a substantial time outside of this afternoon, except the few references to Ivan’s suffering, considered only for their relevance in the present. The single prolepses already mentioned – the only example of the narrator inserting a time outside of the immediate moment of narration – refers temporally, from the funeral to the card game, merely a reference to another part of the isolated day under consideration. The chapter thus isolates the reader in a single day, becoming a structural representation of the “Isolated Present.” Nearly all of the evidence for the narrator’s attitude in this first chapter is negative evidence – what the narrator did not do. But almost as soon as the narrator uses the word “horrifying” at the beginning of the second chapter, the closed attitude of the narrator in the first chapter is visible by contrast. The congruency between the narrative and the story in the first chapter is anomalous in more than just this novel. Morson noted that in Tolstoy’s novels, the author frequently exploited a “character who believes in closed time,” like Ivan, by setting him “in a novel based on open time” (10). This is exactly what Tolstoy does in the latter chapters by setting Ivan’s life (a character who believes in closed time) against the open attitude of the narrative (roughly what Morson refers to as the “novel”). Morson implies that Tolstoy creates this juxtaposition between story and narrative in all of his novels. But this juxtaposition is, of course, absent in the first chapter of Ivan Ilyich, where the narrative shows the same despised attitude toward time as the character. This anomalous first chapter is best explained by Tolstoy’s desire to not only tell, but show this diseased view of time – as the Jamesians distinguished between these two narrative acts (Genette 161). It’s easy for Tolstoy’s narrator to tell us about Ivan’s laissez-faire attitude toward time – about Ivan’s sensuality, and abandonment of friendship – and the narrator can do something that is almost shows this attitude by describing Ivan’s actions. But this later act would be, at best illusional. As Genette says, it is impossible to really show something, all one can do is “tell it in a manner which is detailed, precise, alive,’ and in that way give more or less the illusion of mimesis” (164). Genette is right about objects – no amount of words will ever recreate an object–and similarly Tolstoy could not truly show or recreate Ivan, with or without attitude. But, to reconsider Genette’s statement, when the thing you are trying to show is an attitude – something that is constructed of words – than the narrative does have the potential to truly show this, by assuming the attitude itself. In the rest of the book, when the narrator is “telling” us about Ivan’s problem, it is easy for the reader to use his distant stance to toss of Ivan’s problem as an easily identifiable one. But before we are allowed to enter this simple condemnation of Ivan, Tolstoy forces us, unwittingly, to view the world through a similarly closed mindset. This allows the reader to feel the visceral results of this mindset. We enter the chapter confronted by the specter of a dead man, but never have to confront the idea of death because the deluge of empirical details numbs our emotions. We are like Pyotr Ivanovich whose emotions are “chilled” at the funeral by the quotidian task of fixing a broken ottoman (42). But we are also allowed to see how apparently innocuous this attitude is from the inside – there is no immediately apparent harm done by the narrator’s perspective in the first chapter. By allowing the reader to feel this, Tolstoy shows the reader that this is frequently an unidentified problem that we all fall into, and not one that we should easily ignore in ourselves.
The Death of Ivan Ilych is more than a novella about death: it is a text dedicated to life. Leo Tolstoy diligently paints an accurate portrait of the 19th century middle class and everything that is wrong with the philosophy of life of the people during the time. Establishing a rather simple and seemingly mundane plot with not much action, Tolstoy manages to touch a number of sensitive topics and major problems of middle-class society in a very subtle, yet skillful and clever way. The main character in the novella, Ivan Ilych, is the embodiment of the average man who strives to grow and secure his position in the middle class, building his whole life based on illusions, at the cost of his happiness and his family. Ivan’s life passes him by while he is too busy living up to society’s expectations and chasing after his superficial and preposterous goal, completely oblivious to what the true meaning of life is.
