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The Death of Ivan Ilych and Metamorphosis Essay

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Updated: Aug 31st, 2022

Both Leo Tolstoy and Franz Kafka presented short stories that reflect very similar themes regarding the role of man in his society. This sociological viewpoint held that man had a tendency to lose himself in his responsibilities of work and monetary support for his family at the tremendous cost of losing his personal connections to this family and to friends. In their depictions, both Tolstoy and Kafka illustrate men who are caught by the social web of expectations and responsibilities to become individuals who don’t truly experience living until they are in the process of dying. This occurs as they first come to understand their isolation, begin to relate this to the shallowness of their perceived connections and relationships and yet fail to convey the lessons they’ve learned to those who will survive.

Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Illyich is often considered to be a tragedy because of the way in which the main character suffers an unexplained but lengthy and drawn out death. There is no hope for him as he first begins to experience a sharp pain in his side that becomes increasingly irritating to him, causing him to take his irritation out on his family. The doctors provide no hope for him as they remain incapable of determining what exactly is causing this pain and therefore have no means by which to cure it. As he continues to suffer, he becomes ever more drawn to the company of his servant boy, Gerasim, who is not afraid to face the death that is immediately before his master. As he comes to understand the difference between his servant’s and his family’s views on life, Ivan begins to realize that he has lived a life of moral death, a life empty of everything save the material goods he struggles to acquire and keep. As a result, his connections with his family are based on the comforts each can provide the others rather than based upon something more real, deeper and abiding that might transcend death into something greater, something associated with the ‘great light’ that hits him in the end. Through this ‘awakening death’, the story has also been interpreted to be a story of hope as Ivan is redeemed in the end. However, it is my contention that the story remains a tragedy because the epiphany experienced by Ivan comes too late for him to share it with his son, who is now doomed to repeat his father’s mistakes.

Although the story takes up less than 100 pages, Franz Kafka’s story Metamorphosis lends itself to a wide variety of interpretations in terms of theme and meaning, including mirroring much of what Tolstoy discovered in his tale. The story follows the experiences of Gregor Samsa after he wakes up one morning to find himself turned into a giant bug in his own bed. As he reveals himself to his family and his employer, it becomes obvious that this change is not meant to be a figurative change on the part of the author, but is also a physical change. Although the family continues to care for him, providing him with food and water and cleaning his room once a day, Gregor becomes more and more detached from them, eventually finding it difficult to keep track of what has been happening around him. His room becomes dirtier, his family becomes less attentive and he becomes less concerned with their welfare in connection with his own. As his sister and mother move his personal furniture out of his room, he leaves the room with a mind toward helping his sister, but is instead attacked by his father, becoming wounded in the process when an apple thrown at him becomes lodged in his back. Rather than tending to his wounds, the family locks him back in his room again where the apple is able to fester for months. The room becomes the general receptacle of household debris before Gregor’s final attempt to reconnect with his family results in such harsh and complete rejection that he simply crawls back in his room and dies. Through the story, Kafka uses the concept of work to highlight some of the problems of the human condition.

Throughout his suffering, Ivan’s story is seen as a tragedy because he is left with no one to actually care for him except his poor servant boy. The family that is supposed to love him to distraction draws away from him and hides their face from the fact that he is dying. His connections to the world are described in equally shallow terms as the men he worked with, all of whom are claimed to have liked the dead man, discuss his death as they might a passing fad and consider the irksome chore ahead of them. “The more intimate of Ivan Ilych’s acquaintances, his so-called friends, could not help thinking also that they would now have to fulfill the very tiresome demands of propriety by attending the funeral service and paying a visit of condolence to the widow” (Ch. 1). As is noted by Danaher (2007), “The subtexts tell the story of a nineteenth-century man with all the traits of the modern, twenty-first-century self: one with no spiritual life, one alienated from others, and one compelled by his illness to seek and find true meaning.” It is only as he lies dying that Ivan is finally made aware of his true isolation in the world.

It can be argued that Gregor’s transformation is a literal indication of his feelings of separation from humanity, including from the members of his own family, as can be seen in from the very beginning of the story. Despite waking up to find himself in the form of a bug, Gregor’s primary concern remains to get to work in order to continue supporting the family who has been dependent upon him for the past five years. As he reflects upon his position, he reveals the level of disconnectedness that has already occurred between himself and his family, indeed the rest of humanity, since he took a job as a traveling salesman: “And apart from business itself, this plague of traveling: the anxieties of changing trains, the irregular, inferior meals, the ever changing faces, never to be seen again, people with whom one has no chance to be friendly” (13). Even in his own home, he has taken up the habit of locking his bedroom doors “as if in a hotel” (16) and he continues to follow the rules and regulations set forth by his father even though he is the sole breadwinner of the family. As the family pleads with his manager to believe Gregor is sick, the picture of his life before the transformation becomes complete. “The boy thinks of nothing but his work! It makes me upset to see how he never goes out after supper; do you know he’s just spent a whole week here and been at home every evening! He sits down with us at the table and stays there, quietly reading the paper or studying his timetables” (21). Not only does Gregor not have any friends with whom to spend his evenings, but he apparently also spends little time actually interacting with his family even when he is home, choosing instead to engage himself in solitary activities.

