Literary Analysis: “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” by Leo Tolstoy
This thesis entails a thorough analysis of the author Leo Tolstoy. This thesis will cover Tolstoy’s personal transcendental spiritual revolution and contributions to Christianity. The sociopolitical and socioeconomic state of his nation of Tsarist Russia in becoming the Soviet Union. The elements of classicism and romanticism in Tolstoy’s literary work and his literal life. This will be based on the Tolstoy’s first spiritual and philosophical literary work, ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich,’ published in 1886 CE. This compendium of scholarly research is on the literary and philosophical works of Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy’s profound contributions which speak volumes of the truly enlightened individual of Leo Tolstoy before his conversion to Christianity, existentialism. The details of this analysis are of the Russian impersonal as well as materialistic bureaucratic aristocracy in the symbol of Ivan Ilyich and the simple and compassionate peasantry symbolized by Gerasim. I will be covering the ideologies spreading among the Russians resentment for the Russian Monarchy in the sociopolitical and socioeconomic era of Russia from 1800–1917 Ce. From Tolstoy’s time when Russia was led by a Monarchy which was overthrown in the Russian Revolution of 1917 CE. I will be identifying the elements of the Romantic era and Classical era Tolstoy utilized in his work of fiction, ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich.’ I will also be making the comparisons and contrasts of American Transcendentalism with Leo Tolstoy as the representative of Russian Transcendentalism. Leo Tolstoy wrote many spiritual, philosophical, and even created a political system among his compendium of essays, short-stories, and novels which were written during the author’s own spiritual transformation stage of his life portraying himself in fiction as the eponymous main character in his fictional novel, “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” these aspects I have observed in Ivan Ilyich’s life paralleled Leo Tolstoy. This work appears to be Tolstoy cathartic disparage through hyperbole and exaggeration or even realities the author himself faced as an aristocrat of the Russian Monarchy. The character of Gerasim is the embodiment of the simple yet compassionate humanity that Leo Tolstoy aspired to be. Leo Tolstoy was himself a member of the Russian Tsarist aristocracy at the rank of a Count. Leo Tolstoy appears by his own expression of the character of Ivan Ilyich to be disenfranchised by the aristocracy and preferred to spend his time with the peasantry who Tolstoy would work and toil in the fields with for he admired them for their humanity. Tolstoy’s creation of a political and economic governing infrastructure known as Georgism which is classified as a school of the political ideology of liberalism which is an agrarian society which would be ideal for a society of a peasantry.
“The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” was Leo Tolstoy’s first work of fiction after his conversion to Christianity. In “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” portrays the life and death of the eponymously named character Ivan Ilyich. From Ivan’s naive young adult years, where he was a hopeful and ambitious man who thought he was headed in the right direction in life yet still be so dissatisfied with the success, wealth, power, and status he obtained in life as a Judge for the Circuit Board in Tsarist Russia, who while hanging curtains one day, falls. The medical doctors tell Tolstoy that he is dying from a dislodged kidney that has caused an unspecified illness that begins the rest of his life as a terminally ill and dying man. Surrounded by shallow and pretentious bureaucratic friends, his family is no better as his wife and daughter view him as an inconvenience to their own shallow and pretentious friends who are angry at him for his fate. The only people who genuinely care for him are his son that is only an innocent child and his compassionate servant. Ivan approaches death, he has a grand revelation about his life and finds an understanding in a higher power for him to come to terms with his death as his existence to an unsavory man, in a loveless marriage, his adult children do not care about him, which was a moderation between the cold, calculating intellectual of his Apollonian elder brother and his wild, reckless, and Dionysian younger brother. Ivan aspires for success at whatever cost, what was once a more naive and innocent man had become bitter and disenfranchised by the bureaucracy of his job as a legal counselor. He swore to himself that he would take any job of a satisfying salary to chase his idea of a successful and materialistic life. Ivan’s employment is found as a judicial circuit judge, a position of significant social-status where he makes arbitrary decisions over the fate of other people where his decision will be enforced by the state. In the irony of Ivan’s status as a judge, a position of power over the fate of others, a judgement is cast upon him by what theists would call, God. The judgement of Ivan Ilyich comes in form of an illness that will eventually cause the cessation of his existence of his mortal coil. This fatal illness that afflicts Ivan is told to the reader as a ‘detached kidney,’ this affliction occurred to Ivan after he fell while he was hanging curtains. His friends and family within his Russian social-class are all impersonal, materialistic, status-driven individuals who lack substance and pretentiously try to display any sort of semblance of good moral character or human personality. Ivan and his social-class perfectly represent the shallowness of the aristocratic bureaucracy.
