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

One’s own ani…

One’s own animalistic drives can lead them in one of two paths; one of clarity and enlightenment or one of destruction. Throughout his works, Tolstoy manages to portray himself through his characters. The majority of said characters are represented in a negative light. Never has Tolstoy denied his own wrong doings or his own grotesque instincts and negative qualities. In fact, he goes as far as to put them out for the world to see and criticize because he himself is the most critical of all. He sees what is wrong with himself and takes that as a heavy implication of what is wrong with society as a whole. By inserting himself into his stories, he can cope with his own insecurities, his own obscenities, and in turn convince himself that he is morally pure once again. “His energies spread out beyond literature into pedagogy, social thought, and moral philosophy. Again and again he sought to turn the gold coin of his fame as a writer into public influence.” (Camden). He wanted to make an impact on society, an attempt to make it change, to make it unlike himself. 

Tolstoy’s unique approach to accepting mankind’s faults and laying them out for society to criticize ultimately earned him his notoriety. Russians expected Tolstoy to take a stand, and write about one side of society. Instead he condemned human civilization as a whole and said exactly what was wrong with both sides of the story. Neither the lion nor the tiger are right, nor are either of them wrong. Both have their needs and both are entirely equally narcissistic, lustful, sinful, self-righteous, etc. The point is that everyone is imperfect and he saw that. In his novella, The Devil, Tolstoy inserts himself into the story to impart a moral message of sorts onto the reader. He has gone through similar situations and he has been able to observe similar situations as the ones that take place in The Devil, therefore, he has the right to speak for such behaviors. In The Devil, the main protagonist, Eugène is led to his own destruction through his narcissistic lust for money and women.

Eugène manages to exemplify all that is wrong with high-class society in The Devil. Throughout the novella he consistently shows his narcissistic behavior to the reader. Eugène has an undying love for all that one would consider “less important” in society. Instead of being cared for he chooses lust, instead of caring for others he chooses to care only for himself, so on and so forth. Eugène goes out of his way to please himself and gain the most from any situation. Time and time again, he proves to the reader that society is much too abundant with his type of people. Of course, this is a projection of Tolstoy himself onto the overall character that is Eugène. Tolstoy makes a point to critique his standing in society. As an upperclass citizen himself, he can relate to and express what upperclass society is like. Eugène is the personification of all that is flawed in the upper class. This standing of supposed superiority is what ultimately causes Eugène to feel as if he can get away with anything. In the end, the fact that he subconsciously knows he is superior results in his narcissistic personality and views. Nothing Eugène ever does is for anyone else but himself unless he is ultimately forced to do it. He may sometimes show supposedly “weak” points where he expresses a bout of love for someone, but in the end he only works to serve himself. His sole purpose is to make himself happy at the cost of everybody else. Unfortunately, this leads to his destruction. Eugène destroys himself through his own narcissistic behavior. Because he is unable to have something, he in a way throws a tantrum of sorts by committing suicide at the closing of the novella.

Furthermore, Eugène’s narcissistic behavior is truly highlighted through his quest for constant monetary gratification. His lust for money is made blatantly obvious at the opening of the novella. “He arranged with his brother, with whom he was very friendly, that he would pay him either four thousand rubles a-year, or a lump sum of eighty thousand, for which Andrew would hand over to him his share of the inheritance.” (Tolstoy, 210). Eugène will stop at nothing to earn what he wants. He even exploits and manipulates his own brother, Andrew, his own flesh and blood, someone he is supposedly “very friendly” with. He manages to take an inheritance that belongs to both siblings and make it wholly his own. By buying his brother’s half of the inheritance Eugène is essentially devaluing Andrew’s standing as a son, even as a brother. He is taking something that should be rightfully shared amongst the two men and taking it all for himself because ultimately that is all he wants. He wants everything and anything he comes in contact with for himself, regardless of the fact that it may rightfully belong to someone else. He will set on a course to find what ever loop hole he can to ensure he wholeheartedly can gain whatever he wants. Eugène’s greed creates a battle field of contradicting emotions within himself. Would he rather have money or women? Or how about both? That is the answer. Eugène decides he will take both money and women for his own. He will own all that he can because that is who he is. His upbringing has taught him to have no mercy and evidently created somewhat of a monster.

In addition to his lust for money, Eugène’s lust for women also drives him to the brink of extinction. It is only his narcissism which knocks him off the edge.  His faults are laid right out in front of the reader come the very first page of The Devil as previously referenced above. Eugène’s lust after Stepanída becomes poisonous after possibly only a few moments after encountering her. His greed and narcissism work together with his longing for a female body to finally urge him to have an affair with Stepanída. Undoubtedly, Eugène is not even phased by the fact that Stepanída has a husband. Tolstoy makes another commentary on society here. Showing how a person attracts the same kind of person. Stepanída embodies in women what Eugène embodies for men. They are both foils for each other in that one’s narcissistic ways highlights the other’s. Eugène seemingly does something “selfless” for once by marrying Liza Annenskaya. He is seemingly rid of his sinful lusting after Stepanída and again seemingly realizes that he is in love. He believes he is a happy man. 

