In Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich, what statements made and actions taken by different characters serve to illustrate the type of behaviors and thinking that Tolstoy found so empty and...

In Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich, what statements made and actions taken by different characters serve to illustrate the type of behaviors and thinking that Tolstoy found so empty and meaningless? 

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Virtually none of the characters in Leo Tolstoy's novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich demonstrate the things Tolstoy valued, such as living rightly and treating people with respect and honor. Instead, they consistently display "meaningless and empty" behavior and thinking. 

A quick examination of each character reveals how far they are from Tolstoy's ideals.

Schwartz and Shebek are supposed to be Ivan Ilyich's friends. They work and socialize together. Schwartz attends Ivan's funeral, but he is there not out of any real feeling of loss but because it is expected. He does not grieve the loss of his friend, so the relationship between them was superficial. Shebek's first response is to wonder about his own promotion now that Ivan is gone. Again any friendship they had was superficial.

Sokolov is the butler for Ivan's family, and he has the effrontery to be discussing the cost of Ivan's funeral plot with Ivan's wife and Peter during the funeral. There is no respect or decorum here, and this is certainly not an example of living rightly.

Fedor Vasilievich is another of Ivan's colleagues and one of his closest friends. When he reads the news of Ivan's death in the paper, he thinks first of how it will affect him and eagerly anticipates a promotion at Ivan's expense. No real friendship here, either. 

Ivan Ilyich Golovin is the protagonist of the story. To be fair to his so-called friends, he would probably have reacted to their deaths much as they did to his. His early life is pleasant enough and all goes well until he marries his wife, a woman he does not love, for what she brings him. Unfortunately, he begins to live his life doing only what he deems proper. In fact, he cares for nothing and grows detached from nearly every thing and person in his life.

It is no surprise that his detachment causes him to be superficial in all his dealings, but it is a comfortable facade--until the accident. As he grows more physically debilitated, he also grows more miserable about this sham of a life he has created. He bemoans his miserable life but understands that he is to blame for it.

Praskovya Fedorovna Golovina is Ivan's wife and his emotional match. Though the couple might have had a chance early on, they fell into a pattern of complacency and lovelessness. She shows no compassion for her husband's miseries in death, and at his funeral she acts like a grieving widow but is only concerned about money. 

Peter Ivanovitch is Ivan's best friend in the same way as the others--on the surface only. He does seem disturbed by what he senses Ivan figured out at the end of his life: that he lived but had not lived rightly or well.

Lisa is Ivan's daughter and a miniature version of her mother, more interested in shopping than in her father's imminent death.

Fedor Petrovich is engaged to Lisa and is a perfect match for her: shallow and proper.

Gerasim, a servant, and Vladimir Ivanich, Ivan's son, are the only two who display the characteristics Tolstoy admires. Gerasim shows Ivan compassion as he is dying and does not resent the burden Ivan becomes. Vladimir truly loves his father and kisses Ivan's hand as he is dying; that is when Ivan realizes what his life might have been but was not.

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.

This is Ivan's spiritual awakening, but it came too late.

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