Ivan Ilych dedicates his whole life to please those that are “most highly placed” (Tolstoy 13) and thus to ascend in middle class society. His obsession starts developing during his boyhood and manages to take a toll on his entire life, affecting his philosophy on life, relationships and even his perception of happiness. “Neither as a boy nor as a man was he a toady, but from early youth was by nature attracted to people of high station as a fly is drawn to the light, assimilating their ways and views of life and establishing friendly relations with them” (Tolstoy 9). The author makes a very strong point by giving an account of the early development of Ivan’s ambition. From his teenage years, Ivan has been subservient to his superficial goal. It is a part of his nature and he cannot help the way he is. Tolstoy, furthermore, makes very clever use of the comparison of Ivan’s ambition to the way “a fly is drawn to the light”. He condemns Ivan’s aspirations as mindless efforts, which inevitably lead to his doom. Ivan Ilych is willing to do whatever it takes for the sake of reaching his goal, no matter if it is wicked or blameworthy. At school he had done things which had formerly seemed to him very horrid and made him feel disgusted with himself when he did them; but when later on he saw that such actions were done by people of good position and that they did not regard them as wrong, he was able not exactly to regard them as right, but to forget about them entirely or not be at all troubled at remembering them. (Tolstoy 9) Although Ivan instinctively regarded these deeds as wrong and even conflicting with his own understanding of life and appropriateness, the fact that the people amongst whom he aspires to be do not condemn them but, in fact, seem to encourage them, serve to justify the wrong of the situations. Ivan is willing to abandon his morals and turn away from his “good-natured” (Tolstoy 9) character in order to conform with the false imagery of the middle class. He then goes on to arrange his whole life, including his family and house in order to fit in the norm of the middle class. Tolstoy skillfully manages to express the irony and pathetic nature of Ivan’s painstaking efforts to fit in middle class society in one sentence about Ivan’s dream house. In reality it was just what is usually seen in the houses of people of moderate means who want to appear rich, and therefore succeed only in resembling others like themselves: there are damasks, dark wood, plants, rugs, and dull and polished bronzes – all the things people of a certain class have in order to resemble other people of that class. (Tolstoy 19) Ivan puts so much effort into arranging his house in order to affect middle class society that the house ends up looking like all other middle class houses without any personal touch. His house is not a home, but simply a reflection of his superficial ambitions.
Ivan’s house is not the only thing in his life that was created without any personal touch or feelings. His whole family is created based on what society expects to see. Ivan marries, not out of love, but out of necessity, because he believes that he will be better accepted if he has a family. Tolstoy’s explanations of Ivan’s preparation for his married life put emphasis on the superficiality with which the whole situation is filled. “… so that Ivan Ilych had begun to think that marriage would not impair the easy, agreeable, gay and always decorous character of his life, approved of by society and regarded by himself as natural, but would even improve it” (Tolstoy 13). The lack of any words of affection regarding Ivan’s married life speaks volumes about how shallow this relationship is. He chooses his wife because she was good enough and a “well connected […] correct young woman” (Tolstoy 13). The author purposefully excludes any adjectives connected with love, but includes the strong presence of society in the private matters of Ivan’s “personal” life. In fact, Ivan’s personal life can be described with any other word but that one. It is built to bring joy to society, not to himself. It is created to add to the perfect façade, not to bring a sense of completeness or joy. It is meant to be exposed, not private. When his wife gets pregnant, Ivan does not experience any paternal feelings and unfortunately he does not develop them at any point of his life later on. He is only happy because he knows that society will approve of this step in his life. With the birth of their child, the attempts to feed it and the various failures in doing so, and with the real and imaginary illnesses of mother and child, in which Ivan Ilych’s sympathy was demanded but about which he understood nothing, the need of securing for himself an existence outside his family life became still more imperative. (Tolstoy 14) Ivan not only does not develop any sympathy or affection for his wife or children but he seems to be annoyed by the whole situation and their demand his for attention. He seeks refuge again in the layers of society. He has nothing in common with his children or with his wife. The only thing that brings the couple together is the arrangement of their home. Though there were some disputes between husband and wife, they were both so well satisfied and had so much to do that it all passed off without any serious quarrels. When nothing was left to arrange it became rather dull and something seemed to be lacking, but they were then making acquaintances, forming habits, and life was growing fuller. (Tolstoy 19) Home decorating is the only thing that husband and wife have in common. This is the only time in which they are not arguing because they are occupied with building the façade that will help them ascend in society. This broken relationship between husband and wife, and father and children affects his whole family and becomes mutual. Later on, when Ivan falls ill and needs people to feel pity and affection for him he realizes his grave mistake. He led his life estranged and not present as a father figure but merely a source of income to his children, and finally at the end of his life when he needs the presence of his family for support they treat him the way he has always treated them – as a burden.
