“The Death of Ivan Ilych” is viewed by many literary critics as one of Leo Tolstoys greatest works along with “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina”. This novella belongs to the later period of the author’s career, it was written after he had conversed to Christianity, which plays a very significant role in the story. Tolstoy’s work can be discussed from psychological and religious perspectives. Overall, we can single out the following themes: first, egoism as the cause of suffering and hardships. Another issue that the author explores is the concept of death, particularly death as a physical and spiritual phenomenon.
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The main character, Ivan Ilych is a highly respected member of society; he holds the post of a judge in St. Petersburg. At first glance, it may seem that his life is cloudless but suddenly he begins to feel some discomfort, which proves to be a terminal disease. Impending death radically changes the protagonist’s worldview; he realizes that his life has always been selfish and shallow. Only at that moment, Ivan Ilych is able to feel pity for his family and those people, dear to him. Furthermore, Ivan Ilych understands that the disease (and subsequent death) is not only the punishment for his sins but also a chance for repentance (Thomas Kirsch, 167).
It is also interesting how his friends and relatives respond to his death. For example, his colleagues do not feel sorrow at his decease. When they receive the news of it, all of them begin to think about their career prospects. Fedor Vasilievich intends to visit his friends wife but he gives up this idea because she lives “so terribly far away” (Tolstoy, 2). These words clearly indicate the death of the main character means virtually nothing to him. As regards his relatives, particularly, his wife who is undoubtedly supposed to mourn the death of her “beloved” husband, we can observe that Praskovya Fedorovna only attempts to look as sorrowful as possible. However, her conversation with Peter Ivanvych proves that this woman has some other concerns, for example, she knows, “how much could be got out of the government in consequence of her husband’s death, but wanted to find out whether she could not possibly extract something more” (Tolstoy, 8) We can see that she cab thinks only about her benefit. Moreover, it can be deduced that this woman felt practically no empathy for her husbands sufferings because she did not even come to see him, it was Gerasim who looked after the dying man.
The question arises why the author prefers to change chronological order of the events and begins the story with the protagonist’s death. As it has been mentioned before, Tolstoy wants to emphasize that his decease is of no consequence to his near and dear ones, thus his life also had very little meaning for them. In addition to that, we can identify some traits of Ivans personality, though only hypothetically. First, it is quite possible for us to conclude that he is not able to choose his friends because all of them turn away from him. Apart from that, Ivan Ilych is not a very good husband for his wife is even not sorrowing over him. The author wants the reader to form his own conclusions about this person before describing him directly (Simmons, 153).
At the beginning of the story, Ivan Ilych is a person, who can think only of himself, he turns a blind eye to everything that seems to him annoying or requires any effort. The author constantly sets stress on his egoism; it can be seen even in the way, in which he attends to his immediate duties. Ivan Ilych is inclined to “exclude his personal opinion of the matter, while above all observing every formality” (Tolstoy, 12). These words suggest that this man does not take any interest in his work. In this way, he isolates himself from the inconvenience of life. Moreover, there is a wall between him and his family; Ivan Ilych can easily lie to his wife, saying that he cannot stay at home because he has to do his alleged duties, which in fact irritates him. He understands that his family has never been happy but he chooses to ignore it. He can take pleasure only in playing cards but it is also self-deception for the game only serves as a shield against problems he faces. Nevertheless, one cannot say that this person is an altogether unsympathetic character. His repentance and his deliverance from pain make the reader believe that this man is not as depraved and egoistic as it appears (Wasiolek, 174).
He goes through several physiological stages in the course of his disease. When Ivan Ilych falls ill, he is becoming more and more irritable with his relatives; attempts that they make to help him or to ease his pain, only annoy him. The second stage is anger; he is firmly convinced that he has done nothing to deserve these sufferings. He utters the following soliloquy “Why these sufferings? For no reason, they are just so” (Tolstoy, 50). It does not even occur to him that some aspects of his behavior were far from moral. Only at the very end of the story, Ivan Ilych realizes that he has led a selfish life, and repents it. We cannot overlook ethical problems that Tolstoy analyzes, especially selfishness as the root of all sufferings. The protagonist, who is suffering from unbearable pain, feels relief only when he starts to feel empathy for people, surrounding him.
In this regard, it should be borne in mind that the motif of redemption and forgiveness becomes the key one (Jahn, 60). Despite the fact that Ivan Ilych never turns to religion directly, or in any way applies for the absolution of his sins, it is given to him. Thats how the author describes his last moments “He tried to add, “Forgive me,” but said “Forego” and waved his hand, knowing that He whose understanding mattered would understand” (Tolstoy, 56). Therefore, we can say that this novella should be analyzed not only in terms of psychology but also within the context of religion.
