On my first reading of The Death of Ivan Illych, by Leo Tolstoy, I wondered why Tolstoy took such a circuitous route towards giving an account of the protagonist’s death. On further study, I realized that the story is as much a commentary on life as it is on death. Ivan Illych’s superficial, egotistical attitude towards life is mirrored in the attitude of his family and friends towards his death and it is only when he accepts the falsity of his own attitude that he is able to come to terms with his death. Ivan Illych’s attitude towards life is to make sure that it is “Easy, agreeable, gay and always decorous” (Chapter 2, para 17). There is no room for emotion, no reaching out to anyone on a personal level, no spontaneity. His sterile life is all form and no substance. He takes pride in “excluding his personal opinion and observing every prescribed formality” (Chapter 2, para 10) in his work. The power and trappings of his office, stripped of any human dealings, is what matters most to him in life. The same attitude is seen in his personal life. He marries Praskovya Fedorovna, not for love, but because it seemed the “correct” thing to do. He has absolutely no empathy towards her needs during her pregnancy or for the role of fatherhood later. All he requires from their marriage is the domestic comfort and “the propriety of external forms required by public opinion” (C 2, p 23). He selfishly confines himself within his “separate, fenced-off world of official duties” (C 2, p 23). He strives to achieve an aloofness from his wife, which permits him to go his own selfish way. The meanness of his life is revealed by his pleasures: ambition, vanity, and bridge! Ivan Illych’s attitude towards life is reflected in the attitude of others towards his approaching death. His colleagues are only concerned about the consequences of his death on their careers and promotion. Peter Ivanovich, like Ivan Illych himself, is governed by propriety and pays his condolence call only to satisfy social decorum.
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