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Decoding Life’s Essence: A Deep Dive into Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych

Ivan Ilych’s Pursuit of Pleasure and Societal Success

Tolstoy’s narrative, The Death of Ivan Ilych explores the meaning of life through the use of death as the basis within which the protagonist measures his achievements in life, attitudes and perceptions of what is important. Ivan Ilych, the protagonist, has lived his entire life solely in pursuit of pleasures of life, attaining power in his career, purchasing extravagant items to impress his peers, playing bridge and throwing parties. Ivan is presented as as professional and successful man in contemporary Russian society. However, his actions describe him as inattentive, uncaring and miserable father and husband. Ivan reserves his tolerance for things that he deems to be pleasant and shuns anything that is potentially unpleasant. Essentially, he has spent his life attempting to become a part of the highest social class and a member of social elite.

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Through symbolism Tolstoy has systematically integrated various stages in the narrative to illustrate issues such as anger, denial, bargaining, depression and acceptance (Charlton and Varghese). Significantly, at the end Ivan Ilych accepts the fact that his death is unavoidable; hence the release from the burden that is life, “in place of death there was light” (Tolstoy 41). . The narrative depicts various emotions that Ivan goes through in his illness which characterize the death as a symbolic acceptance of the inevitable afterlife.

Ivan Ilych has always presented himself as a social conformist who takes pride in doing what is considered as socially just and right. For instance, his marriage was not based on love, but rather more of a social undertaking that sought to position him in the right social construct. Therefore, his marriage aimed to serve a purpose in his social placement; furthermore, all his peers were doing the same thing (Tolstoy 19). Though Ivan sought to rise and be acknowledged in the higher social circles; his illness brings him a new truth concerning the vanity of his life and the true meaning of the latter. Essentially, his illness reveals the fact that though there is pain in his illness and subsequent death; the real pain in his life emanates from his attitudes towards life and the fact that he is unable to relinquish himself from his legacy.

Evidently, the concept of death and suffering from his illness gives Ivan realization that he has led a significantly vain and unhappy life which had not realized this when he was not ill. During his healthy days, Ivan Ilych failed to acknowledge his mortality, however, upon realization of his illness and its consequences, he cannot afford to ignore his mortality. Ivan’s suffering; pain and apprehension at the prospect of dying have the impact of segregating him form the entire normal world that he used to roam; where his family, colleagues and friends continue to live their ordinary lives. His dismay is exuberated at the discovery that no one seems to appreciate the extent of his suffering; as such, he is left to suffer and agonize alone with the comfort of the only servant who pities him.

The fact that the doctor, his family and friends will not acknowledge his suffering or impending death in his presence deepens Ivan’s suffering; even though the doctors offers to ease his pain (Papadimos and Stawicki), Ivan is of the view that no one is capable of relieving his pain. His condition leads Ivan to wonder whether his entire life was a mistake (Tolstoy 41). Consequently, Ivan begins to hate himself, his children and wife; his hatred for his family and friends stems from the fact that they have no idea of the extent of his suffering and pain. However, Ivan recognizes the ultimate lesson of his suffering towards the end that his life was spent in pursuit of the wrong things.

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He realized that though the idea that he had spent his life doing wrong things seemed improbable, it had inherent truth. It occurs to Ivan that his barely noticeable attempts to fight against the status quo and political correctness of the upper classes might be the only thing that was real in his life. Ivan starts to realize that his life, family, profession, official and social pursuits may have been misguided and false. Though he attempts to defend his life choices and actions, he recognizes the folly and futility of such efforts since nothing in his life choices and actions is worth defending. This led to realization that his entire life was an endeavor in futility and the cause of his pain and suffering. However, he fails to acknowledge his responsibility in decisions he made and blames others for his misfortune.

Ivan’s wife is aware of her husband’s suffering and seeks the services of a priest with the aim of easing her husband’s pain. Through communion and confession, Ivan feels relieved and appreciates his wife’s acknowledgement of his suffering; a fact that is reflected in his wife’s demeanor (Tolstoy 64-65). Inevitability of death is among the primary themes that emerge in The death of Ivan Ilych. Evidently, death is a phenomenon that everyone must face at one point irrespective of a person’s position in society, achievements or authority.

The narrative illustrates the fact that everyone dies. Sickness is a common factor of human life that affects the rich and the poor alike; as such, it does not take into consideration of a person’s occupation or social status. Though death is characterized as the ultimate end or price that all must pay, in Ivan’s case the impending death acts as an eye opener to a truth that has eluded him for his entire life (Fitzpatrick). It occurs to him that his life has been characterized by pursuits that have been immersed in artificiality and mediocrity of life. As a result, he recognizes that he forgot to love what is really important: his wife and his family. His ambition and hunger for social recognition and status through over-investment in his work led to neglecting his wife and family especially when they needed him the most (Tolstoy 19-20). Therefore, death acts as a reminder of what was important in a person’s life and what was not significant.

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The narrative illustrates a critical moment and a turning point where Ivan realized that he was about to die. This point is critical since it leads to more intricate truths of his entire life; that he has been “dead” for a longer period that he realized even prior to his illness (Fitzpatrick). Essentially, his subscription and blind faith to traditions and customs of the aristocracy that he had previously held at a higher esteem were the primary pre-cursors of his metaphorical demise. When he pursued social status, wealth and power relentlessly throughout his life, he lost himself in the process (Fitzpatrick). In his pursuits and ambitions, Ivan forgot that he was once happy when he led a simpler way of life. In addition, he forgot he had responsibility and obligations towards his wife and family; therefore, there were other concerns and people in his life who were more important than his pursuit of self-glory and gratification.


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