The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy

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In "The Death of Ivan Ilyich," what is implied by Tolstoy's narrator calling those around Ivan, not friends, but "nearest acquaintances?"

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Lorna Stowers eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Leo Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" is a story which describes the life and death of Ivan Ilyich. In part one of the text, Ivan's coworkers are told of his death. While many are surprised that a man as young as he has died, many others are far more concerned with the position which will now open up within the company. Readers are shown, through this, that Ivan was not necessarily disliked, but those around him were far more concerned with how they could ultimately benefit from his death.

It seems that many of the people around him were acquaintances and not friends. This is specifically shown when the following line appears:

Fedor Vasilievich and Peter Ivanovich had been his nearest acquaintances. Peter Ivanovich had studied law with Ivan Ilych and had considered himself to be under obligations to him.

This quote illuminates the fact that Ivan did not have any real friends. Instead, he only had acquaintances. Ivanovich only attends Ivan's funeral service in order to try to get his brother in law Ivan's old job. A true friend would not use a funeral to better the individual or his or her family.

Over the course of the funeral, talk is only made of obtaining better employment, financial betterment, and who wants Ivan's old position. Essentially, no one is truly concerned for Ivan or his family. True friends would be.

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sullymonster eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Tolstoy's story sets up a conflict between material desires and human compassion. He uses Ivan's life and death as a way to show the truth that comes with mortality—what we earned in life is not as important as the way we have treated our fellow man. In this way, Tolstoy tells a story very like Charles Dickens's in A Christmas Carol. Unfortunately, though, Ivan has no happy ending like Scrooge, or at least not one where he gets to go out and prove what he has learned. In his final days, Ivan questions how he has spent his life and comes to the conclusion that his priorities were wrong, but it is a dying man's realization only.

The character that foils Ivan and brings about this revelation is Gerasim, his nurse. Gerasim's compassion and dedicated service to Ivan is in contrast to the attitudes of Ivan's other "friends." Gerasim listens to and cares for Ivan the man, not the coworker or the provider. No other character has compassion for Ivan's health. No other character listens to Ivan. This is why they are just "acquaintances." Because no one shows humanity besides Gerasim, no one can be considered a friend.

It's interesting to note that Gerasim is a poor man, which further highlights Tolstoy's theme of the lack of value in material wealth.

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