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Analysis Of Death Of Ivan Ilych

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Letting Pain Be

To many individuals the word "progress" has a positive meaning behind it. It suggests improvement, something humans have been obsessed with since the dawn of society. However, if closely examined, progress can also have a negative connotation as well. While bringing improvement, progress can simultaneously spark conformity, dependency, and the obsession of perfection within the individuals caught in its midst. It is this aspect of progress within modern society that negatively affects Ivan Ilych, Leo Tolstoy's main character in The Death of Ivan Ilych. Ivan's attempt to conform to modern society's view of perfection takes away his life long before he dies. Furthermore, his fear of death and reactions towards it reflects modern society's inability to cope with the ever present reminder that humans still suffer and die, despite all attempts to make life painless, perfect, and immortal.

Although we as a society have advanced and made people's lives easier, our mental suffering is as present as ever, due to our incessant need to have everything perfect. We seem to forget that the fascination of living comes from the imperfect and the unexpected. In her essay "On the Fear of Death" Elisabeth Kubler-Ross suggests that the modern age, while increasing life span and ease of life, has at the same time given way to a "rising number of emotional problems," amongst the living (Ross 407). She also suggests that because of modern society's progress, there has been an increased anxiety towards death. While Ross is writing for twentieth century society her ideas apply to the nineteenth century as well, when Tolstoy wrote The Death of Ivan Ilych.

Ivan Ilych is living during the industrial revolution, a time of technological advancement, that mainly advances the upper class, which he is apart of. Ivan's number one priority in life is to be comfortable and to do the correct thing at all times. Every decision he makes, including who he chooses to marry, is with the intent that it does not damage his "easy, agreeable, and always decorous character of his life," (Tolstoy 213). Ivan is convinced that the best way to have an easy and agreeable life is to be wealthy, marry a woman from his own class, and live in a house full of modern conveniences and luxury. Ironically, it is these same things that will bring him a fatal and disagreeable end.

In Ivan quest to always do the "correct" thing he looses his humanity and therefore the vital aspect that makes him alive to begin with. The physical death he must face at the end scares him because it forces him to realize the life he has lived has been completely false. When confronted with death Ivan starts retracing his past, wondering what he has done to deserve such pain and suffering. He realizes when he is bed ridden that he was much more alive as a child then as an adult. In chapter five of The Death of Ivan Ilych, Ivan admits that "...the further back he looked the more life there had been. There had been more of what was good in life and more of life itself," (Tolstoy 238). If one were to observe small children play, they would notice it does not take much to hold a child's interest, and often they are much more fascinated by things that don't work correctly then things that do. With the pressure to conform to society's views of perfection as an adult, Ivan loses the liveliness he possessed as a child. Having to face death terrifies him because it forces him to admit he actually did not do the correct thing like he thought he did.

The progress of modern society and the pressure to conform has not only hastened Ivan Ilych's death but also made him a die a very miserable death. As soon Ivan realizes he has a physical problem, a problem that began with his obsession of having the perfect house, he consults one of the best doctors he can find for a solution. He finds out the doctor is more interested in figuring out what the problem is then how the problem will affect him. Ivan realizes the doctor is treating him the way he used to treat the people in his occupation. In both cases, the men are more interested in doing their work correctly, then helping the actual life of the individual they are dealing with. Thus, they are both externally motivated individuals. The doctor, instead of answering Ivan's most important question-is his ailment bad-gives him a treatment program to supposedly fix it. Ivan is left feeling an estranged object, not a human being. Consequently, facing death becomes even more lonely.

What Ivan lacks from his modern family and friends is human pity and understanding. He needs compassion, not a prescription. Prescriptions have become modern society's new cure for pain. However, prescriptions have simply brought about a new kind of pain, the pain of loneliness. Ross states that "dying nowadays is more gruesome in many ways, namely, more lonely, mechanical, and dehumanized," (411). It is exactly this that Ivan Ilych experiences. He longs for someone to sympathize with him, to care for him sincerely. Those who have been swept up in conformity and the quest of perfection are unable to do this, for they no longer know how to react to death. Their only intent is to avoid it. Ivan serves as a reminder to them that they will not be able to forever.

The question then is, why conceal death, an ever present reality? Philippe Aries in his essay, "The Dying Man is Deprived of His Death," states that in modern times, "It is understood that the primary duty of the family and the doctor is to conceal the seriousness of his condition from the person who is to die," (399). Again, it is the modern day individual's inability to cope with pain and death that leads to this denial. This is precisely what Ivan's wife, daughter, and friends cannot come to terms with. Thus they have small talk with him but never directly address the seriousness of his malady. If they were to do so, they would be forced to consider their own mortality as well.

Interestingly enough, death has not always been such a lonely, terrifying road. The fact that Ivan must die lonely is a direct result of him living in modern day society. Finnur Magnusson writes in "Narratives

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