The death of Ivan Ilyich

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English 228
April 3, 2013

In his novel, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Leo Tolstoy expresses his opinions regarding the abstract idea of “family”. Tolstoy seems to be looking at what it is to be a family through somewhat biased eyes. He never really had a solid family of his own, having at a young age experienced both his parents passing, which leads me to believe that not all of Tolstoy’s lessons should be taken as verbatim. It is obvious through his previous publications that Tolstoy has always harbored a somewhat pessimistic outlook on the idea as a whole, and he continues to stress this point by describing the life and hardships of one Ivan Ilyich. The famous quote from his previous novel, Anna Karenina, gives us an insight into Leo Tolstoy’s overall outlook on what it is to be a family. He doesn’t seem to understand the merit of a traditional familial system as he regards all healthy familial relationships as boring or similar. Through the quote, he attempts to instill in his readers a sense of intrigue and understanding when it comes to unhealthy, dysfunctional families. Tolstoy generally makes his view of family very clear through his writing, leading me to believe that he is trying to pass some sort of message or teaching on the subject to his readers. This message, encapsulated in a majority of Tolstoy’s writings, is that family is imperfect and dysfunction inevitable.

Though it is fairly obvious that Leo Tolstoy uses the dramatic life of Ivan Ilyich to show his opinion of dysfunction, in a sense he also shows his readers the importance of family to one’s happiness. Ivan Ilyich was always a working man, often choosing his profession over his family. He would “distance himself…while cultivating the best circles among the judiciary and wealthy gentry of the town”(Tolstoy 169). Tolstoy explains how Ivan’s incessant pursuit of success eventually leads him down a road of misery and loneliness. At first Ivan’s motive was to earn money in order to live a comfortable, happy life with his family, but this changed when his quest for power overtook him. He completely shut out his family and focused solely on advancing in his profession. Ivan Ilyich simply traded one family for another. His love for his actual family had faded and was reincarnated into a love for success. By showing the grim result of Ivan’s choices, Tolstoy gives his readers a good idea of what can happen if they were to follow the same path. Towards the end of Ivan’s life, Tolstoy gives him a revelation that really speaks to readers. Dying, Ivan only “wanted to be kissed and cuddled and have a few tears shed over him”(Tolstoy 200). He had realized that in the end family is everything one has, and at this point he had nothing. Due to his constant disregard for his family they had moved on emotionally, leaving Ivan with only a servant to show him any compassion. Tolstoy uses Ivan’s realization of his failure as a warning to readers that financial success doesn’t always equate to one’s success in life. Though these motives seem decent, Tolstoy also instills in his readers a sense of doubtfulness towards the institution of family. He almost makes it too clear that dysfunction and disaster can strike down any family at a moment’s notice. His pessimistic attitude is very apparent when Ivan becomes a burden on his emotionally indifferent family. Even when his wife asks how he is feeling, Ivan knows “she [is] asking for the sake of asking rather than to find out”(Tolstoy 205). Ivan’s family has given up on him and Tolstoy uses this to represent the imminent dysfunction in any family. Through this novel, describing the life and hardships of Ivan Ilyich, Tolstoy makes his feelings towards family fairly clear. He believes that a healthy family does have the potential to give someone a happy existence, however he is skeptical when it comes to someone actually achieving an ideal family. He stresses that family is inherently flawed and that,...
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