When the eponymous protagonist Ivan Ilyich Golovin receives an injury from falling while hanging curtains that will lead to his death as told by the cold physician who treated him as his condition of a dislodged kidney rather than a human being. This where the mood of novel is set as the self-involvement of every sort respectable individual belonging to a profession of supposed importance by the norms of social and societal conditioning that social-status isn’t what makes a human being significant but by the character of the individual. Ivan’s own family is cold to him, among his immediate family are the most hostile towards him in his wife, Praskoya Fedorovna Golovina, and his daughter Lisa who both practically abandon him to the lonely confines that is the solitude of his bedroom to allow him to inevitably suffer and die alone for his own wife and daughter are too narcissistic with their self-involvement and self-interest that everything in their actions has the end goal at appeasing their own egoistic self. Everything is for the self with the notable exception being their own self-awareness, especially in their own superficial projection of their self-image for what other people perceive them as is their only source of validation, even if it means they have to disparage the character of the dying, Ivan Ilyich, to ensure they get their validation. Ivan’s family do not tend to his moans of agony. Ivan’s wife and daughter are annoyed by his suffering, wishing he would depart from his mortal coil already rather than be inconvenienced with his suffering or for that matter, Ivan’s death. Ivan’s wife, Praskoya Fedorovna Golovina did not marry Ivan out of love for him but for his money, ambition, and success so she would have lifelong financial security as well as social-status. In their apathy, Ivan’s wife and daughter, both do not care how much existential dread Ivan Ilyich is facing, yet his malignantly narcissistic wife and daughter maintain their ruse of pretentious superficial charm of being nurturing towards him in his end of days in front of guests while publicly shaming him with blatant lies that suggest he does not take care of himself and is hastening his own death to these same guests. In my own amateur psychological analysis of Ivan Ilyich’s wife, Praskoya Fedorovna Golovina and daughter, Lisa; both seem to be sufferers of the psychopathological ailment of malignant narcissistic personality disorder. The only sensible member of Ivan Ilyich’s family in his treatment during his suffering that will bring about his death is his son Vladimir Ivanich, who is merely a child, therefore he is innocent and currently immune to the seemingly malignant narcissism of his mother and sister. Vladimir Ivanich does not care about any of the past wrongdoings, mistakes, or failures of Ivan for Vladimir loves his father unconditionally and feels empathy for his father in his suffering. Although, Vladimir may not fully understand the grim uncertainty that is death, he is one of the two authentic people who actually care about Ivan that he is suffering.
Romanticism and Classical Views of Tolstoy’s Works
Vladimir is the central symbol of the Romantic era literature within this novel. The Romantic era of the humanities which was focused in Europe and was at its strongest between 1800–1850 CE. The central ideal expressed in Romantic era literature is that children are the most pure, enlightened, and noble of beings for they are truly represent humanity in its true state of nature comprised of wonder, compassion, happiness, innocence, unconditional love, and enlightened perception of being non-judgemental towards others that humanity is not inherently corrupts us but it is the world we live in which will corrupt all of humanity through experience. Tolstoy presents this idea of Romanticism in his novel, “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” published in 1886 CE in the wake of the Romantic era. Leo Tolstoy’s writing and personal self was most likely influenced by the elements of the Romantic era while retaining a mainly Classical view of the world. It is my observation that Leo Tolstoy was by all means made by nature and nurture to have a hardlined Classical perception of the world with his birth into aristocracy as a Count of Tsarist Russia, his parents dying when he was in his youth, his unruly behavior in his place of academia was remarkably the first sign of the cognitive dissonance of Romantic and Classical perspectives. It wasn’t until his service in the Russian army was when his first shift to Romantic ideas when he had begun his journey to enlightenment as a revolutionary writer and philosopher creating a fusion of the ideas of Classical and Romantic perspectives.
