Though ‘‘The Death of Ivan Ilych’’ is an affective text which is still read with enthusiasm today, there are some difficulties which contemporary readers may have with Tolstoy’s novella. The character of Ivan Ilych and the shallowness of his colleagues and wife are haunting for any reader. They come alive in their superficiality and their mundane worries. In many ways, these characters can be seen as the norm in our society when viewed through a pessimistic lens. However, Tolstoy does supply his readers with a few minor exceptions among the majority of pathetic characters. It is important to note that Ivan Ilych is depicted as being equally shallow and thoughtless in his ‘‘agreeable, easy, and correct’’ life, of which the reader is informed after reading of his death in the opening sketch. The extreme pervasiveness of characters who are primarily concerned with propriety is interrupted by the introduction of Gerasim and Vladimir. These characters demonstrate deeper emotions than the others and are singled out as being the only characters able to show pity and kindness to Ivan Ilych in his last days of life.
Gerasim is the Russian peasant who acts as Ivan Ilych’s sick nurse as he is dying. Ivan Ilych takes much comfort in Gerasim’s presence and feels that his healthy and agile body gives him hope. While looking at Gerasim’s ‘‘sleepy, good-natured face with its prominent cheekbones,’’ Ivan Ilych meditates, ‘‘What if my whole life has really been wrong?’’ This is an example of Tolstoy’s often overly romantic and idealized portrait of Gerasim which can grow tiresome to readers who are constantly on the guard against such essentialistic characters. These pure characters frequently fail to be dynamic figures within a text, and merely become stereotypes of an idealized image. Critics have repeatedly noted Gerasim’s role in ‘‘The Death of Ivan Ilych’’; Edward Wasiolek sums up Gerasim’s character, ‘‘He breathes the health of youth and natural peasant life, lifts up the legs of the dying Ivan Ilych, cleans up after him with good humor, and in general shows him a kind of natural compassion.’’ Irving Halperin echoes these sentiments when he concludes, ‘‘because of Gerasim’s devotion, Ivan Ilych becomes capable of extending compassion to his wife and son. In this overall perspective, then, Gerasim may be viewed as the true hero of the story.’’ And another critic, Temira Pachmuss, asserts that Gerasim possesses ‘‘real humanity’’ since ‘‘Tolstoy thought the instinctive understanding of life and death that enabled Gerasim to do right naturally, to tell the truth, and to feel a deep sympathy for his fellow creatures was a result of Gerasim’s natural identification with nature.’’ The recurring portrayal of Gerasim as the healthy and simple Russian peasant, who has more compassion and understanding than all the other socially proper and therefore entirely empty and shallow characters, is often hard to accept because it is too easily interpreted as a black and white photo; these are the ‘‘good guys,’’ these are the ‘‘bad guys.’’ (It is also essentialistic in that it is like saying that all women understand nature because women are essentially bound to the earth and the body, or that African Americans naturally have ‘‘soul.’’)
This overly simplified and essentialistic stereotype is again found in Vladimir, Ivan Ilych’s son. Because Vladimir is a child, he is immediately assumed to be innocent and beyond the socially determined conventions of his mother, sister, and Ivan Ilych’s colleagues. This image is too simple, too easy. In such a hauntingly vivid depiction of death, it can be disappointing for a reader to encounter such one-dimensional characters who are supposed to carry heavily essentialistic ideologies: the rough Russian peasant who innately holds an understanding of death and love because...
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‘‘The Death of Ivan Ilych’’ was Tolstoy’s first published work after his conversion. It was written after almost a decade of immersion in theological reflection and writing, and indifference to the writing of fiction. More schematic and deliberate than the early tales, it is more pruned of descriptive and analytic detail. The density of circumstances is largely absent, and it reads like a distillation rather than a representation of life. Disdaining the verisimilitude that such density often confers upon an artistic work, Tolstoy makes his appeal by way of formulaic selection of essential detail. This gives the tale the air of a chronicle or parable. Such a manner could easily lead to abstract moralizing; yet, though the moralizing is there, the details and skeletal action have been so skillfully chosen that the distinctly uncontemporary mode of narration succeeds in an astonishing manner. There is, too, in ‘‘The Death of Ivan Ilych’’—as there will be in the tales that follow—a punishing quality about Tolstoy’s moral passion. He seems now more certain of the truth—more eager to castigate those who do not live by the truth. These are unpromising attitudes for the production of great art, but Tolstoy does not hesitate to express them. It must be remembered too that these are the years when Tolstoy’s views on the uselessness and perniciousness of Western art, his own included, are maturing. The passions for moral truth and pedagogy cannot overcome his art, but they themselves are conquered and turned to the purposes of great art. It is to the art that we must turn in order to see how this had been accomplished.
The art of ‘‘The Death of Ivan Ilych’’ has affected widely diverse audiences and lent itself to various modes of dissection. The story is great enough to support the weight of different critical perspectives. It has the ‘‘transparency’’ that Roland Barthes has put forth as a mark of the greatest works of literature, permitting us to speak about it with the different critical languages of time, place, and critical intelligence. The Freudians, for example, have had little to do with Ivan Ilych, and Tolstoy’s narrative manner as well as his philosophical convictions would seem to leave little terrain to work over. Tolstoy abjures ambiguity and symbolization; the intent of the narrative style is to lay everything out as clearly as possible. Nevertheless, Ivan Ilych’s life may be described as a system of determined evasions of love, human contact, and self-knowledge. Because he has arranged his life in a rigid, ritualistic manner, it is easily unhinged by unexpected events, however trivial. There is nothing of the flexibility of interaction with reality that is the mark of a healthy man for Freud. Freud spoke of ‘‘love and work’’ as the two qualities of the healthy person. But Ivan Ilych has never learned to love and never learned to love work. He follows his career— in his father’s footsteps—as one would a military campaign, with ramparts thrown up to keep him from contact with reality or human emotions, whether those of others or his own. It would take only a shift of vocabulary to see his rigidities and evasions as neurotic flight and defense. . . .
