Life in The Death of Ivan Ilyich Essay

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Life in The Death of Ivan Ilyich


In Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich, the story begins with the death of the title character, Ivan Ilyich Golovin. Ivan's closest friends discover his death in the obituary column in chapter one, but it is not until chapter two that we encounter our hero. Despite this opening, while Ilyich is physically alive during most of the story's action he only becomes spiritually alive a few moments before his death.



The life of Ivan Ilyich, we are told, "had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible" (Tolstoy, Ch. 2). In analyzing this description of Ivan's life, we see that Ivan has always done what is expected of him in the eyes of others (wife, co-workers
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I cannot understand how I bore it; you could hear him three rooms off" (Tolstoy Ch. 2).



The story contains significant existential elements in the sense that Ivan never considers his mortality until it is too late for him to lead a life more fulfilling. So, too, we see that all of the social proprieties that Ivan adhered to during his "simple" and "ordinary" life are socially constructed values and rituals that are typically a sham compared to reality. For example, Ivan's friends care about getting ahead in their careers and the continuation of their bridge game more than they do about Ivan's loss. This is because despite many people leading simple, ordinary lives in order to follow by rote every social propriety espoused by the status quo, these lives are largely lives of pretense and unfulfilling. Ivan recognizes this when he thinks, "It occurred to him that his scarcely perceptible attempts to struggle against what was considered good by the most highly placed people, those scarcely noticeable impulses which he had immediately suppressed, might have been the real thing, and all the rest false" (Tolstoy Ch. 11).



Ivan comes to this recognition in part because he has struggled to get the wool from in front of his eyes and the culturally constructed valuations our of his psyche during his illness in order to find a meaning in life. In so doing, in chapter 5 he realizes his wife does not love him and his…