Analysis of Leo Tolstoy and his work, The Death of Ivan Ilyich

My Pay-Pa: Christina

There is a certain pattern to the dynamics which occur between people, a method which unifies and gives reason to the madness of human existence. It organizes, identifies, and separates individuals into titles, titles that although mean different things, ultimately confine their members to that one absolute thing. This overwhelming power, the cloud of the social universe, is the sometimes unwritten, but openly known, opinion of the majority. Through this opinion, which roams through cities and other concrete habitats like a thick fog, people are trained to obey and to conform into molds created by accepted ideals. In “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”, by Leo Tolstoy, the protagonist, Ivan Ilyich, adapts and imitates the behaviors and decision-making that society has set forth before him. Through his metamorphosis into a socially acceptable slave, Ivan makes decisions with a mental set that often disregards his most natural desires and replaces their weight with what society has shown him to be the path to happiness and success. Ivan Ilyich is a prime example of how society’s expectations and standards cause people to conform in order to satisfy the majority’s wishes.
From early on, Ivan was enticed and subjected to society’s overbearing power. He was “from his earliest years” attracted, “as a fly to the light, to persons of good standing in the world”, and consequently, “assimilated their manners and their views of life”(Tolstoy 87). These few sentences, which arise as the foreboding to Ivan’s unfortunate fate, are reinforced as the story continues. The narrator goes on, “he gave way to sensuality and to vanity”, and in regards to school, “he had committed actions which had struck him beforehand as great vileness… But later on… he was able, not to regard them as good, but to forget about them completely” (Tolstoy 87). All of his initial, most innate beliefs are struck down to nothing more than shadows cast upon the floor. Even before Ivan is a grown, independent man, society manages to disrupt what he naturally believes to be “good” and “bad” and replace them by what society believes to be “necessary” and “unnecessary”. Furthermore, the very next page states that Ivan’s behavior, as well as the behavior of his peers, in the province which he found his initial work (so kindly acquired for him by his father), was not always the most noble of behavior. However, it was all justified by the fact that everything was done “in the highest society, and consequently with the approval of people of rank” (Tolstoy 88). Ivan’s thought processes alter before he even completes his education, as a means to appease and be adored by the general public.
In relation to Ivan’s relationship with his wife, Praskovya Fyodorovna, he married her because it was something society would approve of. The narrator blatantly states, “Ivan Ilyich was influenced by… doing something that was agreeable to himself in securing such a wife, and at the same time doing what persons of higher standing looked upon as the correct thing” (Tolstoy 90). Not surprisingly, the marriage quickly changed from a lighthearted pretend play, to a miserable seventeen years. As the marriage worsened throughout those seventeen years, Ivan began spending less time with his family and more time at work. This cyclic process only worsened his relationship with Praskovya and strained the marriage further. Had he not been so extrinsically motivated to “secure” a wife who held status such as Praskovya, he might have had the chance to legitimately fall in love, regardless of the woman’s social standing. Nevertheless, because the majority suggested that he should have a wife of such merit, and because she so conveniently fell in love with him, he had no better choice than to blissfully settle down.
As a result of society’s influences, Ivan’s character transforms into an unpleasant and coldblooded creature. His egotistical personality rears its ugly head in his workplace more than anywhere. He is described as treating those under his power “almost like comrades”, he took pleasure in the fact that he was “able to annihilate them” but was behaving in a “simple, friendly way with them” (Tolstoy 89). Further, he felt as if “all were in his hands”, but the one thing that motivated him the most to his labor was “the consciousness of [his] power… [it] constituted for him the chief interest and attractiveness of his new position” (Tolstoy 89). Ivan is an insect even in his early adulthood. He represents a true product of society, with the same determination and disregard for others that the general public brutally promotes.
Despite Ivan’s carefully constructed life, he too eventually faces rejection. Predictably, the boy who had many positions of power handed to him, does not handle rejection very well as a man. When he does not get the promotion that he so savagely hungered, he decides that the best course of action is to “revenge himself on them, the people, that is, who had not known how to appreciate him” (Tolstoy 94). Gritty as he is, Ivan succeeds in his revenge. He receives the post that gives him the five thousand in income he desires, but is that the sole satisfaction he seeks? No, as a matter of fact the income of five thousand was a bonus to the fact that “all those who had been his enemies had been put to shame, and where cringing now… how envious they were of his appointment…” (Tolstoy 95). Ivan is twisted into the crooked mold that society set for him, so much so, that he finds more satisfaction in the ruin of others, than in his own success. Having power is no longer an option, but a necessity. And the power itself is little reward without the annihilation of others.
Ivan’s lifestyle eventually becomes one of the contributing factors to his death. As the end of his life approaches he becomes depressed and outraged, reactions more suitable for a man who did not live life in its fullest nature, and rather, lead life as someone else directed. In his health Ivan had become accustomed to the undivided attention of others, but when the doctors who visit him begin to act apathetic, he is “morbidly [aroused]” with a “great feeling of pity for himself, [and] of great anger against his doctor who could be unconcerned about a matter of such importance” (Tolstoy 102). Even though he dying, Ivan is still preoccupied with the fact that the doctors, instead of waiting on him hand and foot, examining every possibility, have dismissed him as having some obscure sickness which cannot be helped by excess medical attention. The lack of attention in itself is enough to upset Ivan because, as has been taught, important people receive the best attention, whether it be medical or not, and if he is not the upmost priority, then he is no longer a needed pawn in society.
In addition to his desire for attention, there are signs that his illness is a product of conversion disorder, in which he transfers psychological pain into physical ailments. One of the two underlining psychological reasons which suggest that his pain is not legitimate is the fact that he shows signs of a narcissistic personality disorder, extreme love for oneself. Upon discovering his illness, Ivan, who had never once shown any sort of extraordinary concern for his health or habits, begins to act as a sever hypochondriac. Once he received the doctor’s orders his “principle occupation became the exact observance of the doctor’s prescriptions” (Tolstoy 103). Not only did Ivan become obsessed with his sickness, but also began to derive some pleasure from the ordeal. The narrator states “When anything was said in his presence about sick people… he listened, trying to conceal his excitement, asked questions, and applied what he heard to his own trouble” (Tolstoy 103). In addition to the surfacing narcissism, Ivan also suffers from severe depression. After his diagnosis everything appeared “dismal” to him (Tolstoy 102). And as much as he tried to make himself better, “as soon as he had a mischance, some unpleasant words with his wife, a failure in his official work… he was at once acutely sensible of his illness” (Tolstoy 103). If Ivan’s illness was completely, or primarily, a physical issue, he would not be so sensitive to every emotional turn. Between the sudden onset of excessive self-preservation, and the hypersensitivity to emotional spills, Ivan’s suffering is brought on from a more psychological stand point in comparison to a physical one.
Ivan is highly susceptible to society’s influence and never once dares to stray from the beaten path. Lying on his death bed he begins to reflect about the life he has had and contemplates the fate he now faces. Upon his deathbed he states, “It cannot be that all men always have been doomed to this awful horror!” (Tolstoy 109). Ivan, who lies dying in a bed, cannot understand how death could possibly ever take him. He goes on to state that for others, who are mortal, “it [is] right for [them] to die”, but that for himself “it’s a different matter” because if he were to die “[it] would be too awful” (Tolstoy 110). Ivan spends his entire life viewing himself and the world through the clouded looking-glass forced upon him by the masses. The appalling truth of his existence is unbearable for him to accept and he continues his delusion until the very moment when death takes him. Ultimately, even the great Ivan Ilyich is nothing more than a corpse.
The impositions that society creates and inflicts on its members are not restricted to works of literary fiction. There are an immense amount of current-day ‘rules’ that the members of the socially fit must abide by on an every hour basis. For example, a college education is now an absolute necessity to become successful; similarly, professionals are expected to be “politically correct” with every word that slips of their silver tongues. Even children and young adults regularly suffer the consequences of trying to appropriate themselves into what the general public believes correct. These limitations hinder what could be an intellectually and emotionally diverse generation. Every minute human kind makes trillions of decisions, roughly all of those decisions are in some way altered or affected by what the ‘group’ thinks. As long as this process continues to survive through the decades, people will continue to be birthed and raised as just a variation of the previous generation. For some, this might be an acceptable fate, for others, such as Ivan, it is their ultimate demise.