Gerasim is a paragon of virtue and good moral ethics. He is of the peasant social-class and works as a servant to the Golovin family which Ivan Ilyich is the patriarch of, therefore Ivan is Gerasim’s employer. Gerasim is tasked with tending to the Golovan family and property. Gerasim is the only other truly authentic human being who values truth and compassion. He expresses his virtue of brutal honesty when one of Ivan Ilyich’s bureaucratic peers states the obvious that funerals are depressing events when these same bureaucratic peers were happy when they received the news that Ivan had died, not out of spite but of self-interest to serve their malignant narcissism in the hopes of advancing the social-ladder in wealth and status via a promotion from the vacuum of the position of Ivan Ilyich’s death. This obvious statement could not be marked with more profound superficiality of any thing bearing the qualities of a human being, no worse, this peer is a self-involved bureaucrat. Gerasim responds to this superficial self-involved bureaucrat, with Gerasim’s realistic assertion that everyone faces the inevitability of death. I perceived that Gerasim went about the nicest way to tell someone off by stating the truth to a status-driven bureaucrat who probably never thought of their own possibility eventually dying. Gerasim also allows Ivan to rest his aching legs upon Gerasim’s shoulder as his issues with his bowel movements for the entire night. A interaction that a medical professional would only allow on behalf of their status as a physician where Gerasim doesn’t care if it may be disgusting, inconvenient, or bothersome for Gerasim has the heart of a champion among humanity. Gerasim is what I refer to as the allegory for the ‘noble peasant,’ he is also the best representation of Classicism in this novel for understanding the necessary evils or bad things apart of human existence and dealing with it. Gerasim also remains optimistic as well as realistic, he is content with his lot in life as a servile peasant. Gerasim expresses one of the greatest of virtues in Classicism. This greatest tenant of Classicism is that no matter what happens in one’s life, one is to accept life exactly for what it truly is.
The Authenticity of Simplicity: The Noble Peasantry
From the works I have read by Leo Tolstoy, I have noticed a recurring theme that states that there is no more noble of than that of the peasants with their faith and commitment to their community. The peasants depended upon one another in their community for genuine survival plus the peasants were most likely compassionate and nonjudgmental people, their contentment for their simple lives of toiling and laboring. The peasants were born peasants which they had probably accepted, or even embraced the fact that be a peasant for what they were going to their entire existence on earth which they were content with. All these characteristics are noble human qualities which is why he portrayed the embodiment of these people into the fictional character of Gerasim as the noble peasant in Tolstoy’s 1886 novel for although Gerasim had the social-status of a servile peasant his character had great nobility. Gerasim, who shared the compassion of his community with Ivan Ilyich for Gerasim followed the golden rule in treating others as one would want to be treated. Gerasim knew if he were suffering or dying that he would want someone to be there to take care of him in the simple manner of being compassionate with him for he shared compassion with everyone, he was honest, a truly authentic and a man rooted in reality for he was very down to earth individual.
The Psychoanalysis of Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy especially for being a member of the Russian Monarchy, he was an aristocrat at the position of being a Count. Many of my inclinations I have ascertained in my fundamentalist level of studying of Leo Tolstoy and his works over the years, have lead me to think with some certainty that Leo Tolstoy personally may have wanted this profound mediocrity that was the normalcy of the peasants. Tolstoy seemed like a very alienated man who wanted a community of his own that was compassionate and authentic which the closest he felt that was in the pure-as-salt peasants. Leo Tolstoy probably didn’t receive this community within his own social-status of being a member of the Russian aristocracy which inherently bestowed upon him this social-status which he resented. Leo Tolstoy received treatment from probably the bureaucrats or status-seeking individuals who were superficially kind towards Tolstoy for his arbitrary social-status he had no choice in the matter but have it bestowed upon him. Leo Tolstoy in my studies of his work gives me this impression that he wanted to be treated as an equal to everyone else. He wanted to be a normal human being. Which in Leo Tolstoy’s mind from what I have viewed in Gerasim as the spirit of the peasants as the most simple, compassionate, honest, and authentic individuals which was a relaxing break from Tolstoy’s own social-class as an aristocrat. His own social-status thrusted upon him by the divine right of kings that is monarchy and aristocracy was not given by merit but by a birthright. This inherent right to rule for belonging to some family made life for Leo Tolstoy very complex. The majority of the bureaucrats represented in Tolstoy’s work,”The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” probably were drawn from the bureaucrats and aristocrats within his social-class or aspire to climb the social-ladder. That his fellow aristocrats and bureaucrats showed this obviously superficial kindness, the espousing of the sweet nothings of empty praise to win favors. Much like a celebrity in today’s society, the noble wasn’t spoke to as a human being but as symbol of very powerful status. These self-serving, status-driven individuals were probably bureaucrats of the Russian Monarchy who wished to climb the social-ladder probably treated Tolstoy as a means to an end. Which is why Tolstoy was so visceral in his novel, “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” in his characterization of the bureaucrats which were Ivan Ilyich’s peers in judicial system. Where the depictions of Ivan’s wife and daughter might have been a catharsis against his own family or the possible sense that Leo Tolstoy felt he could not truly feel close to anyone without feeling they were being superficial to serve their self-interest, to climb the social-ladder who perpetually tried using Leo Tolstoy as a means to an end.
