Tolstoy seeks to create in his work The Death of Ivan Ilych a person is ordinary in every way so much so that his life to the reader is somewhat banal in its intricacies and plot development. The subtleties which enthrall the reader in this novel is best described as having the harrowing effect of delivering a not out the ordinary life so much so that the identification of the reader to the main character becomes so undeniably identifiable that as his actions lead him spiraling toward his death the reader is left thinking that these events are not far off from happening to them.
The isolation that Ivan experience with his family is what leads to his self-awareness, and the true progression of the plot. Ivan’s selfishness begins to erupt when Ivan “[fails] to sympathize with [the family]…[and] his need to fence off the world for himself outside the family became even more imperative” (P. 57). In perfect Russian expose of the facts of a man’s life, Tolstoy delivers with his protagonist Ivan a sense of true desperation, despondency, and ill fortune either self-designed or designed through the failings of fate. The reader is introduced to Ivan while he is announced dead by his friend Peter.
His death is not lamented by this room of judges but his demise presents to them only an opportunity for advancement. Thus, even in his death Ivan is not thought of in tender concern and loss, but in these men’s emotions, Ivan is alienated even in death. On this note of unsympathetic expression the reader is carried by Peter to Ivan’s funeral, at which Ivan’s wife is questioning Peter about how to stretch out Ivan’s pension, and this reflects the truth behind Tolstoy’s quote of her, “that he married because the people in his circle approved of the match” (P. 56).
Here, not only is the reader presented with Ivan’s alienation from friends but from family as well and all after the fact of his death. It is the thought of the average, pedestrian life of Ivan that alludes to a sense of expanding alienation as Ivan’s life held nothing worth the while, no passion, vigor, transformation of character through love or loss. Ivan derived no genuine pleasure, but “pleasure from giving small dinner parties to which he invited men and women of good social standing” (P. 69).
He’s afraid of success, he pitter-patters around with his time, not achieving greatness or even personal greatness, but staying in stasis. It is after Ivan finishes law school and Praskovya discovers that she is pregnant that Ivan begins to feel an eruption of alienation from his life since his wife is acting out of character from the woman he married and his life after this point that Ivan begins to realize his life is not what he wanted nor expected it to be. He distances himself from family and from work.
Of marriage Ivan believed that it was a dreadful affair and “something new, unexpected, and disagreeable…and [he] could do nothing to avoid [it]” (P. 56) When Ivan works he takes a sense of pride in removing his emotional ties and at home he carries this attitude of formality. When Ivan does not receive his promotion, Ivan feels as though an injustice has been served to him. At this point Tolstoy allows Ivan to leave his independent house and move he and his family into his brother-in-laws house. This is done because Ivan cannot any longer afford to support his family’s luxuries.
Faced with this sense of not being able to provide for his family. After this period of disappointing circumstances Ivan’s friend is afforded a substantial position and in which he gives Ivan a higher paying position. In this circumstance, Ivan feels less of a sense of isolation and goes alone to decorate and fix up a new house for his family. It is when Ivan is performing the very mundane act of hanging drapes that he suffers his body against the window frame. Although this minor act is inconsequential it leads to his death. Faced with this new and alien situation, he cannot grasp the concept of his own mortality.
Ivan’s reflection on life takes place not through his realizing that he is about to die but through the character Gerasim who takes care of him in his last days. With Gerasim Tolstoy created a counter part to Ivan so that Ivan and the reader may recognize the extent of Ivan’s alienation and social depravity, “’We all have to die someday, so why shouldn’t I help you? ’ By this he meant that he did not find his work a burden because he was doing it for a dying man, and he hoped that someone would do the same for him when his time came” (P. 104).
Thus does Ivan realize that his life has been a waste since his concerns were not for enjoyment, of which the reader sees minute sparks, and Ivan’s death in turn is the final point of alienation. However, when Ivan realizes his death is moments away, he also realizes his responsibility towards his family and social affairs will also be unburdened from him, thus, in death, despite its overwhelming testament towards alienation, becomes his one point of extreme joy. Only in death does Ivan escape true alienation.
Work Cited Tolstoy, L. The Death of Ivan Ilych. Kessinger Publishing. 2004.