Tolstoy does not straightforwardly say that repentance delivers Ivan Ilych from his sufferings, but his attitude can be deduced from the way he describes last moments of the protagonist’s life. As soon as he asks for forgiveness, his pain abates. He is unable to believe that his sufferings have ceased. He exclaims, “What has become of it? Where are you, pain?”(Tolstoy, 56). This sudden relief can be ascribed to the so-called divine intervention, but Tolstoy wants never directly refers to it. The author wants to show that death, itself, should not be viewed only as of the end, on the contrary, it is a chance to amend the mistakes of one’s life. Apart from that, death can be physical and spiritual. Ivan Ilychs body dies though his soul is saved through his repentance.
The author never explicitly expresses his opinion about the main character, except only one short remark “Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.”(Tolstoy, 9) At first glance, such a description may seem odd; to say the least but as the story progresses we can understand the true meaning of this phrase. In this context, the word “simple” should be interpreted not as “unsophisticated or easy to understand” but as ignorant or unenlightened (Jahn, 81). For a very long time, Ivan Illich has adhered to the principle that ignorance is bliss. However, his disease dissipates the delusions that he has long cherished.
The author contrasts such characters as Ivan Ilych (along with his relatives and colleagues) and his servant, Gerasim. It may appear that there is no logical connection between these people but throughout the novel, the parallels are drawn between them, though in a very implicit way. Ivan Ilych is believed to be the pillar of society, the person, who is respected by every member of the community, which is just make-believe. Nevertheless, people, who do not know him well, are firmly convinced that he is a very successful man but below the surface, his life is miserable.
The main characters “friend”, Peter Ivanovich, maintains friendly relationships with him only to win his promotion, Ivan Ilychs death means practically nothing for him. His wife, the person, who definitely should be grieving deeply about her husband, simply waits for his death. The only exception is his son Vladimir Ivanovich, who is still capable of feeling and showing empathy for his father.
In sharp contrast with these people, the peasant servant Gerasim is free from selfishness and hypocrisy. He assists the dying man and does not think about the benefits of this action. He supports Ivan Ilych not only physically, but also spiritually. For example, when the judge asks Gerasim whether he likes nursing him and says that his death is inevitable the boy encourages him. This seemingly insignificant person makes Ivan Ilych understand, that his life was practically wasted and that this disease is not accidental; most likely it is a sky-sign. Again, we can speak about one of major themes of this short story: first egoism is one of the worst human vices.
The tone of the novella is very neutral. Tolstoy does not want it to sound too sentimental. First, it is quite noticeable that he is disinclined to show his own judgment about the main characters or plot development. Moreover, the story is a third-person narration, which already suggests that the author intends to be as objective as possible. Only once Tolstoy resorts to direct characterization when he says that Ivan Ilychs life was “ordinary and simple” (Tolstoy, 9). It can be also observed that adjectives, describing either characters or any situation seldom have subjective connotations. Tolstoy never directly says that people, surrounding Ivan Ilych, are callous, nevertheless, their callosity becomes obvious, especially judging from their behavior.
Thus, we can arrive at the conclusion that Leo Tolstoys novel “The Death of Ivan Ilych” can be interpreted from various perspectives: psychological and religious. Tolstoy explores the main psychological stages that Ivan goes through during his disease, in particular irritation, anger, and repentance. The psychological interpretation of this novel cannot be separated the religion. In this respect, it is possible to mark out such themes as 1) the adverse influence of selfishness on human nature; 2) the concept of death especially spiritual and physical. The main message that Tolstoy intends to convey is that every person, even the most selfish or shallow, can be forgiven if he or she acknowledges his or her sins and asks for forgiveness.
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Edward Wasiolek. “Tolstoy’s Major Fiction” University of Chicago Press, 1997.
Ernest Joseph Simmons. “Tolstoy” Routledge, 1973.
Gary R. Jahn. “Tolstoy’s the Death of Ivan Illych: A Critical Companion” Northwestern University Press, 1999.
Leo Tolstoy, Louse Maude. “The Death of Ivan Ilych” Kessinger Publishing, 2004.
Stewart Justman. “Literature and Human Equality”. Northwestern University Press, 2006.
Thomas Kirsch, Virginia Beane Rutter, Thomas Singer. “The Living Reality of an Archetype”. Routledge, 2007.