The Death of Ivan Ilyich Essay by JF

The Agonizing Death of Ivan Ilyich: Leo Tolstoy’s Analysis of Genuine Verses Artificial Realities

Leo Tolstoy, a man whose philosophy was rooted in ascetic principles, greatly feared death for the duration of his life. Tolstoy understood natural human fascination with objects, titles, and propriety and within his own life, denied those material pleasures. Because Tolstoy eliminated all aspects of gluttony and artificiality, he was left with overwhelming uncertainty about the connection between an authentic, “real” life and the process of dying. Tolstoy’s uncertainties automatically horrified him because without distraction from possessions and materials, only ambiguity remained. He channels these philosophies and mystifications in his book The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Using the protagonist Ivan Ilyich and other characters to symbolize the natural materialism and greed of the human condition, Tolstoy exemplifies the importance of accepting mortality in order to lead a fully gratifying life.

By tying the fear of death embedded into multiple characters with their egotistical qualities, Tolstoy illuminates how selfishness derives from rejecting our inevitable mortality. Choosing to begin the book with Ivan’s funeral, Tolstoy first introduces Ivan’s co-worker Pyotr Ivanovich and juxtaposes his proper external reaction to Ivan’s death to his instinctual internal response. Conforming to accepted social customs, Pyotr roams the funeral offering his condolences and socializing with Ivan’s friends and family, “Praskovya Fyodorovna sighed… and said: ‘I know you were a true friend of Ivan Ilyich’s…’ and looked at him, awaiting a fitting response. Pyotr Ivanovich knew that just as he had to cross himself in there, here he had to press her hand, sigh, and say: ‘I assure you!’ (36). Every individual that attended Ivan’s funeral understands the formalities that should take place, each sympathetic statement followed by the appropriate, reassuring response. For instance, hidden behind Praskovya and Pyotr’s conversation lies her craving for pity and compassion, his compliance to norms in order to preserving his image. Tolstoy mocks human artificiality, furthering his point by describing some of Pyotr’s inner thoughts, “ ‘Why, the same thing could happen to me at anytime now,’ he thought and for a moment felt panic-stricken. But at once…he was rescued by the customary reflection that all this had happened to Ivan Ilyich, not to him, that it could and should not happen to him” (39). Tolstoy illustrates how instinctually humans will first question then deny their mortality as a defense mechanism to the fear they encompass. By dismissing the horrifying thought that he too might die young and in pain, Pyotr spares himself anxiety and distress. In doing so, however, Pyotr becomes enveloped by this false reality and fails to recognize known truisms about life or death.

Throughout the rest of the book, Ivan Ilyich’s neglect towards his family demonstrates the negative affects of materialism and obsession with propriety. As a middle child of an aloof older brother and a reckless younger brother, Ivan Ilyich was a mean between the two– clever, proper, and respectable. Throughout his life, Ivan maintained those qualities, intently believing that they were vital to his happiness. Ivan Ilyich lived by this philosophy for the remainder of his life and kept them in mind when choosing his home, his wife, and his career. Recapping his life, Tolstoy writes, “Ivan Ilyich married for both reasons: in acquiring such a wife he did something that gave him pleasure and, at the same time, did what people of the highest standing considered correct” (49). Tolstoy does not completely exempt Ivan Ilyich from his natural human desire to love, though he reveals Ivan’s true egocentric motives. Because Ivan Ilyich did not love his wife Praskovya unconditionally, conflict often arose within his family. Using his job as an outlet, Ivan still manages to find happiness without the loving presence of his family, “He made a point of telling her how much everyone in Petersburg had liked him… after a little stumble his life was resuming its genuine and natural quality of carefree pleasure and propriety”(55). Subconsciously pushing his family away, Ivan Ilyich rejoices over his popularity and the respect he receives from his co-workers. Tolstoy’s ridicules Ivan’s ignorant contentment with the use of “genuine” and “natural” within the quote; both words connote truth, which contradicts the state Ivan’s life.

By contrasting many of the self-centered characters with one young peasant boy, Gerasim, Tolstoy demonstrates how acceptance of death creates an authentic reality in which life has meaning and purpose. At Ivan Ilyich’s funeral, Pyotr approaches Gerasim, “ ‘It’s said, isn’t it?’ ‘It’s God’s will sir. We all have to die someday,’ said Gerasim, displaying an even row of healthy white peasant teeth” (41). Being a peasant boy, Gerasim lacks possessions and other material aspects of “average” human life. However, Gerasim already holds so much wisdom at such a young age, comfortable with the idea of death. Tolstoy uses Gerasim to symbolize a life full of significance while lacking the material pleasures of the modern world. The product of this life is the acknowledgment of mortality instead of simply pretending death does not exist.

To further demonstrate this theme comparing a fake and empty life with one full of passion and compassion, Tolstoy explains in excruciating detail the last few months of Ivan Ilyich’s life. Although Ivan suffered greatly during the end of his life, facing death allowed him to understand his life’s true worth– absolutely nothing. Conversely, one cannot argue that Ivan’s life was not physically successful. When reading about his life on paper this holds true; Ivan married and had children, received a high-ranking position as lawyer, and was generally respected and liked by anyone he met. Yet Tolstoy argues that a successful life differs greatly from a genuine life. This genuine life requires separation from material goods and impressive titles so that one may appreciate their physical existence; to do so, one must evidently accept death. Days before Ivan’s passing, Ivan Ilyich had realized this and finally come to terms with his painful reality, “Not the real thing. Everything you lived by and still live by is a lie, a deception that blinds you from the reality of life and death” (110). Facing his mortality head on, Ivan Ilyich understands that the totality of his life lacked substance but tortures himself with the fact that he can now do nothing to change it. It is in this way that Tolstoy darkly illustrates a powerful warning sure to evoke intense realizations in readers.

Ivan Ilyich Essay by J. F.

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