These two stories are similar in terms of theme, main character, and, not least importantly, tone. The Metamorphosis begins with a fantasy event – the changing of a man into a giant bug - while The Death of Ivan Ilyich sticks to realism, with the depiction of its main character slowly succumbing to a terminal illness rather than a bizarre physical transformation. However, the main focus in both stories is the state of mind of this character as he slowly withdraws from the world around him, and is, indeed, rejected by others on account of his condition. In either case, the actual physical change is not more important than the spiritual desolation that Gregor and Ivan suffer before death. Both stories are searing portraits of individual loneliness and isolation, and as such are justly famous.
What accentuates this sense of loneliness is that both Ivan and Gregor remain in the midst of their families yet derive so little help and support from them. Gregor is kept physically segregated, with only his sister Grete being willing to go near him, and she too rejects him in the end. Ivan is dutifully visited by his wife and children in his sickroom but the narrative makes quite clear that their visits are a torture to him. His wife and daughter are emotionally very distant from him - although he does get some comfort from the presence of his son, who sheds genuine tears over him. But generally, the only person that provides Ivan with any comfort at all is the peasant Gerasim who is entirely good-natured and unaffected, cheerfully helping him without any of the pretence and falsity that the his wife, daughter, doctors, and even his colleagues at work display towards him. Similarly, Gregor, at least at first, is supported by his sister, although she too withdraws in the end, increasing the misery of his overall situation. It is after this that he dies, having finally lost all will to live.
Perhaps most memorable of all, though, is the way in which these two stories are told. Although Kafka employs more black humour than Tolstoy, the narrative voice in either case is stark, spare, ironic, relating events matter-of-factly with while also delving deep into the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings. One need look no further than the famous opening sentence of The Metamorphosis for illustration of this:
When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.
This is given without any preamble and no explanation follows. Poor Gregor simply has to try and deal with the appalling new condition in which he finds himself – although this transformation might just be the external symbol of his life as a whole. It seems he has always been kept under, slaving away in a paltry job to keep his family yet receiving little thanks or reward. We can say that he has always been alienated in some measure from family and society, and his transformation just makes that alienation that little more obvious.
Similarly, Ivan comes to realize that his ‘whole life has really been wrong’. He has had more material and social success than the likes of Gregor, as he holds a respectable legal post, is quite well off, with a family of his own. Yet, at the core, his life, like Gregor’s, has been empty, devoid of warm human contact and love. Like Gregor, his chief concern has been with his job, with keeping up social appearances, at the expense of emotional and spiritual nourishment. His situation is summed up in a single blistering sentence:
Ivan Ilyich’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.