The Death of Ivan Ilych
Praskovya returns late from the play and wishes to send Gerasim away, but Ivan opens his eyes and tells Praskovya to leave instead. After taking some opium and while in a state of "stupefied misery," Ivan dreams that he is being pushed into a deep black sack. Although he is being thrust further and further in, he cannot be pushed to the bottom. He both fears and desires to fall into the sack. The movement is accompanied by suffering, and Ivan struggles but also co-operates. Suddenly he breaks through, falls, and wakes up.
He sends Gerasim away, and as soon as the servant leaves the room he begins weeping. In agony he cries out to God, "Why hast Thou done all this? Why has Thou brought me here? Why, why dost Thou torment me so terribly?" Then he grows quiet; he becomes highly attentive and seems to hear a voice speaking from within his soul. "What is it you want?" the voice asks him. Ivan answers that he wants to live well and pleasantly, as he did before. Yet when Ivan begins to call to mind the best moments of his pleasant life, they seem "trivial and often nasty." He reviews the entire course of his life and finds that the further he departed from childhood the more worthless and unfulfilling became his joys. He realizes the lack of goodness in his "deadly official life," and comes to the conclusion that while he was moving up in public opinion, life was ebbing away from him. Finally the thought comes to Ivan that he has not lived his life as he should. But he immediately dismisses that inconceivable thought when he remembers that he did everything "properly" and correctly.
By sending his wife away when she comes to sit with him, Ivan symbolically commits himself to the "new life" confronting him. He rejects the artificiality and pretense of his past life, and thereby resolves the tension that had been established in Chapter VIII. In the remaining chapters of the novel, we can expect that Ivan will embark on a process of rebirth in which he will discover the proper attitude toward life, and conquer his fear of death.
Ivan's dream about the black bag supports the prediction that he will soon experience a rebirth. Ivan's attitude toward the bag is ambivalent. He wants to fall into the bag, yet he fears it at the same time. He resists being pushed into it, yet he also cooperates. If the bag is understood as a symbol of death, Ivan's ambivalence becomes clear. He both longs for the reprieve of death and fears relinquishing life. The fact that Ivan breaks through the bag prefigures Ivan's escape from the power of death.
It seems reasonable, however, that the symbol of the bag, much like the story itself, operates on two levels. As well as its function as a symbol of death, the bag also symbolizes a womb, the source of life. The pain and suffering that Ivan experiences while passing through the bag into the light refer to the trauma of birth into new life. The duality of the symbol holds a key to the story. In Ivan's life, what appears like physical death is actually spiritual rebirth, while his old life was the cause of spiritual death. Things are not what they seem, and the action must be read in reverse. Ivan's life was his death, and his death brings new life.
It is interesting to note that upon waking from his dream, Ivan cries out to God in words not dissimilar from those that Jesus used in the Passion narrative of the Gospels, "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?" Whether Tolstoy intended Ivan to be regarded as a "Christ figure," however, is not clear. Tolstoy's conception of Jesus is very unlike the commonplace, Everyman qualities that characterize Ivan Ilych. Without venturing a conclusive answer as to Tolstoy's purpose in drawing the connection, the similarity does seem to add a degree of intensity and significance to Ivan's existential moment.
The fact that Ivan hears an inner voice, "the voice of his soul," marks a significant advance in his spiritual development. For the first time the reader receives an indication that Ivan is more than a physiological being. In Chapter V, Ivan's understanding of his inner life was limited to his appendix, i.e., to his internal organs. By Chapter IX, however, that understanding has expanded to allow for an inner voice of conscience. Ivan's attention has been redirected from the physical plane to the spiritual plane. As this spiritual awakening moves forward, Ivan is finally able to question, if only for a moment, the values and beliefs that he has adopted.
As Ivan begins to examine his life, the similarity between Ivan Ilych and the Scrooge of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol becomes strikingly apparent. For both Ivan and Scrooge, the recognition that that they have lived badly entails the memory of childhood, and for both protagonists the bright and joyful memories of childhood degenerate into unfulfilling and empty adult lives. Yet a closer look reveals that the similarities between The Death of Ivan Ilych and A Christmas Carol extend far beyond a similar process of recognition on the part of the two protagonists. In structure, genre, and theme, A Christmas Carol, written before The Death of Ivan Ilych, provides a sort of model for Tolstoy's own work. Much like The Death of Ivan Ilych, the narrative of A Christmas Carol begins in the present and flashes back to the past. It employs an almost identical narrative vantage point. And it deals with the life and life crisis of a representative member of a society gone wrong. But the similarity is understandable. It is not a secret that Tolstoy admired Dickens more than any other writer. Tolstoy wrote of Dickens, "I consider him the greatest novelist of the nineteenth century." Along with having a picture of Dickens on his wall, and reading almost everything Dickens wrote, Tolstoy internalized and reshaped Dickens's work. It is not unreasonable to say that it was Tolstoy's reading of Dickens that provided the creative impulse that led to the production of "The Death of Ivan Ilych."
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