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Emily Scharf

Period 1

The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Set in shallow, materialistic, pre-revolutionary Russia, The Death of Ivan
Ilyich, by Leo Tolstoy, presents the danger of conforming to a meaningless society.
Ivan Ilyich, a lawyer and magistrate who is quick to conform, exists within this
compassionless realm. This fictional society has few standards but to maintain its
false pretention of propriety. This standard causes Ivan to live a life of little
meaning; more so, the act of upholding this feigned wealth causes Ivan to fall from a
stepladder, causing an injury that eventually results in his death. These standards
reinforce the concept that conforming to a compassionless society results only in
This empty society, devoid of any true emotion, is best exemplified in the
opening of the novel at Ivan Ilyichs funeral. Ivans colleagues, upon hearing the
news of his death, are not devastated as they ought to be, but are concerned with
how their positions will now change. They are grateful that they are not the ones
who died, reflecting the shallow and selfish standards that they uphold. Peter
Ivanovich, a good friend of Ivans, is agitated because by attending the funeral he
will miss his card game. Peter is also concerned with the number of times he
crossed himself, not wanting to look improper in public. This represents a need for
acceptance from others, a meaningless value. Even Ivans own wife is concerned
only with how to maximize the income she will receive from her husbands pension,
a clear sign of conformity to the materialistic values of society.
Progressing into the second chapter, Tolstoy shifts from an omniscient
perspective to one limited to Ivans thoughts in order to develop Ivans life. Like
those at his funeral, Ivan too conforms to this pretentious society. Ivan first decides
to attend law school for the reason that doing so would put him in the right circles.
In essence, his motivation for practicing law was that doing so would help him to
advance within this faade of propriety. Ivan does his job detached from emotion, a
mirror of how the society itself lacks feeling. Ironically, just as he judges others
without passion, his doctors, who give him no concrete answers later on, do the
exact same thing. Ivans conformity is most evident when, as a young man, he does
things that he would have found appalling before, yet he believes his actions to be
right because those in the right social circle are involved. In life, Ivan exudes an
impression of prestige and power with his work; yet, in death his colleagues care
only for their own job promotions. Clearly Ivans supposed power is meaningless.
This exposes the danger of conformity: that it leads to unpleasantness and false
As far as false relationships go, Ivans marriage certainly qualifies. Ivan
marries Praskovya Fyodorovna not because he loves her, but because he cannot
think of a reason not to. Ivan notes that she is reasonably attractive, has a good
income, and their friends approve; therefore, marrying her is the right thing to do.
In essence, Ivan marries in order to further establish himself in society. The
outcome of this involves situational irony, in that marriage should make life more
pleasant but, for Ivan, it does anything but. Ivan and his wife are reasonably happy
until she gets pregnant with their first child. During these nine months, Ivan shows
her little compassion and is rewarded with her nagging unpleasantness. Once again,
Ivan exemplifies the societal tendency of being unsympathetic and obsessed with
class standing. Ivan escapes his wife by putting more effort into his work, yet he still
lacks emotion in his career.
When Ivan becomes a magistrate in St. Petersburg, he moves to their new
house before the rest of his family in order to prepare it. Ivan decorates the house
with many types of finery that help them to look like they are wealthy. However,
Tolstoy makes it clear that they are just like everyone else who isnt rich but wants
to believe that they are. While furnishing the house, Ivan attempts to hang the
draperies. Caught off guard, Ivan slips from the stepladder and injures his side:, the
the beginning of his fall from the social ladder, and injures his side (though he
believes himself to still be at the top). This house, embellished to the extreme, is no
more than Ivans ornate tomb. In the end, Ivan is confined from several rooms, to
one room, to merely the couch. Ultimately, the house closes in on him, leaving him
nowhere to go.
Ivans dying begins with his fall from the ladder; his metaphorical fall from
societal grace. He first experiences a nagging pain in his side, accompanied by a bad
taste in his mouth. When Ivan becomes worried about this incessant pain, he finds
no one will take him seriously. His wife shrugs it off, telling him to see a doctor. The
doctors treat him with indifference and little emotion. These physicians will not
even give Ivan a simple diagnosis, indicating whether or not he might die. Ivan
begins to isolate himself, forgoing cards and friends, shutting out his family, staying
in the house, and ultimately confining himself to the couch. While suffering the
agony of his condition, Ivan meets Gerasim, one of his servants. Gerasim is the only
character in the entire novel that does not fall into the trap of society. Gerasim is
kind and compassionatehe is the only person who is able to provide Ivan with any
form of relief. (This is ironic because in life, Ivan would not give Gerasim, a lowly
servant, a second thought.) He Gerasim holds Ivans feet on his shoulders, which
eases the pain, and acknowledges Ivans imminent death, which is more than any of
the doctors would do. This recognition of Ivans impeding demise gives Ivan the
comfort he longs for. As Ivans death approaches, he becomes concerned with
whether or not he lived his life the right way. Suddenly, he realizes that this life of
propriety and little emotion that he always stood by may not have been the best way
to live. Ivan finally acknowledges that his life was meaningless, and he enters an
ethereal black sack of agonizing pain for three days. When he emerges, he sees and
feels his son weeping and, for the first time, feels compassion; he wants to end his
sons suffering. Finally, Ivanhe realizes that death is over. By this, Ivan he means
that his life, filled with no meaning or purpose, so much so that it is essentially dead,
is over.
Ivan Ilyich lived in a society concerned mainly with social standing and other
frivolous issues. Such a society can give life no depth or meaning. By conforming to
these trivial ideals, Ivan lived his whole life as a dead man. Ivans fate serves to
warn of the danger of blindly conforming to the shallow standards of societythat
doing so only causes suffering and a meaningless existence.