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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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