In both stories, the emptiness of the family’s affections is brought forward throughout the book. Within Ivan’s story, both friends and family are seen to go through the appropriate motions of life without any of the true sentiment that originally gave rise to these expressions. For example, rather than considering the tremendous suffering that would cause a man to scream in agony for three days straight to such magnitude that he could be heard throughout the house, Ivan’s wife tells Peter, “For the last three days, he screamed incessantly. It was unendurable. I cannot understand how I bore it; you could hear him three rooms off. Oh, what I have suffered!” (Ch. 1). There is no indication in this statement, before or after, that this woman has any inclination of her husband’s suffering during this time, nor any indication that she was willing to do anything, if anything could have been done, to alleviate his pain. His friends begin thinking of the potential promotions they may be up for at work while his family looks forward to their death benefits. This approach fits in with a functionalist perspective of sociological order as the family performs important specific, unchanging responsibilities that contribute to society’s basic needs and help perpetuate a strict social order with little or no consideration for individual needs or considerations. A Marxist society is always in a process of being created, and this occurs through communication and negotiation (Giddens et al, 2003). When one no longer has anything with which to negotiate, one is no longer valuable, important or worthy of attention.

In keeping with this theme of isolation when one loses one’s value, much of Kafka’s story takes place within the confines of Gregor’s room, which itself symbolizes the state of his relationships with other people. Only his sister is brave enough to enter the room, and then only when he is hiding beneath the couch or under a sheet. Even his one activity of escape from his room, staring out the window, becomes meaningless as the world outside fades into a featureless expanse of grey before his dimming eyesight. Despite his terror at having someone enter his room as well as his feelings of fear regarding its emptiness, “his great room, in which he was obliged to remain flat on his stomach on the floor, frightened him in a way that he could not understand” (42), the room nevertheless seems to be confining, as he finds himself constantly running about the walls and ceiling as a means of filling the void. Although he no longer has a job, Gregor finds it necessary to remain active throughout his waking life. This activity leads to the removal of his personal furniture from the room, removing yet more of his individual identity and distancing him more from his former life and the relationships he once shared. As he listens to his mother explaining to his sister the need to keep the room as it was to remind Gregor of himself, he thinks, “Did he really wish to allow this warm, comfortable room with its genial furniture to be transformed into a cavern in which, in rapid and complete forgetfulness of his human past, he might exercise his right to crawl all over the walls? It seemed he was already so near to forgetting” (59). Coming to this thought, he makes a valiant attempt to preserve the portrait he had so carefully framed on his wall just before his transformation, just barely able to cover it with his body, but then ends up destroying it himself.

In both stories, the tragedy is that the important lesson learned by these characters remains unlearned by the rest of their society. The fact that the lesson discovered by Ivan has been lost upon the living he has left behind is first captured in the first chapter of the story as his dead body is visited by Peter Ivanovich. Looking down into the composed face of his former friend, Peter notices a certain expression: “There was in that expression a reproach and a warning to the living. This warning seemed to Peter Ivanovich out of place, or at least not applicable to him” (Ch. 1). This disconnection between the realities of life and death fits in with the common Marxist perspective in which individuals dissociate themselves from the realities of life. Marxism proposes that the alienation from our family is a direct result of the capitalist mode of production. “The separation of workers from what they produce in turn produces workers who are separated from other workers and the world in which they live” (Burleigh, 2005). Peter, as did Ivan before him, is unable to fathom that the human conditions that struck Ivan down are also inherent in his own life and well-being, meaning he, too, could be struck by sudden illness and death as quickly as his friend. While Ivan learned this lesson from his servant, no one else is willing to learn this lesson until they, too, are facing imminent death.

