The Death of Ivan Ilyich Essays and Criticism
by Leo Tolstoy

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Characterization and the Theme of Redemption

(Short Stories for Students)

Though ‘‘The Death of Ivan Ilych’’ is an affective text which is still read with enthusiasm today, there are some difficulties which contemporary readers may have with Tolstoy’s novella. The character of Ivan Ilych and the shallowness of his colleagues and wife are haunting for any reader. They come alive in their superficiality and their mundane worries. In many ways, these characters can be seen as the norm in our society when viewed through a pessimistic lens. However, Tolstoy does supply his readers with a few minor exceptions among the majority of pathetic characters. It is important to note that Ivan Ilych is depicted as being equally shallow and thoughtless in his ‘‘agreeable, easy, and correct’’ life, of which the reader is informed after reading of his death in the opening sketch. The extreme pervasiveness of characters who are primarily concerned with propriety is interrupted by the introduction of Gerasim and Vladimir. These characters demonstrate deeper emotions than the others and are singled out as being the only characters able to show pity and kindness to Ivan Ilych in his last days of life.

Gerasim is the Russian peasant who acts as Ivan Ilych’s sick nurse as he is dying. Ivan Ilych takes much comfort in Gerasim’s presence and feels that his healthy and agile body gives him hope. While looking at Gerasim’s ‘‘sleepy, good-natured face with its prominent cheekbones,’’ Ivan Ilych meditates, ‘‘What if my whole life has really been wrong?’’ This is an example of Tolstoy’s often overly romantic and idealized portrait of Gerasim which can grow tiresome to readers who are constantly on the guard against such essentialistic characters. These pure characters frequently fail to be dynamic figures within a text, and merely become stereotypes of an idealized image. Critics have repeatedly noted Gerasim’s role in ‘‘The Death of Ivan Ilych’’; Edward Wasiolek sums up Gerasim’s character, ‘‘He breathes the health of youth and natural peasant life, lifts up the legs of the dying Ivan Ilych, cleans up after him with good humor, and in general shows him a kind of natural compassion.’’ Irving Halperin echoes these sentiments when he concludes, ‘‘because of Gerasim’s devotion, Ivan Ilych becomes capable of extending compassion to his wife and son. In this overall perspective, then, Gerasim may be viewed as the true hero of the story.’’ And another critic, Temira Pachmuss, asserts that Gerasim possesses ‘‘real humanity’’ since ‘‘Tolstoy thought the instinctive understanding of life and death that enabled Gerasim to do right naturally, to tell the truth, and to feel a deep sympathy for his fellow creatures was a result of Gerasim’s natural identification with nature.’’ The recurring portrayal of Gerasim as the healthy and simple Russian peasant, who has more compassion and understanding than all the other socially proper and therefore entirely empty and shallow characters, is often hard to accept because it is too easily interpreted as a black and white photo; these are the ‘‘good guys,’’ these are the ‘‘bad guys.’’ (It is also essentialistic in that it is like saying that all women understand nature because women are essentially bound to the earth and the body, or that African Americans naturally have ‘‘soul.’’)

This overly simplified and essentialistic stereotype is again found in Vladimir, Ivan Ilych’s son. Because Vladimir is a child, he is immediately assumed to be innocent and beyond the socially determined conventions of his mother, sister, and Ivan Ilych’s colleagues. This image is too simple, too easy. In such a hauntingly vivid depiction of death, it can be disappointing for a reader to encounter such one-dimensional characters who are supposed to carry heavily essentialistic ideologies: the rough Russian peasant who innately holds an understanding of death and love because he is in tune with nature; the...

(The entire section is 8,487 words.)