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The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Essay Example

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Essay

Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich may be interpreted as a journey of self-discovery, whereby the main character Ivan Ilyich gradually encounters the meaningless of his existence. Ilyich, symbolic of a materialistic and bourgeois character, experiences a slow battle with death, through which he comes upon important conclusions regarding the vacancy of his lifestyle. In essence, Tolstoy’s work provides a critique of a materialistic form of existence.

This critique is anticipated in the structure of the work itself. Namely, Tolstoy begins the story with Ilyich’s injury, an injury that will ultimately lead to his death. The nature of the injury is essentially Tolstoy’s way of satirizing bourgeois and materialistic culture: Ilyich is hurt when he is hanging up an expensive set of drapes in his luxury apartment. The irony is apparent here, since it is precisely Ilyich’s materialistic commitments that lead him to undergo a form of pathetic death.

By beginning the work with the misfortune of the protagonist, Tolstoy is then able to devote the rest of the narrative to Ilyich’s careful reflection upon his life. This is essentially a journey which takes place in the psychic life of Ilyich, as he begins to re-evaluate his existential decisions. When it appears that Ilyich’s condition is untreatable, the despair he is experiencing increases. He will be unable to correct the emptiness of the material life, an emptiness that he is beginning to grasp on a profound level through his physical suffering.

Such conclusions, however, are only the result of Ilyich’s own self-reflection, a self-reflection that is aided by his conversations with the servant Gerasim. Ilyich believes that he does not deserve to die, feeling that his materialistic and bourgeois lifestyle was in fact honorable. Through the anti-materialistic figure of Gerasim, however, Ilyich begins to realize the error of his decisions: a life that is dedicated to the material realm is an empty life.

Accordingly, it can be said that Ilyich ultimately realizes that his death is not a tragedy, for his life had been dedicated to a vacant form of existence. Tolstoy structures his narrative according to the protagonist’s discovery of this conclusion. In this regard, The Death of Ivan Ilyich is not so much a work of fiction, but rather an exercise in introspective self-reflection about the meaning of life itself.

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