Death Of Ivan Illych By Tolstoi Essay

, Research Paper

Leo Tolstoi the author of the short story "The Death of Ivan Ilych"

was born into wealthy family in Russia. Tolstoi became tired of going to school

and bettering himself so he dropped out of Kazan University. Despite societies

pressures he opened up a school for lower class children. Leo Tolstoi became

very successful in his profession as a novelist but was for some reason unhappy

with his life. He then gave away all his land and book royalties and started

living a peasants life. "The Death of Ivan Ilych" is about a man’s

realization of the meaninglessness of his existence in light of his impending

death. By all external definitions, Ivan’s life was the picture of success. He

had risen to the top of his profession; he had married an attractive and

well-thought of woman; and he seemed to be satisfied with the pleasantness of it

all. Yet under this exterior, his life was empty, hollow, and completely

motivated by worldly trappings. Other people’s expectations dominated Ivan’s

life. He had to do what was proper. He went into the law, took a good job, and

could even rationalize his carousing because everybody said that that was what

young people did. It is also interesting to note that many of Ivan’s

rationalizations come in the form of French phrases. He needs to be part of that

upper class, regardless of the personal cost. He continually seeks out higher

wages and better jobs to keep pace with his cost of living. Paring down his

living expenses is not a viable option. In addition to this driving need to

"be somebody" in the social and financial world, Ivan has a propensity

to run away from his problems at home. It is unclear in the story what brings on

his wife’s change of heart and mood, but she starts to nag and complain. It

starts during her pregnancy and never stops. She was quite the catch when Ivan

married her, although Ivan may never have really been in love with her. Rather,

he seems to marry her out of some social convenience and a careless "why

not?" attitude. But to her defense, how could you not turn into her after

living with the coldness and emptiness of Ivan for so long? In any case, she

emerges from the birth and subsequent births a nagging, self-centered, and

spoiled bitch. This new negative force in Ivan’s life disrupts his quietude, so

he retreats further back into his work and his petty life of cards and false

friends. It would destroy him to confront his problems at home because that

would lead him to a detestable re-evaluation of the self. Ivan is not the only

one with the identity problems, however; his co-workers seem to be no better

off. They are represented by Peter who has been a life long "friend"

of Ivan’s. The story opens with Ivan’s former colleagues who read about the news

of his death in the paper. Although they all knew him well, they can barely

muster a word of shock or remorse at his passing. "Besides considerations

as to the possible transfers and promotions likely to result from Ivan Ilych’s

death, the mere fact of the death of a near acquaintance aroused, as usual, in

all who heard of it the complacent feeling that "it is he who is dead and

not I."" Their thoughts turn to promotions and the fact that they are

glad that it is Ivan who is dead and not them. In a mere three lines, the

conversation steers away from Ivan to banter about living outside of town. Peter

is the only one who decides to go to the funeral — solely because he feels

"obligated" to go. Tolstoi makes a point of reminding us that Peter

would have to forgo his afternoon nap to attend the services. None of these

people give a damn about Ivan, presumably as Ivan didn’t give a damn about them.

This opening scene lays down a powerful and provocative framework for the story.

The scene at the funeral is equally telling. Instead of mourning, Peter concerns

himself only with the gestures of mourning: what signs he should be making, when

he should bow, and what he should say. He is not the only one guilty of this

crime, though. Ivan’s wife is more concerned with financial matters than the

grief over her husband. In a darkly comic scene, she confronts Peter about ways

she can get more money from the government, while absurdly faking like she is

choking back her tears. All of this transpires while Peter is wrestling with the

pouffe springs below him, saying "believe me." Neither Peter nor

Ivan’s wife appears to be concerned with anything but their own immediate

future. Even the leader of the service seems to be hiding some insecurity as she

booms out some unfeeling prayers. The only one in the entire service who seems

to be grieving is Ivan’s son. Yet he seems to be embarrassed by his grief, as he

looks "shamed facedly" at Peter like someone with impure thoughts. The

irony lies in the fact that he is probably the only one with anything close to

pure thoughts. Ivan’s life takes a sudden turn as he starts to feel the ill

effects of his curtain-hanging accident. He tries to forget about it as long as

he can by moving on with his pleasant and appropriate life. What drives him to

his realization, though, is the attitude of the others toward his illness. The

doctors assess him in their cold, pompous manner. They care more about their

abstract diagnoses than about Ivan’s personal pain. Tolstoi makes direct analogy

between Ivan’s cold, impersonal approach to law and the doctors’ callous and

unsympathetic bedside manner. This is the first step to Ivan’s realization. His

family is equally unresponsive to his pain. Their personal misfortune and

inconvenience dominate their feelings. As Ivan falls deeper into sickness, he

falls deeper into despair. He finally realizes the emptiness and unimportance of

his life. He curses the curtains — the symbol of his vanity — which killed

him. He retreats from his family, wanting only Gerasim for comfort. He cannot

deny the pain of his sickness or his failed life any longer. He finds

enlightenment right before his death. He comes to the conclusion that his death

is meaningless and worth nothing since his life was meaningless and worth

nothing. "The Death of Ivan Ilych" is about how people get so caught

up in trying to live the way society tells them too.


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