Death of Ivan Ilych:" the spiritual vs. The material
In "The Death of Ivan Ilych," the Russian author Leo Tolstoy presents a man of the professional class who is so obsessed with 'getting ahead' he refuses to accept his own death until confronted with the inevitable. The title is ironic: Ivan defined himself throughout his life by everything but his mortality, but in the end that is all with which he is left. Tolstoy portrays "Ivan to be so little developed beyond his own narcissism that he does not recognize the most certain fact of his life: his own death. Not only Ivan but his whole professional group (which stands for a central part of modern life), have built their lives around their career success and the pleasures it makes possible. Little moral development is seen beyond the organizational conformity needed to pursue their self-interests" (Feldman 2004). Ivan simply lives to please others: "From earliest youth [he] was by nature attracted to people of high station as a fly is drawn to the light, assimilating their ways and view of life and establishing friendly relations with them" (Tolstoy 103, cited by Feldman 2004).
Tolstoy is famous as a writer for his gripping first lines, and the 'first lines' of "Ivan Ilych" Part II are particularly revealing: "Ivan Ilych's life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible" (Tolstoy 102, cited by Feldman 2004). This suggests that "Ivan's life had been most ordinary and most terrible because it was shallow and meaningless" (Feldman 2004). Only in death does Ivan achieve a kind of grace and understanding, connecting to something larger than his material existence. For the mystic Tolstoy, only if life is invested with higher meaning does it transcend the terrible and the ordinary. Ivan wished to be successful for successes' sake alone and not for joy in his work or because his work was meaningful.
Ivan denied the existence of death while in life, and the denial of his own mortality is seen mirrored in his still-living colleagues who avoid looking at his body at the funeral, and depart early to play a game of cards. "Professional culture is based on the denial of death" (Feldman 2004). Ivan meets with his death from a blow to his side he obtains while decorating his new house and falling from a ladder while hanging up curtains: before, he associates resurrecting the material space with new life, conflating the material with the spiritual in a manner which Tolstoy regards as foolish and base.
The first chapter of the story, before the character of Ivan is introduced at all, contrasts the relief of Ivan's law colleagues that they are alive and Ivan is dead. Their perspective is starkly contrasted with that of the peasant Gerasim, a religious man who accepts death in a matter-of-fact-manner. "It's God will. We shall all come to it some day" (I). Because of this attitude Gerasim is capable of true compassion towards Ivan during his dying days. "Gerasim did it all easily, willingly, simply, and with a good nature that touched Ivan Ilych. Health, strength, and vitality in other people were offensive to him, but Gerasim's strength and vitality did not mortify but soothed him" (IIV). Gerasim is the least foolish of all of them, given that what he says is correct -- death is inevitable.
Although Gerasim the peasant is instinctively wise because of his closeness to nature neither Ivan nor his colleagues are: when Ivan begins to understand the full gravity of his condition, he thinks: "Caius really was mortal, and it was right for him to die; but for me, little Vanya, Ivan Ilych, with all my thoughts and emotions, it's altogether a different matter. It cannot be that I ought to die. That would be too terrible" (VI). It is the peasant's religiosity, not Ivan's intellectualism that Tolstoy regards as truly admirable and Tolstoy mocks the attempts of doctors to understand Ivan's illness. It is worth noting that Ivan Ilych is not bad in his profession, but rather acts rather compassionately and competently. "Ivan Ilych never abused his power; he tried on the contrary to soften its expression, but the consciousness of it and the possibility of softening its effect, supplied the chief interest and attraction of his office" (II). Ivan is good in a worldly sense, but he is not in touch with what Tolstoy regards as the most important aspects of life. Ivan's liberalism is worn as affection, a bauble, not something he really believes in. Tolstoy does not view politics or the law courts as a conduit to the spiritual aspects of life.
Ivan's lack of true vocation is manifested when he is insulted by being denied a promotion and grows frustrated by the fact that he does not make what he considers a suitable income. Without work, Ivan feels utterly miserable and alone in his own soul. "In the country, without his work, he experienced *ennui* for the first time in his life, and not only *ennui* but intolerable depression, and he decided that it was impossible to go on living like that, and that it was necessary to take energetic measures…he now wanted was an appointment to another post with a salary of five thousand rubles, either in the administration, in the banks, with the railways in one of the Empress Marya's Institutions, or even in the customs -- but it had to carry with it a salary of five thousand rubles and be in a ministry other than that in which they had failed to appreciate him" (III). Unlike Tolstoy, who dealt with his depression while working on his estate by turning to spirituality, Ivan finds a better position. As a result, Ivan is delighted in his ability to buy a fine new apartment, but the actual work is tedious and dull, and he often finds himself drifting in his mind away from the court proceedings.
Ivan's relationship with his wife is equally spiritually bankrupt. She is portrayed as a materialistic woman, even more so than her husband, who is primarily interested in his ability to make money and secure a position of power. Rather than a woman being her husband's spiritual partner, as Tolstoy's ideal, she merely feeds Ivan's worst obsessions. Ivan appears to only be able to relate to his family in a material fashion. He gets along better with his wife when she is far away from him, and is happier when he envisions them occupying the rooms he is decorating for them, then when he is actually in their presence. "He was pleased by the thought of how his wife and daughter, who shared his taste in this matter, would be impressed by it" (III).
The house, in which Ivan initially took such pride, begins to horrify him after he grows sick. "It really is so! I lost my life over that curtain as I might have done when storming a fort. Is that possible? How terrible and how stupid. It can't be true! It can't, but it is" (VI). Instead of dying in a glorious manner, Ivan must confront the fact that he died in an absurd fashion, for a middle-class home that was furnished to look like it was owned by someone far wealthier.
"Ivan Ilych" was written during Tolstoy's later period as a novelist, and this disenchantment with the ability of domesticity to elevate the soul was being paralleled in the author's own life. Tolstoy wrote in A Confession, one of his autobiographical works from this period: "The new conditions of happy family life completely diverted me from all search for the general meaning of life. My whole life was centered at that time in my family, wife and children and therefore in care to increase our means of livelihood" (Tolstoy 3). Material success, even when caring for a family is viewed by Tolstoy as something which takes a man away from what is truly important, as is the case with Ivan. Even though Tolstoy was not a 'flunky' like Ivan, but a famous writer and an owner of a large estate, Tolstoy felt there was something missing from his life, around the time when he penned "Ivan Ilych." He fell into a deep depression: "all this befell me at a time when all around me I had what is considered complete good fortune. I was not yet fifty; I had a good wife who loved me and whom I loved, good children, and a large estate which without much effort on my part improved and increased" (Tolstoy 4). He became obsessed with death and found the comforts of his art and his family to be meaningless.
As portrayed in "Ivan Ilych," there is a stark contrast between the false life lead by Ivan's wife and the horrifying reality of his illness. Tolstoy suggests that in death there is truth, versus the simulated social performances of society. The focus of death demanded by Tolstoy's worldview itself as…