I perceive Leo Tolstoy as a Russian philosopher and writer who was truly a celebrated eccentricity of literature among his Russian contemporaries consisting of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Mikhail Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin, Alexander Herzen. These writers were different from one another but all had within their publications the philosophical and political ideologies of Cynicism, Pessimism, Nihilism, Anarchism, and Communism. All of these Russian writers and thinkers, along with Tolstoy, had expressed overwhelming existential dread and anomie within Russian society as well as their own presentation of the alternatives to their Tsarist Russian government. Tolstoy presented his own sociopolitical and socioeconomic alternative known as Georgism in his work titled, “Resurrection,” which was his last novel that he wrote which was published in 1899 CE. Georgism seems to be a system of government which benefits the toiling laborers and peasants of Russia at his time which he found kinship with. Georgism doesn’t tax the land value but value of labor done upon the land which I do not see as practical for it is a severe taxation of labor to improve upon the land which destroys incentive to modernize society, it creates an agrarian nation full of laboring rustic peasants to live simpler more normal lives, yet would halt any sort of technological advancement if Georgism was instituted into a society.
The Spiritual, Philosophical, the Political, the Revolutionary: Existentialism and Transcendentalism in Shaping the Zeitgeist of the Revolution of the Spiritual, Similarities and Differences, the Shaping of the Russian and American Consciousness in Sociopolitical and Socioeconomic spectrum.
I view Leo Tolstoy akin to the great more recent philosophers and revolutionaries of spirituality in the religion of Christianity such as C. S. Lewis and Soren Kierkegaard. I view Tolstoy as a Russian Transcendentalist in a different strain of Transcendentalism than that the Transcendentalists of the United States of America in the two leading thinkers of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. However, unlike the American Transcendentalists spiritual movement which stressed an emphasis on individualism and mysticism. Leo Tolstoy asserted the power of community and realism. Where the American Transcendentalist movement was heavily Romantic in nature emphasizing the Romantic ideals that were the grandiose empowering of the individual self as well as the spiritual mysticism which are merely forms of escapism. The American Transcendentalist thinkers who made a strong emphasis on Individualism which would give rise to the power of capitalism over the United States of America in which a multinational corporate oligarchy referred to as the “Power Elite” (C. Wright Mills) would covertly control the democratic electoral process and politics of the USA’s society. Leo Tolstoy the Classical ideal of realism and the accepting that for a society to thrive, a society must have to work together as community. Leo Tolstoy’s emphasis on realism and longing for a community in which he saw the ideal of that community in the peasants for Tolstoy could have felt alienated by the aristocracy of Russian Monarchy. Leo Tolstoy based Ivan Ilyich on himself and may have been criticizing the behaviors of the Tsarist Russian aristocracy in the symbolic metaphor of Ivan’s family and peers who were driven by wealth and status to climb the social-ladder for they were bureaucrats who could do so in spite of the limitedness of the climb of the social-ladder of Tsarist Russia.
