Ivan's Transformation and Coming to Terms in Leo Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Illyich"

By Michael C. Wiseman
2010, Vol. 2 No. 03 | pg. 1/2 |
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In Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Illyich, the story's protagonist--Ivan--is dead before the story begins. The first chapter concerns itself with some of Ivan’s work associates. With the exception of a posthumous cameo, Tolstoy completely omits the title character from the first chapter. He does this to show that Ivan was shaped by the flaws of his society. By displaying Ivan’s friends at a significant time, Tolstoy shows us what Ivan’s society was like, and vicariously shows the readers what kind of man Ivan was. In short, Ivan lived as a vicious bureaucrat: living life to the letter and no further. From reading the first chapter, one can quickly learn how apathetic the middle class of St. Petersburg are. Ivan, who died before reading the first chapter, will have to come to the same conclusion over the course of the long flashback contained in the rest of the book.

The story opens up to Fedor Vasilievich and Ivan Egorovich discussing a case in Egorovich’s study. The case was the famous Krasovski case and the parties were very enthusiastic in their arguments, but rather than debating the important questions of guilty or innocent, death or life, 30 years in Siberia or not, the lawyers were debating the technical point of whether the case was in their local jurisdiction Vasilievich and Egorovich have completely ignored the human aspect of the case and focused on an element of bureaucratic finery.

Vasilievich and Egorovich are only in the study during a recess from another case. If they cared about people, they would instead discuss the present case, but they are detached from humanity and see the cases as streams of logic rather than people in dilemmas.

The Fedor and Ivan do not share his concern, for when Piotr informs the two that their colleague has died, they pass it off as an unusual occurrence and are not bereaved in the slightest. Rather, they are happy that Ivan is dead, hoping that his absence will leave a vacuum which they may occupy for their own gains. The death of Ivan is a trivial matter and the talk soon becomes diverted to the subject of Piotr’s commute. Tolstoy describes the apathy explicitly, saying that a death of a friend “aroused as usual...the complacent feeling…”. The words “as usual” demonstrate that this cold attitude towards others is pervasive.

To be specific, the text does not use the word “friend” to describe the relationship between Ivan and the lawyers. The text describes the relationship as passive: with Ivan being a colleague of the men, who was “liked by them all”. That the liking is an object rather than a subject of this sentence shows that Ivan was liked as one would like an object, not a person. Even Ivan's closer relations are not really his friends; they are referred to as “so called friends” and their only thoughts are of having to change their schedules to pay a socially obligatory visit to the widow's house.

The chapter concludes with Piotr attending the funeral, where he meets a variety of callous people. The most callous of them all is the widow herself. When questioned on Ivan's suffering, she tells Piotr how horrible it was for her to have to listen to all of it. She also refrained from warning Piotr that he was about to sit on an uncomfortable chair, because she deemed it socially inappropriate. She puts the pressures of society on a higher level than the comfort of people, even in such a private place. It would have been unrealistic for her to expect that Piotr would bring up the anecdote of how she saved him from the bad chair in company, but her attachment to the strict letter of societal rules prevent her from acting. Additionally, the room is full of knickknacks, a symbol of material attachment.

The entire chapter describes a morally corrupt world and one could have inferred that Ivan, like everyone else in the narrative, was also rotten if it were not for the cryptic description of his body in the coffin. Ivan's “face said that what was necessary had been accomplished”. This p of the sentence could still indicate a callous man who fulfilled all of his goals by strictly adhering to the letter of the law, but there is an additional clause of having “accomplished rightly”. An expression of reproach was also present. These last two details show that Ivan was different from everyone else and has some new information that raises him above all the others. The subsequent chapters tell the story of how Ivan became elevated.

Ivan's entire existence is defined by the rigid bureaucratic society His father was a career bureaucrat, working as “the superfluous member of various superfluous institutions”. Ivan's eldest brother has reached a point in his career where “inertia is rewarded with sinecure”. This is a society that rewards social rank and little else. Tolstoy writes that it was de rigueur for positions and salaries to be created to provide income to elites. Every decision Ivan made, from the choice of woman to marry, to the choice of select possessions to acquire, was based on what was de rigueur. Though Praskovya was of appropriate social rank for Ivan, he does not love his wife and often finds him insufferable. He takes up the game of whist as an escape from the home.

The inscription on the medallion attached to his pocket watch reads “Respice Finem” or “look to the end”. The motto may have originally encouraged seeking the final black and white resolution of an issue with the ends justifying the means. That it was attached to a pocket watch could add that this process must have the precision of a watch. Indeed, Ivan's life is very precise. The middle of the third chapter describes his daily routine: getting up at nine, putting on his uniform and going to work at the court, where he would spend the day manipulating the entrails of Russian bureaucracy, which consists of filling out forms and shuffling them about according to a strict protocol. Ivan gradually rose in rank because of his ability to follow the societal and legal rules to the letter without polluting his judgment with human considerations. He excelled in “the art of eliminating all considerations irrelevant to the legal aspect” of a case; Ivan could strip away all human and emotions from a case and be left with a skeleton, easily picked apart with cold, callous logic. Ivan would “observe the courtesies of social intercourse, but where official relationship ended, so did every form of human contact”. Ivan attempts to apply callous logic to the problem of his own mortality, but it fails to comfort him. Ivan uses a textbook syllogism featuring a “Caius” as an example man, but Ivan cannot identify with Caius's mortality because Ivan has a human component and Caius does not. Ivan learns that certain problems cannot be solved by removing the human aspect.

The motto on the medallion later takes on the meaning that one should be concerned with the reckoning that comes at the end of one's life; the watch is to be used to measure the short time that one is allotted. During his physical decline, Ivan becomes unable to fulfill his social duties and as a result becomes spurned like the people he was not obliged to help at work.

One of Ivan's antagonists is the doctor. The celebrated doctor is very similar to Ivan in that they are both aloof from the people they are supposed to help. Just as the people in legal predicaments are forced go before Ivan Illyich, the judge, to be saved from prison or Siberia, sick people are forced to call upon the doctor to be saved from death. Ivan observes that the doctor's manner of meticulous questioning is “to an iota precisely what Ivan himself had done...in dealing with peoples at court”. Ivan previously enjoyed the power of being able to “ruin anyone he wished to ruin”, now the roles are reversed and, to the doctor, Ivan is helpless, faceless statistic.

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