The Death of Ivan Ilyich Essay by JB

The Russian industrialization greatly affected Leo Tolstoy’s views on modern society, causing him to reject the society to which he once belonged. This blatant rejection of bourgeois society is illustrated throughout The Death Of Ivan Ilyich through Tolstoy’s skillful use of devices. The devices are utilized to make the superficiality of this society evident. The devices consist of narrative, theme, and juxtaposition which all contribute to Tolstoy’s existential disdain. The juxtaposition of Gerasim to the Russian bourgeois society, the unenthused narrative, and the focus on materialistic pursuits, all illuminate Tolstoy’s disdain for mass-man’s loss of humanity in an emotionally detached society.

Tolstoy’s fondness for the proletariat class that is detached from the acquisitive needs of the mass man, is shown through the juxtaposition of Gerasim to the bourgeois society. The bourgeois society is depicted as cold and emotionless, and the characters complete actions without meaning and feeling. Their pursuit for material gain overshadows their humanity, and their individuality is deteriorated. The hope of this society does not belong to the bourgeois; Gerasim serves as a bridge to the world away from materialistic pursuits.  Gerasim allows Ivan to discover the “falseness in himself and in those around him” (Tolstoy 88) that pains Ivan when he is facing death. Gerasim serves as a bridge for Ivan, because he exposes Ivan to the humanity that can exist in society, as well exposing the people around Ivan as fake and insignificant. Gerasim’s well behaved manner is representative of his upbringing that was detached from materialistic frame, thus allowing him to understand human relationships and the concept of love fully. Gerasim’s courteous manor is best depicted in chapter 7:“Gerasim did everything easily, willingly, simply, and with the goodness of heart that moved Ivan Ilyich. Health, strength, and vitality in other people offended Ivan Ilyich whereas Gerasim’s strength and vitality had a soothing effect on him” (Tolstoy 86). Ivan cannot stand the presence of other characters because of their life and vitality; life and vitality that he sees is escaping himself, and under appreciated by the people who surround him. However, Gerasim cherishes his life and vitality, honors it, and understands the concept of death. Gerasim, due to his detachment from materialism he can begin his existential journey to understanding himself, and further understand the impending death. The other characters may never be able to find themselves, and understand the concept of death, due to their constant materialistic surroundings, and the lack of emphasis on emotion in bourgeois society. This difference between these characters reflect Tolstoy’s opinion on society, his distaste for materialistic life, and his enjoyment of humble proletariats. Tolstoy’s dislike for these acquisitive characters is further displayed through the unenthused narrative.

The avaricious society is described in a lackluster tone disallowing the reader to feel empathetic towards the materialistic society and it’s struggles. However intrigue is restored when Tolstoy begins to describe Gerasim. The other wise sullen narrative seems to light up when describing Gerasim’s physical and emotional appearance and manner. Tolstoy’s tone is canorous, and his adjectives are complex, thus enabling him to paint a detailed and beautiful image. “Just then Gerasim entered the room with a light, vigorous step, exuding the pleasant smell of tar from his heavy boots and of fresh winter air” (Tolstoy 87). Again Gerasim is juxtaposed to the bourgeois society. Through the fervid narrative of Gerasim, Tolstoy paints the picture of a happy young person. The narrative has a descriptive edge that it does not when describing the bourgeois class, by using adjectives and imagery.  The difference is evident: Tolstoy uses the narrative to differentiate between the two classes.  The bourgeois society is portrayed as cold and unemotional, in which everyone focuses on materials rather then real emotions, and relationships, causing them to become detached from their humanity. This makes the reader feel unsympathetic towards these characters due to the uninspired narrative. Tolstoy’s distain for the unsympathetic is evident in his use of adjectives, using “pleasantly” and “properly” to describe the bourgeois characters. There is no emotion or feeling behind these adjectives or individuality the description. When the reader should feel sympathetic towards these characters, they are instead greeted with a feeling of emptiness. Thus by doing this Tolstoy portrays the materialistic characters as mass men, who do as they are instructed by society not as they feel. Gerasim is described differently because he is different, due to his ability to express emotion away from his pursuits. The pursuits that the materialistic characters face clouds their judgement and overrides their humanity, and Tolstoy’s distaste for this lack of humanity is evident.

The materialism that drives the bourgeois class is representative of the acquisitivepursuits in modern day society. Superficial materialistic society is prominent in both the modern day and the era in which Tolstoy composed The Death Of Ivan Ilyich. The society in which these characters live is established by their materialistic pursuits, and feeling of need for admiration by peers. This need for admiration and attention to meticulous detail is highlighted when Ivan is decorating his new home.

When he met his family at the station and brought them back to their brightly lit furnished apartment, and a footman in a white tie opened the door to a flower-be-decked entrance hall, from which they proceded  to the drawing room and the study, gasping with delight, he was very happy, showed them everywhere, drank in their praises and beamed with satisfaction (Tolstoy 58)

Ivan soaks in the praise and get a level of satisfaction from his house. His house is used as a status item, the praise sand admiration add to Ivan’s materialistic contentment. The status and pleasure gained from the admiration of other’s even causes Ivan to ignore the pain in which he is suffering and will inevitably lead to his downfall. The only characters free of materialistic influence, are the characters that are less exposed to materialism such as Ivan’s son and Gerasim. Ivan’s son is described as a reflection of his father’s youth, the youth that Ivan suppresses in the face of death. Ivan suppresses his youth, because it pains him to see what has come of the potential he once had and was prized on. His son’s ability to enjoy himself to some extent away from the materialistic world, and his ability to love, exemplify the need to stay away from societal conformity.  Materialistic pursuits make conformity more important than individuality and love. In further developing the juxtaposition between Ivan, and the humble characters, there is a huge difference in the manor in which humble characters carry their lives out to how the bourgeois carry out their lives in a very materialistic manor. A world like that in which Ivan lives is very evident in modern day society, people buy in to the lies of corporations and loses sight of their individuality and humanity.

Juxtaposition, theme, and narrative, are used to illustrate Tolstoy’s distain with modern society and its inhabitants. Modern society causes people to lose sight of their individuality; and makes it possible for them to conform to societies that they don’t believe in. Tolstoy is able to illustrate this point brilliantly through his writing. His stylistic choices relying on empty narrative, cause a distain in the reader that reflects his distain for society as well. Tolstoy’s blatant disregard for materialism is also well illustrated through the narrative as well as the plot line, there are many occasions where objects ruin family moments for Ivan Ilyich, an example of this would be the purchasing of pastries that ruins Ivan party.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich PBA by J.B.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email