One of the reasons why Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich continues to be referred to, as such that represents a high literary value, is that its themes and motifs appear to convey a clearly defined philosophical message.
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Even though this message is being read primarily between the novella’s lines, it nevertheless is easily identifiable – for just about anyone to be able to fill its life with meaning, he or she should be capable of recognizing the sheer futility of one’s secularized (mechanized) mode of existence.
In my paper, I will explore the validity of this suggestion at length, while elaborating on the discursive subtleties of the novella main character’s redemption in the face of death.
The most peculiar aspect of how Tolstoy reflects upon the life of the novella’s main character Ivan Ilyich is that, according to the author, it was specifically this character’s ordinariness, which naturally predetermined him to begin experiencing a wide array of mental torments through the final phases of his life: “Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible” (Tolstoy 6).
Nevertheless, even though that this suggestion may initially seem rather illogical to readers, as they go through the novella, they begin to realize that there was indeed a good rationale for Tolstoy to come up with it.
The reason for this is apparent – as the novella’s plot unravels, Ivan Ilych grows ever more aware of the fact that it was his willingness to conform to the society’s standards of ‘respectability’ that eventually caused him to realize the futility of its stance in life – hence, contributing to the acuteness of the character’s death-anxieties.
As it appears from the novella, Ivan Ilych never aspired to anything great in his life, while remaining thoroughly comfortable with the professional career of a governmental official, which was prescribed to him ‘inheritably’ – having been born to the family of a Russian middle-ranked bureaucrat, he was ‘predestined’ to affiliate himself with the government.
As time went on, Ivan Ilych was moving through the ranks in the Ministry of Justice, while addressing his professional duties without too much of an enthusiasm, but with enough of the latter to ensure his continual promotions. He also never skipped the pleasures of socialization with other people: “He (Ivan Ilych) was just what he remained for the rest of his life: a capable, cheerful, good-natured, and sociable man” (6).
Eventually, Ivan Ilych realized that the time had come for him to get married, which he did by marrying Praskovya, who he thought was fully qualified to become his wife by the mere fact that she “came of a good family, was not bad looking, and had some little property” (8).
Nevertheless, even though that, while adhering to the provisions of the 19th century’s conventional living in Russia, Ivan Ilych was initially able to enjoy himself, as years passed by, he was growing increasingly aware that there was no happiness in his life.
Partially, this had to do with the fact that, after having given birth to his children, Praskovya seemed to become ever more emotionally distanced from Ivan Ilych, reflected by her progressing moodiness: “His (Ivan Ilych’s) wife became more and more querulous and ill-tempered” (9). There is, however, was more to it – despite his posture of a socially established individual, Ivan Ilych started to experience the sensation of his life being utterly pointless.
As the mean to address this sensation, the novella’s main character tried to spend more taking care of his professional duties, as it was helping him to maintain the illusion that the society did need him: “The whole interest of his life now centered in the official world and that interest absorbed him” (10). He also became addicted to playing the card-game of the bridge, while paying less and less attention to his wife and children.
At the same time, however, he continued to maintain the aura of ‘respectability’ about his deteriorating relationship with Praskovya, while showing up along with her on social occasions.
In its turn, this suggests that there is a symbolic significance to the plot’s development, concerned with Ivan Ilych falling off the ladder and banging his side against the window’s frame when he tried to hang the newly purchased curtains. Apparently, Tolstoy saw Ivan Ilych’s failure at hanging curtains, as an extrapolation of his failure to mask out its inability to attain happiness.
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Ever since the time of this accident, Ivan Ilych has started to feel progressively unwell (due to the pain in his injured side). The worst thing about it was the fact that, after having realized that his injury may have indeed been serious, Ivan Ilych began to consider the possibility that he did not have much time left to live.
The more Ivan Ilych thought of it, the more he was becoming agitated – the prospect of dying did not make any sense to him, since his mind could not comprehend the possibility for one’s individuality (soul) to simply vanish, as a result of the concerned individual’s death.
What also bothered Ivan Ilych, in this respect, is that his wife and those he used to consider his friends remained thoroughly arrogant, as to the sheer intensity of his mental torments: “Those about him did not understand or would not understand it (Ivan Ilych’s death-anxiety), but thought everything in the world was going on as usual.