Ivan’s ambitions ensured him a superficially pleasant and joyful life, but never a life of happiness. He is portrayed as a character who is completely oblivious to the real joys of life and is capable of experiencing only simple pleasure from mundane tasks. The pleasures connected with his work were pleasures of ambition; his social pleasures were those of vanity; but Ivan Ilych’s greatest pleasure was playing bridge. He acknowledged that whatever disagreeable incident happened in his life, the pleasure that beamed like a ray of light above everything else was to sit down to bridge with good players (Tolstoy 21) For Ivan the sources of happiness are achievements at work, superficial social interaction and games. Tolstoy gives the game of bridge such a sarcastic importance in the novella aiming at condemning Ivan’s shallow perception of life. Family has no place in Ivan’s idea of joy and happiness. Ivan’s happiness depends solely on his growth in the middle class and building fake appearances to please those who are above him. However, at the end of his life, Ivan finally is faced with the realization that his whole idea of happiness was a lie. When Ivan is isolated from society for the first time due to his illness, and for the first time becomes aware of his inner world he comes to a terrifying conclusion. “And in imagination he began to recall the best moments of his pleasant life. But strange to say none of those best moments of his pleasant life now seemed at all what they had then seemed – none of them except the first recollections of childhood” (Tolstoy 46). Ivan finally realizes that he has led a terribly unhappy life. At the very end of his life he comes to the conclusion that the only moment in which he experienced true happiness was during his childhood. During this period of his life he was carefree, not concerned with social norms of living up to society’s expectations, and this is where the beauty of life lies. To be able to live one’s life according to one’s own beliefs and needs is the best achievement in a person’s life. If one falls in the trap of pleasing someone even if it contradicts with one’s own outlook on life, morals, ideas and aspirations, his life loses meaning. Ivan’s inevitably approaching death caused him to realize that his whole life was deprived of any real purpose. “Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done,” it suddenly occurred to him. “But how could that be, when I did everything properly?” (Tolstoy 46). The reason for his meaningless and unhappy life lies in his complete ignorance of his own needs and beliefs for the purpose of superficial success. Even though the decides to ignore these thoughts and go back to his illusions in order to try to preserve his peace of mind, this tragic realization soundly affects his last living moments.
Leo Tolstoy portrays a complex but tragic image of middle class society in the 19th century. He shows a society of humans devoid of humanity, feelings, attachments or morals. People who exist but do not live. Their sole concern is to fit in and do what society expects them to do and deems appropriate regardless of their own beliefs or needs. People who strive for success and uniqueness, but waste their lives and end up being just like everybody else. A society built on falseness and appearances. The only positive character in Tolstoy’s novella ends up being the one no one expects to be – the servant, Gerasim. He, in contrast to everyone else, is the only one capable of truly experiencing life because he is the only one who takes pleasure in truth instead of false appearances. The beauty of Gerasim’s philosophy of life lies in that he finds joy in the simple every day things unlike the people surrounding him who are striving to live up to society’s expectations by focusing on acquiring wealth and purposeless items.
Ivan Ilych’s funeral, like all funerals, is not his own. While it is held in his honor, and he provides the token corpse for the occasion, each person experiences his funeral in the same self-centered way that they experience his death. Pyotr Ivanovich, one of Ivan Ilyich’s colleagues and closest friends, is no exception. Ivan Ilyich’s funeral is an undesirable trip across the river, and everything about the occasion makes him uncomfortable. When Pyotr arrives at the apartments, he is in no rush to get inside and see the neither the corpse nor Ilyich’s grieving family. Feigning chivalry but truly just dreading making an entrance, he “let the ladies go ahead of him and slowly followed them up the stairs” (41). When Pyotr sees Schwartz, another colleague of Ilyich’s, he assumes without speaking that Schwartz is hanging around in order to arrange a game of vint for the evening. This supposition is referred to as “obvious” (14). Though Death of Ivan Ilyich features a third person omniscient narrator, the narration often zooms in to give a more detailed and personal point of view of one of the characters. The narrator is also untrustworthy in the sense that what he states is not fact; it is fact as one character, Pyotr in this case, sees it. Pyotr, short of reading Schwartz’ mind, has no way of knowing that his intention in standing idly in one place is to arrange a game of cards. In this narration, we are given insight into a character’s head and shown by his assumption that it probably is Pyotr’s own intention to arrange a game. Pyotr is already planning his activities for after the funeral, leisurely and enjoyable ones which will distract him from the unpleasantness of the affair. All of Pyotr’s thoughts and actions reflect the larger human tendency that Tolstoy wants to convey, to be self-centered and uncomfortable at funerals.
