Essays and Criticism
Characterization and the Theme of Redemption
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...
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Tolstoy's Major Fiction
‘‘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...
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The Structural Integrity of The Death of Ivan Ilych
[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 duplicity. He married because marriage was considered the ‘‘right thing’’ in his social set. Between husband and wife there had been little human connection; their essential attitude toward each other remained one of deep hostility. For the sake of mutual convenience, they sought to project the appearance of a happy marriage.
From an unhappy marriage, Ivan Ilych retreated into his work; but there, as magistrate, he existed in an equally reprehensible state of falsity. Yet he is not to be criticized, Tolstoy seems to imply, simply for being attached to the baubles and trinkets of professional prestige and gain, but rather because he set himself up over others. Specifically, he did not turn a human face, as it were, toward...
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The Theme of Love and Death in Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich
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 only his life but his death. Affected by ‘‘civilization,’’ Ivan Ilyich had escaped real life and failed to see his inner loneliness. He was completely absorbed in self, and this absorption, in turn, intensified the feeling of solitude he experienced at the approach of death. The very basis of Ivan Ilyich’s relationship with nature was corrupt; however, although able to escape real life, he could not escape death.
We find the consciousness of this loneliness at the moment of dying not only in the works of Tolstoy but also in many other writings, such as the English morality play Everyman and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s adaptation Jedermann. When Everyman felt the approach of death, he sought desperately to...
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