The Death of Ivan Ilych
Analysis of Major Characters
Ivan's defining characteristic and principal shortcoming is that he lives his life by the dictates of others. Rather than relying on his own reason and good sense to direct his moral life, Ivan blindly adopts the beliefs and values of aristocratic society. Like a fly to a bright light, Ivan is drawn to those with high social standing. He believes that if he only imitates their conduct and lifestyle, if he only runs in the prescribed tracks of high society, his own life will progress according to plan and he will find meaning and fulfillment. Ivan becomes obsessed with standards of propriety and decorum, the etiquette of the upper class. He begins to act as one in his position should act. He takes a wife because a young legal gentleman with secure means should take a wife. He buys a house in the city and furnishes it with highbrow trappings because a cultured aristocrat should have a material status symbol.
As Ivan accustoms himself to propriety, he grows increasingly intolerant to everything that threatens his own comfort and material well-being. He fences himself off from every discomforting influence. When Praskovya introduces something unseemly and unpleasant with her pregnancy, Ivan retreats from his wife and absorbs himself in his official work. When married life becomes difficult, Ivan adopts a formal, contractual attitude toward his family. Ivan's professional ability to reduce complicated cases to mere forms on paper, to deal with potentially emotional and personal situations in terms of cold externals, is reflected in every sphere of his life. As Ivan scrambles to avoid the unpleasant, he reduces his personal relationships to shallow, self-preserving simulations. By adopting the values of aristocratic society, then, rather than using his reason to discover what is truly meaningful in life, Ivan isolates himself from the rest of the world. And in place of meaning and fulfillment, Ivan finds only pain and dissatisfaction.
Ivan, however, is more than just a misguided character. He is a representative figure in a broader moral scheme. The bourgeois sensibility that Ivan represents, the aristocratic type replete with its crass materialism and self- interest, is shown through Ivan's example to be inappropriate and utterly unfulfilling. Just as Ivan's demise makes him conscious of the error of his life, so too, it conveys the message to the reader that a life devoid of compassion and empathetic human connection will lead to a similar unfulfilling end.
Ivan's illness, then, can be seen as a curative influence. By forcing Ivan to confront the prospect of his death, it brings him face to face with his own isolation. That isolation terrifies Ivan, provoking serious existential reflection. And as Ivan begins to examine his life, as he questions his existence and the rationale behind his suffering, he slowly begins to see that his life was not as it should have been. Ivan's illness reveals to him the true nature of life. At the climactic moment of the novel, when Ivan passes into the presence of the light and realizes that compassion and love are the true life values by which to live, the incalculable joy that he experiences is proof of the quality of such a life.
Gerasim possesses the qualities that, more than any other, produce a joyful existence: a sense of compassion for and empathy with fellow human beings. Unlike the other characters in the novel, Gerasim interacts with people in an authentic and reflective way. Because the well-being of others is a matter of deep personal importance to him, Gerasim is able to connect with people in a way that breaks down isolation and creates meaningful bonds. It is not surprising that Gerasim is the only character capable of confronting death with equanimity and courage. He accepts death, and dirt, and illness as inevitable parts of life. Given the task of helping Ivan with his excretions and comforting him at night, Gerasim sees his duties as aid to a dying man. While Praskovya and Lisa, because of their self-interested natures, can only exacerbate Ivan's condition, Gerasim can both comfort and heal the dying man. When he supports Ivan's legs, Gerasim bridges the gap, both physically and spiritually, between Ivan and the world. It is not a coincidence that Ivan first realizes the error of his past life while staring at Gerasim's face. Gerasim is a truly spiritual character. He exemplifies the right way to live, and his contact with Ivan eases the man along the road to spiritual health.
The fact that Gerasim is a poor peasant is also revealing of Tolstoy's larger plan. In the novel, materialism and social ambition are barriers to a healthy existence. Knick-knacks and furnishings impede human contact, and aspirations to social prestige depersonalize human interaction. Gerasim, however, content with his social position and material possessions, is capable of developing the meaningful relationships so important to a fulfilling life. Gerasim is at peace with himself, and the mutually comforting relationships he has established not only add immeasurable joy to life, they also give him the courage and strength to confront death.
Peter Ivanovich, Ivan's closest friend and colleague, is only present in the first chapter of the novel. Yet because the narrator spends so much time describing his thoughts and actions, Peter and his view of Ivan's life and society play an important role in setting up the context and values of the story. Peter functions as a representative of Ivan's social milieu. His relationships with people are shallow and self-serving. Even though he has known Ivan for his entire life, Peter experiences no significant remorse on the occasion of Ivan's death. His thoughts, rather, center on possible career moves and transfers opened up by Ivan's vacant position. Peter, like the other members of the society he represents, sees human relationships as instrumental to the achievement of his ends. Compassionate and loving relationships do not exist, and Peter's attitude toward Ivan's death highlights this feature of society. In addition to his self-enclosed and self-interested qualities, Peter is characterized by a strong desire to avoid the unpleasant. He skirts around the topic of Ivan's death, grudgingly attends the funeral, and is generally unwilling to confront the prospect of his own mortality.
But if Peter is a representative of Ivan's social milieu, he turns out to be no typical representative. Peter exhibits a sensitivity and an openness not found in the other members of his society. He is the first of Ivan's friends to recognize that Ivan is dying. Several times in the first chapter Peter seems on the verge of comprehending the significance of Ivan's death, of stepping outside the socially accepted perspective and confronting mortality and the meaning of life. Peter is receptive to the warning conveyed by the expression on the face of Ivan's corpse. He sees the fulfillment and "fitness" of Ivan's expression, reflections of Ivan's discovery of the right way to live. While talking to Praskovya about Ivan's final days, Peter is strongly affected by the thought of Ivan's suffering. After the funeral, while leaving the house, Peter evokes the observation from Gerasim that it is God's will that everybody dies some day. Although Peter never makes the jump to a true understanding of the nature of life, his receptivity and consciousness differentiate him from the other members of society. Peter's last name, Ivanovich, means the 'son of Ivan,' and seems to hint that like Ivan, Peter too will one day see the light.
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