As the ladies ascend the stairs, going to see “the widow” (41) it is Pyotr’s turn to go upstairs as well. Ivan’s wife is referred to by only the marital status he left her in, and likewise he is simply “the dead man” (41). These references to the deceased and his wife only further depersonalize the act of dying. When you die, you lose your individual identity and are reduced to yet another dead man, and your wife yet another widow. This makes the way that others engage with your death less personal; they are attending a funeral, like all others. Only Schwartz seems to be able to openly act towards the funeral in way that such a trite ritual deserves. Upon Pyotr’s ascension up the stairs, “Schwartz, with seriously compressed, firm lips and a playful glance, moved his eyebrows to show Pyotr Ivanovich to the right, to the dead man’s room” (41). The majority of Schwartz’ facial muscles pay the appropriate and expected respect to the dead man, but his eyes give away his secret. He is enjoying the whole charade, and wants to draw Pyotr into his insider experience. At least, this is the way that Pyotr perceives it. It is nearly impossible for one to move their eyebrow muscles sideways in the suggestive manner described in the passage, so this act of Schwartz may just be another time that his actions mirror Pyotr’s internal impressions of the funeral. Pyotr may be imagining Schwartz as his accomplice at the funeral, in not taking it seriously and only really wanting to play vint, as a way to justify the feelings that he assumes are wrong but that really all people feel at a funeral.
Once Pyotr enters the room, there is nobody to give him playful hints for how to act. He “went in, as always happens, with some perplexity about what he was to do there,” (41). The narrator makes a more direct claim here about how people always feel when attending a funeral; it is a forced occasion with an assumed prescribed way of acting, but nobody knows exactly how they should act. Comically, as many people do, Pyotr reverts to religious activity in the face of his uncertainty over how to proceed. He crosses himself, because he knew only that “crossing oneself on such occasions never did any harm” (41). Religious observance is perhaps the one type of activity that always feels at home at a funeral. Pyotr’s crossing of himself doesn’t seem to come from any genuine place of deep spiritual feeling, such as believing that it serves his dead friend. As he also begins to bow halfway, unsure of if it is the couth thing to do but feeling some obligation, Pyotr begins to people watch around him “insofar as his moving hand and head allowed him” (41). Pyotr, feeling out of place, looks again to others for how to act at the funeral. He cannot do this openly, because that would mean ceasing his crossing and bowing activity, and simply looking around at others gives no impression of respectful morning. Pyotr observes young men also crossing themselves, and though they probably feel just as lost as him, the sight is a comforting affirmation that he chose the correct behavior.
Pyotr is only jolted from his observances of others’ behavior when he sees Gerasim sprinkle something on the floor and he “at once sensed a slight smell of decaying corpse” (41). This is the first time that Pyotr is reminded of why he is in the room; there is dead body present, this is a funeral. Gerasim sprinkling a substance, presumably some sort of cleaning agent, doesn’t actually cause Pyotr to smell the corpse, he simply is reminded of the situation he is in and begins to imagine the disgusting decaying body that awaits his visit. Pyotr, after having thought of the corpse and Gerasim during Ivan’s life, “kept crossing himself and bowing slightly in the intermediary direction between the coffin, the reader, and the icons…when this movement of crossing himself seemed to have gone on too long, he stopped and began to examine the dead man” (42). This image of Pyotr doing what he thinks is correct, crossing himself in the general direction of the objects that Ilyich’s family believed were correct to place at a funeral shows the hilariously arbitrary customs of a funeral. The image serves to reinforce the idea that at a funeral people are simply acting as they believe is the correct way. The funeral, at least as Ilyich’s guests experience it, is not a personalized mourning process that serves neither the mourners nor the mourned. Pyot had just remembered a scene during Ivan Ilyich’s life involving Gerasim, a memory which referred to Ilyich by name. However Pyotr only views him as “the dead man” when approaching the body. This switch in Ivan’s identity, which takes place in the mind of one of his closest friends, reinforces further the depersonalization of one’s life in death.
