Leo Tolstoy's novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich begins shortly after Ivan Ilyich's death. A small group of legal professionals, court members, and a private prosecutor have gathered in a private room within the Law Courts, and while looking through a newspaper one of them reads the following; "Praskovya Fedorovna Golovina, with profound sorrow, ...
Leo Tolstoy's novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich begins shortly after Ivan Ilyich's death. A small group of legal professionals, court members, and a private prosecutor have gathered in a private room within the Law Courts, and while looking through a newspaper one of them reads the following; "Praskovya Fedorovna Golovina, with profound sorrow, informs relatives and friends of the demise of her beloved husband Ivan Ilyich Golovin, Member of the Court of Justice, which occurred on February the 4th of this year 1882. The funeral will take place on Friday at one o'clock in the afternoon." Immediately members of the group begin to think how Ilyich's passing will affect their positions and status; They thank God it didn't happen to them and ponder on the implications of how they might benefit from their colleagues demise, each one of them oblivious of the fact that death will come to them all. A-- The story takes us back and we see Ivan Ilyich in the prime of his life. He has studied law and is now a judge. He performs his work with a cold discipline and he is a social climber who has become devoid of emotion. He lacks empathy and any concern for his fellow man, seeking only to reach the top where he can look down upon his peers. One day Ivan has a fall whilst decorating his new house. He sustains an injury and although he doesn't know it, the injury will cause him to become ill and he will die as a result. During his illness he becomes bad tempered and bitter and refuses to believe he is coming to the end of his life. He gets little sympathy from his family and his only solace are his conversations with Gerasim, a peasant who stays by his bed and gives him honesty and kindness. Reflecting on his current situation and his past life Ivan's worldview begins to change. He realizes the higher he climbed in his noble profession the more unhappy he became, and looking back he realizes how meaningless his life had been. Slowly Ivan comes to term with his immanent death and finally he sees the light. He begins to feel sorry for those about him busying themselves living a life of habit unable to see how artificial their existence is and that they are not living a good life at all. Finally after his illumination he dies in a moment of exquisite happiness. The Death of Ivan Ilyich is Tolstoy's attack on the smug satisfaction of a middle and upper class population, who in his mind live artificial meaningless lives, lives of separateness unaware of their creator and what lies before them after death. Tolstoy's critic Vladimir Nabokov summed it up when he wrote; "The Tolstoyan formula is: Ivan lived a bad life and since the bad life is nothing but the death of the soul, then Ivan lived a living death; and since beyond death is God's living light, then Ivan died into a new life - Life with a capital L."
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Jun 19, 2009
The hard, unvarnished and bitter truth
The death of Ivan Ilyich is a tour de force in the realm of literature. It is a literary masterpiece. It is written by one of the greatest writers the world has witnessed namely Leo Tolstoy. It is a story written during the relentlessly worldly and materialistic age of Czarist Russia. The story is a flashback of the life of a worldly careerist judge who dies. It is the morbid story of a successful judge who is spiraled downwards into the inescapable jaws of death. The protagonist is hurled into the throes of death in a quick space of time. It shows how difficult it is to acknowledge death for a man who has never ever given the thought of death even a fleeting thought. The book documents the trauma faced by the judge when he comes to terms with his ill fate. Tolstoy is a well renowned authority on the subject of death. Through the agonies of Ivan Ilyich, Tolstoy portrays death as a terrible irreversible phenomenon, which humans find it difficult to grapple with. The book is a thorough and horrific glimpse into the abyss that is death. The story depicts death also as an unknown mystery that is viewed as an unavoidable and macabre absolute. The story was the culmination of a nine-year spiritual crisis in Tolstoy?s life. It reflects Tolstoy?s obsession and fear of death and his inability to come to terms with it.
The judge is a worldly careerist who is fascinated with his work. His work keeps him engrossed and diverts his mind from distractions and problems in his life. He is endowed with arbitrary power. He has position, prestige and status in his society. He is bestowed with the trappings of power. He is very conscious of his status, power and position in society. He has inclinations toward materialistic and worldly pursuits. He socializes with people of high social stature and does not interact with people whom he deems to be below his status. He had strained relations with his wife but did not divorce her due to fear of negative social reactions. His life is divorced from spirituality. He never prayed to God and never attended churches. He led a life exactly opposite of a simple earthly existence.
Suddenly he falls ill and his life is turned upside down. He contracts a fatal disease and is terminally ill for the rest of his days. The disease and his realization of his imminent death brings out the worst in him. The fear and trepidation of death completely devastates him. He loses focus on work. His concentration is ripped apart. His personality is metamorphosed. He starts throwing temper tantrums at his wife and children. He hates the world around him. He thinks his wife and children and friends are not showing genuine affection, empathy and sympathy with him. His pride and ego is hurt. He feels people are lying to him and are deceiving him. He finds only a simple boy called Gerasim comforting and sympathizing with him. He feels only Gerasim understands him. He finally dies.
Through this story Tolstoy tries to express a few of his ideas. Tolstoy believes people fear death. Tolstoy feels people can never acknowledge their own death. He also feels people should lead spiritual lives and believe and pray in God. He feels leading simple, spiritual and austere lives would reduce the fear and suffering associated with death. He also feels people think of dying men as liabilities.
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