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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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Death of Ivan Ilych!