The Road to Redemption:
in Tolstoy’s ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich
Leo Tolstoy is considered Russia’s greatest novelist and one of its most influential moral philosophers. Born to the family of russian provincial nobility and profoundly influenced by changes of society in Western Europe, he was a big supporter of abolition of serfdom in 1861 who believed that a true Christian could find lasting happiness by striving for inner self-perfection. If War and Peace was influenced by Romanticism, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, that came 20 years later, is clearly written in the Realist tradition. The novel tells a story of a man by the name Ivan Ilyich Golovin who comes to realize he has lived “a most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible life” and how he finds redemption after all.
The novel consists of twelve chapters that get considerably smaller towards the end. Even the sentences are concise, short and straight to the point. The first chapter revolves around the funeral of Ivan Ilyich, examining magistrate, a prominent figure of judicial office, and a member of an upper middle class in the province of Russia. It details the responses to Ivan Ilyich’s death of his colleagues, friends, and family and how propriety dictates their lives. The rest of the novel focuses on the life of Ivan Ilyich himself, how he deals with imminent death, how his views of the world change towards the end, and how he finds peace in death.
Tolstoy begins his narrative with the insensitive reactions to Ivan’s death of his former colleagues or “so-called friends”. All the characters appear to be thinking one thing and verbalizing something totally different. There is an unspoken set of rules and regulations that everybody seems to follow. Everybody had “to fulfil the very tiresome demands of propriety”, or do what society required them to do. Self-centered and egoistic, the characters are only concerned about their own feelings and how Ivan Ilyich’s life affects their lives. “So on receiving the news of Ivan Ilyich’s death the first thought of each of the gentlemen in that private room was of the changes and promotions it might occasion among themselves or their acquaintances” (Tolstoy 1331). Praskovya Fedorovna, the deceased wife, was trying to find out how she can get some money from the state since her husband is dead. “Oh, what I have suffered!”, she complains to Peter Ivanovich and probably to everybody else. At the same time all of these people remained completely detached and pleased because after all “it was who is dead and not I”. By doing so, the author not only compels the reader to feel a great deal of sympathy for Ivan, but also “requires the reader to make a moral judgement based on clear distinction between right and wrong” (Shepherd 411). Tolstoy mocks that we are prisoners of the society we live in. We do what we are expected to do, and not what we think is the right thing to do.
Turns out Ivan Ilyich was a puppet of society as well. His “life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible” (1336). Growing up, he was the phoenix and the most important member of the family. He was not as formal as his older brother and not as wild as his younger brother was. He was a happy median, exactly what everyone else expected him to be. He graduated from Law School, and with his father’s help, was “attached to the governor as an official for special service”. New posts were created and Ivan Ilyich moved to another town where he started making new connections. Naturally, he met a young woman for who he had no real feelings. But since she came from a good family and had some property attached to her name, Ivan Ilyich figured that he “might have aspired to a more brilliant match, but even this was good”, besides “the marriage gave him personal satisfaction, and at the same time it was considered the right thing by the most highly placed of his associates” (1339). However, very soon he “had realized that...
References: Freeman, Mark. “Death, Narrative Integrity, and the Radical Challenge of Self-Understanding: A
Reading of Tolstoy 's ‘Death of Ivan Ilyich’.” Aging & Society 17 (04), 2000. 373–398.
Jahn, Gary R. Tolstoy 's The Death of Ivan Il’ich: A Critical Companion. Northwestern
University Press, 1999. 67-80.
Shepherd, David. "Conversion, Reversion, and Subversion in Tolstoi 's 'The Death of Ivan
Il’ich '." Slavonic & East European Review. 71.3 (July 1993): 401-16.
Tolstoy, Leo. “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” In The Norton Anthology: Western Literature, edited
by Sarah Lawall, Vol. II. 8th ed. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2006. 1330-
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