The Death of Ivan Ilyich

by Leo Tolstoy

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What does Tolstoy have to say about the attractions of materialism in The Death of Ivan Ilyich? 

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Tolstoy is very clear in this novel that materialism and social climbing are to be abhorred, but all the same he explains why materialism is attractive. Throughout the entirety of Tolstoy's novel, the characters are drawn to materialism because it affords them pleasure and status: they want to be seen...

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as significant in society and to live in a way which, while artificial, gives them instant gratification.

Ivan is the exemplar of the middle-class person over-concerned with ownership and being seen to own things. He likes to impress others with what he has bought: for example, he buys a house in St Petersburg and furnishes it beautifully—but, in the end, his house looks just like every other house.

In reality it was just what is usually seen in the houses of people of moderate means who want to appear rich, and therefore succeed only in resembling others like themselves . . . His house was so like the others that it would never have been noticed, but to him it all seemed to be quite exceptional. (3.17)

In order to be approved of by his middle-class friends, Ivan has to make himself just like them and thus erode his own individuality. 

Ivan is concerned mainly with enjoying himself and does not care to think about things like needy children or wives, death or disease. His pleasures are confined to three main categories:

The pleasures connected with his work were pleasures of ambition; his social pleasures were those of vanity; but Ivan Ilych's greatest pleasure was playing bridge. He acknowledged that whatever disagreeable incident happened in his life, the pleasure that beamed like a ray of light above everything else was to sit down to bridge with good players. (3.25)

Ivan's enjoyment of his work lies in the fact that it makes him feel important, needed, and special, when in fact he is very ordinary. He enjoys his social life even though it resembles "all other drawing rooms," because it makes him the centre of attention. And bridge is the greatest joy in Ivan's life, indicative of his shallowness.

Ivan is materialistic because materialism enables him to focus entirely on himself. His universe revolves around himself and his own enjoyment. This, according to Tolstoy, is understandable but to be criticised.

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Tolstoy's message about materialism in "Ivan Ilyich" is pretty clear. Ivan is a person who confuses materialism and social status with living a good life. The attractions of materialism have to do with the gratification of the ego, and with attaining a lifestyle on par with the social standing Ivan believes he has attained. Materialism also "frees" Ivan from the emotional complications of dealing with his wife and family. His notion of impartiality and justice, for example, can be seen as an expression of materialism, in that by being "objective" he is concerned only with the outer appearance of things. As Ivan faces death at the end of the story, what he cannot understand is how, having led a "good life," he should face such an incongruous and untimely demise.

In Chapter Nine, Tolstoy lays out this conflict when, for the first time, Ivan hears his "inner voice," which poses for Ivan perhaps the central question of the story: "What do you want?" Ivan's answer—"To live and not to suffer"—at once summarizes Ivan's materialism and invites the question of what it means to "live." When Ivan examines his life, he finds it is lacking. "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."

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In The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Tolstoy is suggesting that the attractions of materialism can preclude a more worthwhile understanding of life's purpose.

Materialism is what prevents Ivan Iylich from comprehending what is relevant.  He has surrounded himself with a life that is the "most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible."  He concerns himself with social mobility, procuring the "right position," and surrounding himself with material reality.  Grand estates, opulent furnishings, and striving for "the best" around him are all aspects of this materialism.

However, when Ivan contemplates his own mortality, the meaninglessness of his efforts becomes clear.  Ivan is incapable of understanding the reality of death and he cannot effectively judge what matters and what doesn't.  This is primarily because all of his concerns were largely social or economic ones.  Ivan's concerns have been incorrectly calibrated because his emphasis was on things that are going to pass.  A job, the size of his home, and the wealth around him do nothing to allay his fears of death.  

Tolstoy is suggesting that when we become subsumed with superficiality, there results a failure to understand what is really important.  These attractions end up preventing true insight.  Ivan's preoccupation with an inauthentic reality prevents him from embracing the wisdom in Gerasim's, ‘‘We shall all of us die, so why should I grudge a little trouble?’’  Overcoming his materialist nature of being is what enables Ivan to understand truth.

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