Ivanovich taking in the physical appearance of the corpse offers a view that doesn’t differ from any other funeral. Ilyich is once again stripped of his personal name; “the dead man lay, as dead man always lie, with a peculiar heaviness, dead-man fashion…displaying, as dead men always do, his yellow, waxen forehead with the hair brushed forward on his sunken temples” (42). It is expected that Pyotr, upon seeing the corpse of his dead friend for the first time, would experience some remarkable emotion. To Pyotr, however, Ivan’s corpse is simply another dead man. He doesn’t think of Ilyich in the context of his individual identity, and his name is not referenced again for the rest of the selected passage. Though it is evident that Pyotr’s experience of Ivan’s funeral is mostly self-centered, it doesn’t make Pyotr necessarily a bad person or bad friend. With the repetition of “always” when describing the dead man and the funeral, the narrator conveys that this way of experiencing the dead and the funeral is inherent, and not a product of Pyotr caring particularly little about his Ivan. Besides, mourning for the dead may be futile, as they are not necessarily worse off than they were in life.
While Pyotr observes that Ilyich looks thinner than he did at their last visit, “as with all dead people, his face was more handsome, and above all more significant, than it has been in the living man. There was on his face the expression that what needed to be done had been done, and done rightly” (42). Ivan actually looks better to Pyotr than he did in life, and gives Pyotr the impression of being at peace with what he did and accomplished in life. Those who have read the entirety of The Death of Ivan Ilyich and know that Ivan lead a largely unhappy life, and only in dying found peace and happiness. Death, then, can serve as the ultimate reprieve to the series of miseries in life, and salvation from the preoccupations of life. For Ivan, these preoccupations came in the form of dreams of advancement and trying to avoid his family members. Upon looking at Ilyich, Pyotr can see that he is in a better state, and the generalization of “as with all dead people” reinforces that this is a circumstance of death and not a special case reserved for Ivan. This provides another reason that the concept of a funeral is ridiculous; not only do people feel uncomfortable and focus solely on themselves at a funeral, there’s actually no reason to mourn because people are, as Ivan clearly is, absolved of their burdensome lives in death.Even upon viewing the corpse, Pyotr cannot bring himself to confront the negative feelings associated with death. After taking in Ivan’s appearance of calm and comfort he feels that, “there was also in that expression a reproach or a reminder to the living. This reminder seemed out of place to Pyotr Ivanovich, or at least of no concern to him. Something felt unpleasant to him, and therefore Pyotr Ivanovich crossed himself…turned and went out the door” (42). Pyotr’s initial observations had been centered on the dead man’s appearance. Once he sensed a “reminder to the living,” however, a way that the dead man somehow connected or communicated to those still alive, he hated it. This conveys the idea that the living are unable to conceive of dying, and when the dead man, who Pyotr feels little personal connection to, is providing some sort of advice to the living, he instantly feels quite uncomfortable. The reminder may have been that this fate, being a semi-anonymous corpse at a funeral, is the fate that awaits us all. Either way, messages from the dead are “of no concern” to Pyotr because he doesn’t want to hear them, and doesn’t want to focus on this death at all, for that is unpleasant. The thought is enough to make him leave, but not without observing the correct process by crossing himself on the way out.
