Death Of Ivan Illych By Tolstoi Leo Tolstoi the author of the short story “The Death of Ivan Ilych” was born into wealthy family in Russia. Tolstoi became tired of going to school and bettering himself so he dropped out of Kazan University. Despite societies pressures he opened up a school for lower class children. Leo Tolstoi became very successful in his profession as a novelist but was for some reason unhappy with his life. He then gave away all his land and book royalties and started living a peasants life. “The Death of Ivan Ilych” is about a man’s realization of the meaninglessness of his existence in light of his impending death.
By all external definitions, Ivan’s life was the picture of success. He had risen to the top of his profession; he had married an attractive and well-thought of woman; and he seemed to be satisfied with the pleasantness of it all. Yet under this exterior, his life was empty, hollow, and completely motivated by worldly trappings. Other people’s expectations dominated Ivan’s life. He had to do what was proper. He went into the law, took a good job, and could even rationalize his carousing because everybody said that that was what young people did. It is also interesting to note that many of Ivan’s rationalizations come in the form of French phrases.
He needs to be part of that upper class, regardless of the personal cost. He continually seeks out higher wages and better jobs to keep pace with his cost of living. Paring down his living expenses is not a viable option. In addition to this driving need to “be somebody” in the social and financial world, Ivan has a propensity to run away from his problems at home. It is unclear in the story what brings on his wife’s change of heart and mood, but she starts to nag and complain. It starts during her pregnancy and never stops. She was quite the catch when Ivan married her, although Ivan may never have really been in love with her. Rather, he seems to marry her out of some social convenience and a careless “why not?” attitude.
But to her defense, how could you not turn into her after living with the coldness and emptiness of Ivan for so long? In any case, she emerges from the birth and subsequent births a nagging, self-centered, and spoiled bitch. This new negative force in Ivan’s life disrupts his quietude, so he retreats further back into his work and his petty life of cards and false friends. It would destroy him to confront his problems at home because that would lead him to a detestable re-evaluation of the self. Ivan is not the only one with the identity problems, however; his co-workers seem to be no better off. They are represented by Peter who has been a life long “friend” of Ivan’s. The story opens with Ivan’s former colleagues who read about the news of his death in the paper.
Although they all knew him well, they can barely muster a word of shock or remorse at his passing. “Besides considerations as to the possible transfers and promotions likely to result from Ivan Ilych’s death, the mere fact of the death of a near acquaintance aroused, as usual, in all who heard of it the complacent feeling that “it is he who is dead and not I.”‘ Their thoughts turn to promotions and the fact that they are glad that it is Ivan who is dead and not them. In a mere three lines, the conversation steers away from Ivan to banter about living outside of town. Peter is the only one who decides to go to the funeral — solely because he feels “obligated” to go. Tolstoi makes a point of reminding us that Peter would have to forgo his afternoon nap to attend the services.
None of these people give a damn about Ivan, presumably as Ivan didn’t give a damn about them. This opening scene lays down a powerful and provocative framework for the story. The scene at the funeral is equally telling. Instead of mourning, Peter concerns himself only with the gestures of mourning: what signs he should be making, when he should bow, and what he should say. He is not the only one guilty of this crime, though.
Ivan’s wife is more concerned with financial matters than the grief over her husband. In a darkly comic scene, she confronts Peter about ways she can get more money from the government, while absurdly faking like she is choking back her tears. All of this transpires while Peter is wrestling with the pouffe springs below him, saying “believe me.” Neither Peter nor Ivan’s wife appears to be concerned with anything but their own immediate future. Even the leader of the service seems to be hiding some insecurity as she booms out some unfeeling prayers. The only one in the entire service who seems to be grieving is Ivan’s son. Yet he seems to be embarrassed by his grief, as he looks “shamed facedly” at Peter like someone with impure thoughts.
The irony lies in the fact that he is probably the only one with anything close to pure thoughts. Ivan’s life takes a sudden turn as he starts to feel the ill effects of his curtain-hanging accident. He tries to forget about it as long as he can by moving on with his pleasant and appropriate life. What drives him to his realization, though, is the attitude of the others toward his illness. The doctors assess him in their cold, pompous manner.
They care more about their abstract diagnoses than about Ivan’s personal pain. Tolstoi makes direct analogy between Ivan’s cold, impersonal approach to law and the doctors’ callous and unsympathetic bedside manner. This is the first step to Ivan’s realization. His family is equally unresponsive to his pain. Their personal misfortune and inconvenience dominate their feelings.
As Ivan falls deeper into sickness, he falls deeper into despair. He finally realizes the emptiness and unimportance of his life. He curses the curtains — the symbol of his vanity — which killed him. He retreats from his family, wanting only Gerasim for comfort. He cannot deny the pain of his sickness or his failed life any longer. He finds enlightenment right before his death.
He comes to the conclusion that his death is meaningless and worth nothing since his life was meaningless and worth nothing. “The Death of Ivan Ilych” is about how people get so caught up in trying to live the way society tells them too.