That tormented Ivan Ilych more than anything” (17). In fact, it had dawned upon Ivan Ilych that the true reason why his colleagues at work used to inquire about his health, is that they were interested in taking his job.
Eventually, Ivan Ilych’s illness evolved to the point when he could barely move around the house, while being unable to think of anything else but death. At this point, the novella’s main character begins to rely heavily upon the assistance of his butler Gerasim, who was an uneducated peasant.
Yet, it was not only that the Gerasim’s company proved utterly beneficial for Ivan Ilych in strictly utilitarian but also in the emotional sense of this word.
This is because, while with Gerasim, Ivan Ilych was experiencing the sensation that his butler did care for him genuinely, without pretending that there was nothing too serious about his master’s health-condition: “Gerasim alone did not lie; everything showed that he alone understood the facts of the case and did not consider it necessary to disguise them, but simply felt sorry for his emaciated and enfeebled master” (25).
This, of course, created objective preconditions for Ivan Ilych to become emotionally attached to Gerasim, even though that formally speaking, there was very little in common between these two individuals. As Taylor noted: “Gerasim, through his willingness to serve, becomes more important in the household.
Class and cultural barriers between the men (Ivan Ilych and Gerasim) cease to exist within the confines of Ilyich’s bedroom. All that remains is one fellow human being helping another in a time of need” (301).
It needs to be mentioned that, despite being unable to read and write, Gerasim nevertheless acted as a thoroughly wise individual, aware of the fact that one’s willingness to indulge in self-reflecting may hardly prove beneficial, especially if the concerned individual happened to experience the sensation of guilt for what he had done in the past.
Being a strongly religious person, Gerasim regarded death as something that should not be feared, as it is in the very nature of all living things to die. Even though that there were several fatalist overtones to the Gerasim’s attitude towards death, it nevertheless had a positive effect on Ivan Ilych.
Apparently, while socializing with Gerasim, he was becoming enlightened to the fact that since death is inevitable, there can be little rationale in trying to resist it at any cost (Lucas 602). Moreover, Ivan Ilych was gradually learning to think of death as the key to the soul’s spiritual ‘rebirth’, because while ‘residing’ within the boundaries of one’s body, the individual’s soul remains silenced for most of the time.
Yet, once the concerned person is nearing death, the words of his or her soul become perfectly audible. The validity of this statement can be illustrated in regards to one of the novella’s final scenes, in which Ivan Ilych hears the voice of its soul for the first time in his life: “It was as though he were listening not to an audible voice but to the voice of his soul… ‘What is it you want?’ was the first clear conception capable of expression in words, that he heard” (30).
It was exactly after he became aware of its soul’s presence, that Ivan Ilych was able to recognize the sheer artificialness of his mentally constructed sense of a self-identity, based upon memories of the past:
“His marriage, a mere accident, then the disenchantment that followed it, his wife’s bad breath and the sensuality and hypocrisy: then that deadly official life and those preoccupations about money, a year of it, and two, and ten, and twenty, and always the same thing” (31).
This explains the essence of Ivan Ilych’s redemption – apparently, the novella’s main character concluded that, since his ego-based ‘self’ had very little to do with what were the true aspirations of his soul, there can be nothing truly horrible about losing it due to death.
Therefore, there is nothing too odd about the fact that, before passing away, Ivan Ilych noted: “Death is finished… It is no more!” (36). In all probability, it simply occurred to him that death only exists within the context of one trying to cling to life with all its might, and that once the concerned individual ceases to do this, death disappears into thin air.
I believe that the provided earlier line of argumentation, as to what should be considered the philosophical significance of the motif of redemption in The Death of Ivan Ilyich, is fully consistent with the paper’s initial thesis.
Lucas, V. “The Death of Ivan Ilyich and the concept of ‘total pain’.” Clinical Medicine 12.6 (2012): 601–602. Print.
Taylor, S. “The Gerasim Model of Caregiving: Reflections on Tolstoy’s novella ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’.” Death Studies 21.3 (1997): 299-305. Print.
Tolstoy, L. 1886, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Web.