Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Illyitch” Death for Others

April 24, 2006 by aaron

Tolstoy accurately portrays the feelings that abound at the thought of an acquaintances death and the social necessities one must go through. The range of emotions is nearly identical for each person: equal parts of sympathy for the family, shock at the occurrence and relief that it was not a person in a closer relationship with oneself or oneself. If you have ever gone to a friend’s relatives funeral you probably know the feelings Tolstoy refers to, the only reason for appearing at the funeral is to be a good friend but there is no personal loss at the event. If anything it is more of a chore than anything else, one stands around look appropriately grim and give sympathetic smiles to people who actually knew the deceased. But the majority of the time the only thought one has is when it would be appropriate to escape.

I had to laugh at the before and after descriptions of Ilych’s wife, it is so entirely cliché, the nice wife who Ilych thought would stay nice promptly switched to ball-and-chain mode as soon as she completely snared him. Ilych’s need to re-secure his own independence was just as amusing, it reminds me of the George Gershwin song “A Woman is a Sometime Thing” specifically the part “Don’t you never let a woman grieve you/Jus’ cause she got yo’ weddin’ ring” I think it is advice that Ilych could have used.

I think this story sharply contrasts Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” although both deal with the feelings of a person dieing by inches and the people that surround them, Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” allows no reprieve for Gregor, however Tolstoy provides Ilych with the company of Gerasim to help relieve in a small way the trouble and pain of death. A second contrast is that Ilych understands the thoughts of the people around him very keenly and at the same tine understands why they think the way they do, Gregor though does not see himself from other’s perspective. A third and final contrast between the two is how each individual faces death, Ilych understands that death is coming but tries in small ways to keep his normal life for a bit longer, Gregor on the other hand just gives up and figuratively and literally wastes away.

A final thought on the style of the story. The story progresses from a quick introduction to a tour through Ilych’s life until slowing to a near stop just before Ilych died. The style this was done in gives the reader a feeling of how relative time is, even when Ilych’s life was difficult it went by quickly however once the end began time seemed to slow down for Ilych, every day, week and month dragged on as he fell further into mental anguish and physical demise.

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