Pyotr meets Schwartz on his way out of the room, and this is no accident. Schwartz is found “playing with his top hat behind his back,” (42). Always focused on playing games and seeming completely unfazed by the death, beyond mirroring Pyotr’s internal desires, Schwartz serves as a symbol for life in the story. Though he is being somewhat respectful, not openly playing with his hat, he refuses to have his spirit quelled. It makes sense, then, that after the uncomfortable encounter with the reality of death that Pyotr just experienced, “one glance at Schwartz’ playful, clean and elegant figure refreshed Pyotr Ivanovich” (42). Schwartz embodies the death-denying vitality that cannot even fathom coming to an end, and so encourages living in the moment and revelling in pleasures. Pyotr feels that “Schwartz was above it all and would not succumb to depressing impressions. His look alone said: the incident of the funeral…could in no way serve as a sufficient motive for considering the order of the session disrupted,” (42). They would indeed be cracking open a new deck of cards that evening. It is again unclear how much of Schwartz’ character is merely a projection of Pyotr’s inner feelings, in this case those about life. Either way, the aspect of human nature that cannot coexist with death is present. However, the fact that Pyotr’s mind and impressions keep returning to vint is more a sign that he is obsessed with the prospect of playing than that Schwartz is. Schwartz’ hasn’t yet made any verbal affirmation that they will be meeting for cards that evening, Pyotr is judging based off of Schwartz’ general spirit and what he projects it to mean based on his own desires. The way that Pyotr interacts with Schwartz is the way that we all interact with life; we see it meaning what most closely matches our desires. Schwartz never entered the room with the body in it, as life cannot comprehend, much less come in contact with or accept, death.
A funeral is a dreaded occasion, but ought not to be. One dreads attending funerals of friends and loved ones, and upon arrival at a funeral, it is impossible to think of the dead body as the same person that they used to know. Humans dread their own funerals, when they let their minds confront the uncomfortable idea of them, though this isn’t often. This passage from The Death of Ivan Ilyich proposes that the funeral is a ridiculous occasion because people are too uncomfortable and self-centered to mourn, and the dead don’t need mourning anyways. Ivan is the most at peace he’s ever appeared in death. Schwartz, the ultimate symbol of life, seems to be the only one who accepts that the funeral is completely useless, and he makes no effort to even pretend to go through the stages of mourning, only moves ahead with his own life. The passage overall gives an optimistic account of life, one that cannot be touched by death and one which we ought to live without preoccupation of death.
Even the title of Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich oozes themes of death and dying, but what makes this piece of writing one of extraordinary kinds, is not simply the descriptive way in which it depicts the process of death and dying for those who are ill, but the novella further creates a space for introspection and philosophizing, where the reader can begin to analyze the underlying themes. One theme in particular, is death, but strongly connected to this central theme, is the further descriptions of denial and how it impacts the way in which Ivan Ilyich and his family live out the final days leading up to his passing. Losing a loved one is never easy – watching them go through the process of death is that much more difficult, and there are many ways in which one can go about confronting the fact of the matter. Some research shows that accepting death and stepping away from the urges to deny the undeniable, may actually be in benefit to not only the family, friends and loved ones of the dying individual, but also it may make the difficult passing of an individual easier for themselves. Perhaps, had Ivan’s family been more accepting of his dying process, Ilyich may have felt his final days were of greater meaning, spending these moments connecting deeper with his loved ones, rather than suffering practically alone in pain. Acceptance of death, rather than denying its inevitable forthcoming, could be the answer as to how one can continue to live their lives meaningfully, even down to their very last breaths.