This is the one point in Eugène’s life that the reader is able to see weakness in his narcissistic ways. His love for Liza creates a chance for Eugène to take a turn for the better, to begin a new set goal in life than to solely please himself. By letting the reader believe this for only slightly a moment, Tolstoy is able to swoop back in and prove to the reader that society is only ever so perfect for very short bouts at a time. The moment Eugène sees Stepanída for the first time after his marriage, he quickly falls madly in love—with the thought of being able to lust after the woman. Eugène’s destructiveness fully manifests itself when his lust for Stepanída reaches its absolute threshold. His powerful lust for the peasant woman gets to such a point that he contemplates killing his wife and baby, killing Stepanida, or killing himself. These thoughts result from his inability to understand that he can control his lust. Conclusively, he decides to do the unthinkable. His deeply imbedded narcissism leads him to believe that wanting Stepanida is more important than his wife, his daughter, his family. He would rather die than have to sacrifice anything, showing the degree of which his faults controlled him. 

In the end, Eugene’s narcissism takes over him completely. Leaving no room for anything other than his own desires. Responsibilities were of no care to him. Eugene simply wanted to please himself through Stepanida, which he successfully did. In the end of it all Eugene was satisfied which is only exemplified by the fact that he killed himself. By committing suicide he expressed the purest form of narcissistic behavior. He was in control (or rather his narcissism was), he decided when we was going to die, how he was going to die, and most importantly why he was going to die. The basic fact that he took this power into his own hands only shows how much he believed he should be in control of himself and that only his opinion and his decision mattered.  

Additionally, TermTolstoy manages to show the extent to which mankind will go to get what he wants. He almost plainly states to the reader that man holds his own needs above anyone else’s needs. Needs is not referring to biological needs but instead to selfish, manmade needs. Needs such as money, property, entitlement, etc. Eugene, although scared of ending his life, knows that it is the only decision that will make him happy. It is the only decision that will get him what he wants while still leaving others empty handed. “It is something I never thought of ‑ how strange it will be…” (Tolstoy, 248).  Eugene is shown to brush off the fact that he is selfishly taking himself away from all of those that love him. He thinks of the event as any other task one would normally complete throughout the day. He has just simply never done this before, but of course it is normal.  By treating such a dangerous, unusual event as nonchalantly as he does, Tolstoy perfectly accentuates the degree to which Eugene is narcissistic. 

Moreover, Eugene’s voracious attitude ultimately led him to his own destruction. Tolstoy attempts to make a statement with Eugene’s sinful nature and he succeeds. Tolstoy’s mission in The Devil was to warn people, to have humanity be on the look out for its own destruction because one day it will destroy itself as Eugene did. There are many instances throughout the novella where Tolstoy draws inspiration from his own life, but he mostly draws inspiration from society itself. Tolstoy may share a similar backstory to his characters. Both were previously in Crimea, both held considerable standings in society, and both were the exact mold of what society secretly wants you or more likely drives you to be: a self-righteous narcissistic person. Tolstoy realizes this and throughout most of his works also attempts to warn society as he did in The Devil. “In the last decades of his life Tolstoy publicly repudiated his earlier literary career to devote himself to the moral betterment of humankind. He succeeded in becoming the spokesman for a great ethical position and achieved world influence and renown.” (Carden). Tolstoy is finally able to achieve his goal: to warn people of the dangers of society and what society can cause to itself. The animalistic presence inside of every person has the ability to fight for its instincts and survive, whilst working with nature in itself and outside. 


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2 thoughts on “One’s own ani…

  1. First off I would like to say that I that your paper was well written. I found your interpretation of Tolstoy to be rather interesting. I agree that Tolstoy was a representation of the characters within his stories and that it helps him cope with his own insecurities. Furthermore, he was always concerned with making an impact on society. I like your examination of instead of examining one side of society that he gives the faults of both. Most would find this inappropriate especially for an author to be doing. Unlike my paper where i discussed how society influenced his writing it is interesting to see how you think he is condemning human civilization. In “The Devil,” Tolstoy is able to express through Eugene all the faults he finds in the bourgeoisie. This is important to know because all of these beliefs ultimately inspire his writings. My only concern when you begin to discuss Eugene and how he represents Tolstoy is that there is a bit too much summary from the story. Instead of recalling scenes, you could have possibly just described their similar characteristics and how they are a portrayal of each other. Although your examples help demonstrate what you are trying to say remember the point of this paper is to show your interpretation of Tolstoy within his work not just explain what happened in what you read. I particularly like your argument regarding greed and how mankind will go to get what he wants. This is an extremely significant theme found amongst his works. Lastly, I feel like you concluded the paper strongly and reminded the reader of your thesis and the message you were trying to convey. Every person has the ability to fight for what he believes in and Tolstoy goes ahead and does so.

  2. Nelssssss I am impressed by the legitimate nature of this work of literary analysis. The connections you draw between Tolstoy’s life and his characters is thought-provoking and very rational. I see where you are coming from and its a solid foundation for your paper. Your writing at times is a little thick, but undoubtedly well formulated. I second what Alexis says, so no need to rewrite her analysis of your paper. I feel like your paper and mine go almost hand-in-hand with the central topic of choice, ultimate destruction of Tolstoy’s characters. Although I preferred not to try and use the characters as icons of Tolstoy himself, I do agree with Tolstoy’s habit of always dooming his characters to damnation, one way or another. Also, the concept of relationships between people that are neither pure or completely legitimate, just jump out of Tolstoy’s works, no doubt about it. I am glad you touched upon it in your paper.


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