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2 thoughts on “My Pay-Pa: Christina

  1. I would like to start off by saying that I really like the way you begun your paper. The first paragraph really intrigued me as a reader and made me want to keep reading on. Your organization was done well. I was surprised to see that you did not really incorporate any other sources into your paper. However, I understand what it is like to finally be able to write a term paper without having to include so much superfluous “research”, the type of paper that is nothing but a combination of other’s ideas, smashed into one non-personal project. So I respect your decision to go solo on this one. The support you provided was more than enough. You really enforced your one major concept throughout the entire paper and kept relating back to that one central topic, which I think is beneficial when you are trying to explain your perception of something. This idea of how society is so influential in the way we think as individuals is pretty scary. I realize it everywhere now. Overall, I liked your paper. I think it was well drawn out and put together.

    – Alexis

  2. First and foremost I would like to congratulate you on finishing this paper. Secondly, like Alexis said, the way you start off this paper is particularly well done. You are able to entice the reader from the get go and keep them interested throughout. I mean no offense to Shaps for assigning the particular subject matter, but the general public may be bored by it. You on the other hand manage to keep the reader here and simultaneously persuade them to read your paper and the story. I do agree with most if not all of your points. Ivan is a greedy, egotistical man and if you read my paper (which you did), you’ll see that I agree completely. Tolstoy has a way with telling the reader exactly what he is feeling while still pretending that it is solely for his work. I think you conveyed that pretty accurately and analyzed Tolstoy’s work to the fullest of anyone’s ability. Good job! and once again congratulations!

    – Nelson

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