While much of the Gregor’s story is told from the point of view of Gregor himself, who retains the cognitive ability of a human, Gregor is unable to communicate in any meaningful way with his family who are unwilling to work either to support themselves or to discover some means of supporting Gregor in his time of distress. His sister brings him the food he likes to eat not because she understands what he likes, but instead because she clears away what he does not eat. When he stops eating, she does not seem to take notice of this, instead merely sweeps away the old stuff and brings in new each day. When he tries to protect his picture as a sign that he does not want his room emptied of signs of human habitation, she instead becomes angry with him for frightening their mother. His few attempts to leave the room to become involved with the family are met with violence and physical harm. “Gregor had to find some way of pacifying his father, so he quickly crawled to the door of his room and pressed himself against it for his father to see, as he came in, how he had every intention of returning to his own room immediately and that it was not necessary to drive him back with violence; one had only to open the door and he would quickly withdraw. But his father was in no mood to notice these fine points” (64). Even at the end, when he creeps out of his room in response to his sister’s open heart as she plays her music, he is misunderstood and completely rejected.

Several writers have seen the same sense of isolation brought out through the unsatisfactory yet compulsory nature of work within the capitalist system. F.D. Luke (1983) points out that the difference between Kafka’s interpretation of isolation and that of other writers is not so much the theme, but the way in which is told. Instead of writing about how an individual finds himself in unusual circumstances and begins to question how he fits into this situation, Janis Kenderdine says “Metamorphosis is about the individual’s plight from within a prison imposed upon him within society” (2006). When Gregor finds himself transformed, it is not because of decisions he himself has made regarding his life. He becomes isolated not because he decided to become an insect, but because he woke up one day to find himself drastically altered. “At first his family (neighbors, fellow citizens) comes to his aid, but as time goes on, they are less sympathetic, and Gregor finds he is dependent on the help of the very people who would be revolted by his very existence. The family feels only a mild tinge of guilt at the fact that they treat this family member in such a way, but they secretly wish the ‘vermin’ to die and leave them be, so they can live their life free of him” (Kenderdine, 2006). Of course, in the end, it is Grete who actually gives voice to these thoughts within Gregor’s hearing, leaving him with the only option left to him. He crawls in his room and dies, leaving them to find a new and happy life without him.

More about The Metamorphosis

These concepts are also depicted in Tolstoy’s novel as Ivan Ilych is also a victim of a prison imposed on him by society. He has worked his entire life, always with an eye toward bringing his family that little bit of extra income that will mark them as among the upper portions of their own society. When he becomes ill, it is not because of anything he himself has done or not done to care for himself, but is instead the result of him attempting to provide for his family using every means he knows how. Although they seem willing enough to help him when he first falls ill, sending for the doctor and attempting to nurse him in bed, when he begin to deteriorate and starts screaming, they all withdraw from his impending death with the exception of his servant. As in Metamorphosis, the family feels only a hint of guilt at wishing he would die and get it over with as was expressed in his wife’s comment regarding the agonies she suffered as he screamed for three days straight.

The idea that Kafka’s story deals to a great extent with the concept of isolation is emphasized strongly in “The Metamorphosis: A Strange, Strange Book” (D, 1999). In this article, the author looks at various aspects of the story to illustrate how it is permeated with the sense of loneliness and isolation. “Kafka ends each chapter with Gregor escaping from his prison-like room into the freedom and love of the living room, but being quickly and immediately driven back by his family. The third time he comes out of his bedroom he concludes that he is not worthy to stay in there, and of his own accord turns around and re-enters his cell” (D, 1999). Even the picture on the wall of the woman in furs is as close as Gregor gets to a relationship with a woman outside the family. Referring to the scene in which his mother and sister begin clearing out his room, this author points out that the one item Gregor seeks to save is the image of the woman, which, to him, symbolizes love. Ironically enough, though, this author points out that it is Gregor’s metamorphosis into an insect that allows him the time necessary to become a true man. “As the story progresses, Gregor apparently becomes more human, and less of a machine built for society” (D, 1999). The author supports this by pointing to the attraction music held for him in his final scene as well as his conscious realization that he does not belong with his family anymore and, of his own volition, returns to his room to die. These ideas are again also found within Ivan Ilych as Ivan finally learns what love is through the attentions of his servant Gerasim but is unable to pass the lesson along to others.

Works Cited

  1. Burleigh, G. “Alienation in American Life: A Marxist View.” People’s Weekly World Newspaper. (2005).
  2. D, Matthew. “The Metamorphosis: A Strange, Strange Book.” The Kafka Project. Mauro Nervi (Ed.). 1999.
  3. Danaher, David S. “.” Death Reference. (2007). Web.
  4. Giddens, A.; Duneier, M.; & Appelbaum, R. “Chapter 15: The Family and Intimate Relationships.” Introduction to Sociology. Ed. 4. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2003.
  5. Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis. New York: Vanguard Press, 1946.
  6. Kenderdine, Janice. “Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis.” Fifer’s Web Site. 2009.
  7. Luke, F.D. “Explain to Me Some Stories of Kafka.” New York: Gordian Press, 1983.
  8. Tolstoy, Leo. The Death of Ivan Ilych. New York: Kessinger Publishings, 2004.
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