Ivan Ilyich spends his life doing all he can to bring about a good life, the type of existence that society tells him will bring happiness. He gets married because those esteemed figures around him believe it is the right thing to do, even though he grows to detest his wife in the end (Tolstoy 28). He develops “an attitude towards married life” that was only there for the domestic conveniences, such as having his dinner made and a housewife to clean up after him (Tolstoy 30). Ivan becomes quite formal towards his family, in order to avoid his wife’s emotions and “disagreeable moods”, doing so by diving deeper into his official position and work life (Tolstoy 29). Ivan, however, just like all humans, is changing and transforming, but he is still a human. Tolstoy believed, “Люди как реки: вода во всех одинаковая и везде одна и та же, но каждая река бывает то узкая, то быстрая, то широкая, то тихая, то чистая, то холодная, то мутная, то теплая. Так и люди”, which may have served as the author’s reasoning for including the various glimpses of personality changes that Ivan presents to readers (Tolstoy, Воскресение 175). It is not until his final moments that Ivan begins to recognize how the life he had been living may have all been some type of societal driven show. In some ways, the end of Ivan’s life reveals to him how he had been living an inauthentic life. The existence of this denial theme does not just begin at the moment Ivan becomes ill, throughout his healthy years he also appears to be resistant of actual reality.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich is filled with examples of denial, strongly exemplified by the way in which Ivan’s wife and daughter refuse to believe that he is dying, and rather continue to refer to him as sick, assuming he may recover (Tolstoy 82). The narrator expresses, “What tormented Ivan… the most was the deception, the lie, which for some reason they all accepted, that he was not dying but was simply ill” (Tolstoy 82). In reality, it maybe could have been of benefit to Ivan and his family to deal with the emotions of his impending death in a more accepting manner, for this might have made his final days that much more comfortable and filled with less internal pain or shame of dying. At one point the narrator even states, “This falsity around him and within him did more than anything else to poison his last days” (Tolstoy 85).
In “Beyond Terror and Denial: The Positive Psychology of Death”, Wong and Tomer explain some of the challenges with avoiding to accept death as a reality, stating, “The problem with death denial is that no matter how hard we try to suppress and repress death awareness, anxiety about our demise can still manifest itself in a variety of symptoms…Another problem with death denial is that it is doomed to fail” (100). Furthermore, Wong and Tomer even go as far as to encourage psychologists to place more importance on working through the dying process as one of acceptance, claiming that,“Through an increased understanding of death acceptance we may learn to treat each other with respect and compassion” (101). Boyraz et al. states, “An individual’s beliefs and attitudes toward death may also affect the bereavement process. People start to develop beliefs and attitudes toward death starting at an early age and these attitudes and beliefs may affect many areas of their lives, including attitudes toward life” (1). Simply the way in which Ivan claims “death is finished” during his final moments, shows the intensity of his discomfort during the dying process. There is a possibility that, had his family treated him with the same type of care and realness that his caretaker Geraism did, he may have experienced greater levels of comfort and positive human connection towards the end (Tolstoy 96, 121).
Throughout The Death of Ivan Ilyich, the various family members and Ivan himself experience what some experts would term “suspended open awareness”. During this type of awareness, “the patient or family member blocks out the information that has been provided about the terminal condition. It is as if the disclosure never happened. The relative or patient is in a state of disbelief” (Timmermans 330). This definition of this type of coping mechanism is normally used when referring to terminal illness, at the moment it is revealed to a patient or the patient’s family, but in the case of Ivan, it is also applicable. Even though he was not necessarily diagnosed terminally, there were many clear signs, especially towards the end of his life, that death was most certainly inevitable. The way in which his pain and suffering continued to return no matter how much he fought off the thought of it meant for certain that the only way he could continue, was into deep decline, especially with the minimal medical technologies and understandings available during this time (Tolstoy 72). Discussing suspended death awareness, in general, is thought by many to be a taboo subject. Timmermans states, “impending death is a taboo subject. It has been broached once, but according to the reaction of the patient, there is an implicit understanding that the subject is not open to discussion” (331). This author further goes on to claim that this type of death awareness can be detrimental to the patient and also to those who are around, for it does not allow assistants or medical staff who are involved in the transitional passing to be as prepared as possible for the impending death. “This awareness context forces secrecy on the interaction between the patient and the medical team”, with the term medical team in Ivan’s case being his nurse Geraism, who very much has a discreet and personal connection with Ivan that the dying man does not seem to be able to share with his own family (Timmermans 331, 332).
Another method of death awareness, known as “active open awareness”, seems to be a sometimes more beneficial direction to take when dealing with death acceptance, but certainly during Ivan’s time not many followed this practice, because research on its positives certainly did not exist during the year of Ivan Ilyich’s death. In this form of death awareness, “…the patient and family members understand the full implications of the impending death and try in one way or another to come to terms with it. The patient no longer hopes for a recovery” (Timmermans 334). The choice to confront the reality of impending death, rather than ignoring or denying generates a circumstance in which, “patients and family members can find rest in reflecting on their own lives, in optimizing the last days, weeks or months together” (Timmermans 334). Had Ivan been in a 21st century hospital situation, the institution would have likely chosen to implement the practices of active open awareness, because this is commonly the standard in the Western world, due to its recognized benefits, with some psychologists even believing this type of practice is a “better way to die” (Timmermans 335).
