Leo Tolstoy

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by Diana Vergara

Major themes as seen in The Death of Ivan Illych


            In his famous short story, The Death of Ivan Illych, Leo Tolstoy presents the story of an aristocratic Russian man who goes through a transformation in his dying days. Tolstoy starts the narrative at the end of what happened chronologically in the story, the narrative commences with three of Ilyich's colleagues reading his epilogue in the local paper. After Illych’s close friend Peter Ivanovich visits the home of the Illych family for the funeral services with no consequence or thought of what just occurred, the narrative flashes back to the life of a young Ivan Illych.

            Although not born into an extremely wealthy or bureaucratic family, Illych manages to befriend many top officials and administrators as a law school student with his gaiety, good-natured personality, sociability and his hard work at school. His connections enable him to find appointments with ease and soon enter into the social circle of the highest aristocrats of Russian Society. Ilyich's lifestyle is just like any other Russian Aristocrat, worried only of material and decorous pleasures.

            Tolstoy presents a barrier to Illych's happiness however, when Illych learns of the troubles of marriage. What was at first "agreeable, light-hearted" and "always a respectable mode of existence" (pg 114) turned "unexpected, unpleasant, tiresome and unseemly." Just as in many of Tolstoy's works, the main character is a member of high aristocratic society, caught up in material pleasures. But just like Anna in Anna Karenina cannot stay happily married to her husband for very long, Ivan cannot stand the restriction of being married or the nagging of his wife for more than a few years.

            Marriage is a too complicated trouble for those who enjoy wining, dining, and socializing. Unhappy with his marriage, Ivan finds any means of escaping by focusing on his work, throwing parties, or going out with his colleagues. Because of this, Ivan's relationship with his wife quickly deteriorates and the frivolity between two young lovers is replaced by repressed hatred and mild tolerance. After years' passing of the same routine, ignoring what's wrong and embracing what feels good, Ivan Illych falls ill to an unknown disease at the young age of 45.

            Here is where the tables turned for Ivan Illych. The same treatment and attitude which he gave his wife and family, they now gave him. Even Ivan's own daughter treated him with ambivalence, “she was strong, healthy, clearly in love and impatient with illness, suffering and death because they interfered with her happiness." He pleaded for understanding and sympathy, but they simply turned their faces and went on with their lives as if nothing was going amiss.

            Even the colleagues Ivan always turned to when home life became too oppressing and dissatisfactory could not help him in his dying days. Ivan's friends did not comprehend the gravity of the situation either and simply worried about who was to replace Ivan if he passed away, "it would seem to him that people were watching him inquisitively, as a man who would shortly have to give up his post.

            Ivan became reproachful of the attitude they had all taken but never realized that he had been just so a few months back. Ivan remained unhappy and continued to ponder when he would get back to normal and lead a happy life again. Surprisingly, the one character who Tolstoy allows to comprehend Ivan's troubles was the constantly ignored young peasant servant. Gerasim, who acted as Ivan's nurse, was the only one who cared for making his employer's transcendence into death more comfortable. Tolstoy presents irony with having the poorest of all the characters be the most spiritually pure one. Illych lived his life seeking happiness in riches, fame, property and wealth; only to find in the end that none of these truly make one happy. It was not until Ivan Illych stopped caring about material properties and parties and social reputations that he was truly satisfied with his life. It was then that Ivan could understand his family, friends and society he lived in without reproach, the final point of enlightenment before his death.

            In The Death of Ivan Illych, Tolstoy depicts his most commonly used themes. Ivan's role in society represented the common use of the aloofness of 19th century Russian high society. Ivan is troubled with his responsibility in marriage and it's restriction on his once frivolous and social way of life. And it is not until his impending death that Ivan can be spiritually transformed and see what happiness in life truly means.