The Fragility of Materialistic Life in The Death of Ivan Ilyich

In his novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Leo Tolstoy aims to show the fragility and artificial nature of social climbing and materialism. The author tries to achieve this purpose by describing the main character’s relations with his family and his friends, on the one hand, and his servant Gerasim, on the other. Furthermore, Tolstoy employs the plot of the novella as the key driver of his ideas; in particular, we need to speak about reverse chronological order of events. Overall, Tolstoy’s novella eloquently proves that only material aspirations can utterly dehumanize a person.

At first, the author shows how Ivan Ilyich’s colleagues receive the news of his death. Tolstoy says that the main character was “liked by them all” (Tolstoy, 1); however, at the given moment their major concern is promotion opportunities that would be offered to them after their friend’s demise. Moreover, some of them are not even sure if they would visit his family because “they live so terribly far away” (Tolstoy, 1).

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This scene reveals their real attitude toward Ivan Ilyich and it enables us to see that he was only a means of getting promotion, rather than a friend or at least human being. To better illustrate his point of view, Leo Tolstoy gives a very vivid and detailed summary of Ivan Ilych’s life. Namely, we need to speak about his family’s attitude toward him, especially when they know that he is terminally ill. First, he was entirely entrusted to the care of the servant Gerasim, while other members of his family were quite reluctant to enter his room. Additionally, his daughter Lisa views his sufferings as some minor inconvenience. She says, “Is our fault… It’s as if we were to blame! I am sorry for papa, but why should we be tortured?” (Tolstoy, 52).

This callous rhetorical question indicates that Lisa hardly feels any compassion or empathy for her father. For them he is no longer a living person. It should be noted that immediately after his death, Praskovya Fedorovna, the main characters wife, inquires about the pension she would receive and asks whether she could “extract something more” from the government (Tolstoy, 8).

Praskovya Fedorovna is able to overcome her grief in the quickest possible way, and for her the death of her husband is just a source of revenue. Tolstoy contrasts these characters with the servant Gerasim, who seems to be the only person, who is not indifferent about the sufferings of Ivan Ilych. Gerasim acts as a link between the protagonist and the outside world. By displaying care and compassion toward the dying man, this servant makes Ivan Ilych realize that his life has been spend in vain, while none of his so-called friends wants to see him. Overall, by contrasting Gerasim with other characters, Tolstoy emphasizes the callousness and self-interest of the upper classes in the then Russian society and compares it to the spiritedness of the simple people.

It should be noted that Tolstoy mentions several time that Gerasim is a mere uneducated peasant. On the whole, Tolstoy’s novella can be viewed as a masterpiece of realistic prose. In this work, the writer managed to describe a very hierarchical Russian society of the nineteenth century and showed that a person, who is only trying to climb the ladder of this hierarchy, can eventually find oneself a very hopeless and helpless position.

Ivan Ilyich is a great example of such a person.

Works cited

Tolstoy. L. The Death Of Ivan Ilych. Kessinger Publishing 2004. Print.


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