“Thinking about death is not pleasant. When given a choice to actively contemplate mortality or to deny death altogether, most individuals would likely choose the latter option. Despite our best efforts to defy the mortal consequences of tomorrow, however, thoughts of death are as inevitable as death itself”, states Cozzolino et al. (3). These researchers that published their findings in a Death Studies publication, conducted an experiment to grasp a better understanding on how death denial and avoidance impacts the quality of life an individual can live. A research experiment, conducted upon 185 participants enrolled in introductory psychology courses at California State University, Sacramento, presented a list of measures, in which participants answered questions. These measures involved Death Fear and Denial, Social Desirability, Positive Components of the Self, Self-Concept Clarity, Locus of Control, Self-Esteem, Self-realization, and Existential Well-Being. Their findings showed, “…low levels of death denial and low levels of death fear significantly predicted an enhanced sense of self, at least as assessed via measures of self-esteem, self-concept clarity, locus of control, self-realization, and existential well-being” (Cozzolino et al. 9). These results express, “…the potential for psychological growth and enhanced meaning in life that individuals can find as a result of confronting death”, which is congruent with the other evidence mentioned previously, which also supports this notion that the absence of denying death is actually what can allow humans to live their most content lives, albeit an uncomfortable undertaking (Cozzolino et al. 9).
There is nothing comfortable about realizing that every individual will one day pass, but for Ivan Ilyich, the experience of death may have been even more extreme and painful, solely due to how he saw himself, along with the way in which he, as well as his family, repeatedly denied his impending death, even though it starred at them directly. Significant research shows that death awareness and confrontation is the way to go, and although the perspective Tolstoy takes in Death of Ivan Ilyich, that which could be defined as suspended open awareness, provides the reader will the full spectrum of human emotions, it may not have been the healthiest choice in actuality. This well-rounded perspective does offer a glimpse into a tragic chain of events, which is no surprise for a piece of literature produced by a well-recognized Russian writer, (many Russian writers wrote about more tragic subject matter). Seeing Ivan’s gruesome perspective and deep denial is, certainly, educational, but it still leaves the question of what if Ivan, along with his family, had chosen to confront death in healthier ways – what if the knowledge that Western medicine and psychology now has today was recognized back then? Research seems to point at the idea that, had Ivan Ilyich had the information, or the wherewithal to choose the path of active open awareness, he may have found his process of passing to be much more tolerable, and ultimately this death acceptance could have led to happier moments and a greater sense of ease throughout his final days, instead of the deep suffering, pain, and regret that he ended up facing, until he met his inevitable fate.
Boyraz, Güler, et al. “Accepting Death as Part of Life: Meaning in Life as a Means for Dealing With Loss Among Bereaved Individuals.” Death Studies, vol. 39, no. 1, Jan. 2015, pp.1–11. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/07481187.2013.878767.
Cozzolino, Philip J., et al. “Self-Related Consequences of Death Fear and Death Denial.” Death Studies, vol. 38, no. 6, 2013, pp. 418-422, dx.doi.org/10.1080/07481187.2013.780110. Accessed 21 Dec. 2018.
Timmermans, Stefan. “Dying of awareness: the theory of awareness contexts revisited.” Sociology of Health and Illness, vol. 16, no. 3, 1994, pp. 322-339, onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/14679566. Accessed 19 Dec. 2018.
Tolstoy, Leo N. The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Kindle, Fair Price Classics, 2010.
Толстой, Лев. Воскресение. Moskva: Художественная литература, 1978.
Wong, Paul T. P., and Adrian Tomer. “Beyond Terror and Denial: The Positive Psychology of Death Acceptance.” Death Studies, vol. 35, no. 2, Feb. 2011, pp. 99–106. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/07481187.2011.535377.