The Russian Monarchy controlled the vast majority of wealth leaving the peasants to live in labor-unto-death poverty for the sheer plight of survival. The already manifesting various ideologies among Russian came to fruition in the form of the Marxist influenced Vladimir Lenin who led the peasants (proletariat) in toppling the Russian Monarchy (bourgeoisie) in an uprising that was the culmination of the Russian zeitgeist of consciousness which came in the form of the historical even Russian Revolution of 1917. The once simple, compassionate, and honest peasants that Tolstoy so loved, in an attempt to unshackle themselves of their chains. The peasants (proletariat) in an act of violence conducted a systematic ruthlessly violent dismantling the decadent Tsarist Russian regime, (bourgeoisie). The Russian Revolution of 1917 replaced monarchy with the hopeful wishes of perceived as the ideal communist government known as the Soviet Union. The ideal communist state Russian revolutionary, Vladimir Lenin promised the peasants (proletariat) in the form of the Soviet Union gave way to the usurper of Lenin’s ideals in a dictator known as Josef Stalin. Josef Stalin’s idea of a communist state is the totalitarian despotism form of communism known as Stalinism which formed Soviet Union as history tells us today, in our contemporary era.
On Christianity, Philosophical Theism, Spirituality, and Faith
Leo Tolstoy is regarded as one of the most greatest and influential philosophers and writers of all time, I am an individual who has been deeply affected by him, I see myself rooted in the same way Tolstoy was rooted in Classicism which a similar fundamental element is Realism set forth in the philosophical novel of “War and Peace,” which is comprised mostly of philosophy and what formed of him as a man from his youth as a tabula rasa. As Tolstoy wrote the more spiritually Existentialist works later in his as expressed in his work “Confessions,” where he made acknowledgement of the immortal human soul which transcends this temporal world with our mortal bodies to focus more on the paradise that awaits those like Tolstoy and myself who believe in God, that there is a paradise waiting for us, in the greatest shaper of Western thought being found in the self-proclaimed by the objective world but by my subjective spirit, I fully acknowledge Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection as a miracle to unite all of humanity with God. I have experienced the same ennui of existential dread to the despair of nihilism as expressed in “Confessions,” that encapsulates all the symptoms of the abyss of Nihilism then to rise from it. As the assertion Existentialists by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche to become the “Ubermensch,” in a “Will To Power.” the proclamation in French-Algerian philosopher Albert Camus in “The Myth of Sisyphus,” and the “Revolt,” of life’s “absurdity,” that to live despite the assertion that everyday is essentially Monday working a double-shift that to live in spite of this is what makes one an “Absurd Hero.” I find the solution to both their philosophical concepts in Kierkegaard’s “Knight of the Faith,” which resonate with my two other spiritual mentors among humanity outside Jesus Christ in the studies of C. S. Lewis and the master of literature, Leo Tolstoy. Faith come about by an act of volition, in this volition one is granted power through having a relationship with the omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, and I would say omnibenevolent God which is the greatest will to power. Faith is the human spirit growing exponentially greater through transcendental “Leaps of Faith” and lamenting one’s faults in “Confessions,” so one may grow more. Faith is not of a logical or natural occurrence in a but it is an act of volition, it is the will of the individual to have faith in God, if life were truly nothing but obscurity encompassed within absurdity than to embrace this is heroic than I a brilliant intellectual who does not deny objective truth but by my own volition choose defiantly in my revolt without any hard evidence outside speculation to do the most absurd thing I can do and that is believe that there is a God to my own individual self while holding this faith in social-interaction as “Objective Uncertainty,” to experience the “Numinous Awe” of God for I am mere Aaron Zen, I am a mere human being. This reasoning is the same reasoning Leo Tolstoy shares with me. Ivan Ilyich died so Leo Tolstoy could gain everlasting life.
The Compendium of literary, philosophical, and spiritual works by Leo Tolstoy.
Leo Tolstoy, “The Death of Ivan Ilyvich,” Signet Classics, (1886).
Leo Tolstoy, “War and Peace,” The Russian Messenger, (1868).
Leo Tolstoy, “Anna Karenina,” The Russian Messenger, (1877).
Leo Tolstoy, “A Confession,” (1882).
Leo Tolstoy, “Resurrection” (1899).
The Compendium of literary works by Danish Philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard.
The Compendium of works by German Philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche.
The Compendium of works by American Theologian, C. S. Lewis.
The Compendium of works by American Transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson.
The Compendium of works by American Transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau.
Karl Marx, “The Communist Manifesto,” Progress Publishers Press. (1848).
C. Wright Mills, “The Power Elite,” Oxford University Press. (1956).
The Russian Revolution of 1917, “The Russian Revolution of 1917,” Wikipedia.org.
Aristotle, ‘On The Soul,’ Greek Philosopher who was a disciple of the philosopher Plato.
Georgism, “Georgism,” Wikipedia.org