Before Tolstoy gives us the chronicle of Ivan Ilych’s life, he tells us what it was worth, how it should be judged. Irony is his weapon of judgment; we know immediately what we are supposed to be for or against. We are supposed to be against the predatory self-interest barely concealed beneath the routine expressions of condolence. The contrast between the conventional forms and private feeling is something Tolstoy has done many times before, but here he is doing a great deal more. The announcement of Ivan Ilych’s death comes in one of those respites from judicial labor that Ivan Ilych loved so much, as is commented on later in the novel—when he was able to smoke, drink tea, talk about politics, general topics and most of all about official appointments. That is, we learn about his death in a situation that recalls one of the pleasures he enjoyed while he was alive, and the scene is the first of a series of identifications by which the life of Ivan Ilych before and after death is compared and analogized. The opening scene which presents Ivan Ilych in death is at the same time a representation of his life.
Tolstoy meticulously re-creates in the opening scene the atmosphere, conditions, values, and modes of behavior by which Ivan Ilych had lived, and the recreation in dramatic form is a judgment on Ivan Ilych in death. Life as Ivan Ilych had lived goes on after he is dead. As Ivan had a passion for bridge, so Pyotr Ivanovich, weariedly performing the duty of paying respects to the dead, hurries away to meet the impish and impious Schwartz for a game of bridge. As Ivan Ilych had taken from Praskovya Fyodorovna only the conveniences of board and room, so Praskovya Fyodorovna in her tearful conversation with Pyotr Ivanovich reveals a predatory concern only with the monetary convenience she can gain from her husband’s death. Ivan Ilych had labored to furnish his house with whatnots, antiques, dishes and plates on the walls, and Tolstoy goes to the point—in his recreation of Ivan Ilych’s life—of drawing our attention to some of the commodities that had ruled his life and which continue to exist after his death. The room in which Pyotr Ivanovich talks to Praskovya Fyodorovna is filled with furniture and bric-a-brac that Ivan Ilych had collected. Pyotr Ivanovich’s attention is explicitly drawn to the upholstered furniture in pink cretonne that Ivan Ilych had consulted him about and to the antique clock that Ivan Ilych had liked so much.
As Ivan Ilych treated people before death, so they treat him after death. The ‘‘worth’’ of his colleagues was their capacity to advance his welfare and his pleasure, and the ‘‘worth’’ of Ivan Ilych in death is the opportunity his passing gives to others to advance their welfare and pleasure. He treated people impersonally and was indifferent to their vital interests. This was most evident in his relationship with his wife, with whom he talked at times only when a third person was present. She pays him back in death. We learn of his death in the opening scene by way of the formal obituary that Praskovya Fyodorovna has written, which Fyodor Vasilievich reads to his colleagues in the judicial chamber. The conventional expression of sorrow in the obituary is the precise correlative, in impersonality, of the actual emotions Praskovya Fyodorovna has toward her deceased husband. The items of description in this opening scene are a duplication of the kinds of feelings, human relationships, and objects in which Ivan Ilych had lived. Tolstoy is saying that Ivan Ilych’s life is the ironical factor in his death.
The dramatized beginning casts its shadow over the chronicle that follows. We know that Ivan Ilych’s life will be shallow, impersonal. The form of the narration that follows reinforces this judgment. Large blocks of Ivan Ilych’s life are expressed in a few paragraphs, and Tolstoy deliberately mixes matters of consequence and inconsequence so as to reduce all the events to a kind of undifferentiated triviality. He tells us, for example: ‘‘The preparaT tions for marriage and the beginning of married life, with its conjugal caresses, the new furniture, new crockery, and new linen, were very pleasant . . . ,’’ mixing love and furniture in similar grammatical form and brevity. Later, the death of two children is reported in a subordinate clause, while the main clauses are retained for an account of the father’s troubles.
The narration of the first seventeen years of Ivan Ilych’s married life—an accounting of moves, promotions, successes—reads like an inventory rather than a life. The sameness of the events makes it difficult to remember what is individual, signifi- cant, or striking. Events of a significant personal nature do appear in his life, but Ivan Ilych manages, by adhering closely to the proper and decorous rules of his society, to avoid them. During the first months of her pregnancy, Praskovya Fyodorovna interrupts the even course of properness and pleasantness by irrational bursts of jealousy,...
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[The] question may occur—why does the novel open with minor characters on-stage? To begin with, this structural arrangement is in accord with the protagonist’s ultimate discovery that the apparent end of human consciousness, death, is in reality the beginning of life. But, more important, if we first witness the actions of some people whose interests and values are very much like those that the dead man subscribed to, the typical values of average men in a quantitatively oriented society, we may more fully grasp the nature of Ivan Ilych’s failure as a man. And this is the salient function of Part II—to adumbrate his history of self-deception.
Throughout Part II Ivan Ilych’s life is described as filled with...
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Tolstoy described a most terrifying agony in ‘‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’’ Ivan Ilyich also lived a false life, filled with lies and artificially multiplied needs. All his colleagues liked him, and yet, on receiving the news of his death, their first thoughts were of the changes and promotions it might occasion among themselves or their acquaintances. They gave no thought to the deceased himself, who had but recently lived among them. Even in the beginning of the work we may conjecture from Ivan Ilyich’s feeling of loneliness that the sense of isolation while dying horrified Tolstoy as much as the thought of death itself. This isolation, the novelist warns, influences man’s relationship with nature, which includes not...
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