In Leo Tolstoy’s novel, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Ivan’s life is not one of authenticity. Ivan’s “false” life is the product of his desire to collect social accolades. Ivan’s marriage was based on the fact “that he married because the people in his circle approved of the match” (P.56). Of Ivan’s marriage he “demanded only the conveniences it could provide” (P.58). When Ivan superior’s “treated[ed] him with disdain and during the next round of appointments again passed him by” (P.61), he thought it was “the most difficult year in [his]…life” (P.61). Ivan’s objective in his conceded life was to have “all his enemies…disgraced and [fawn]…him now and [envy] his position” (Pgs.63, 64). Ivan derived no genuine pleasure, but “pleasure from giving small dinner parties to which he invited men and women of good social standing” (P.69).
Control, Objectification, and lack of empathy are the unauthentic values that Ivan uses to create his life. Throughout Ivan’s entire life he was in control, especially as a judge. As a judge, his enjoyment came through the feeling of knowing that “he [was the one] who had the power to crush them” (P.53) and “the chance to ruin whomever he chose” (P.59). Ivan dreaded marriage because it was “something new, unexpected, and disagreeable…and [he] could do nothing to avoid [it]” (P.56) and that challenged his control over his life. Ivan’s marriage is described as a “difficult business” (P.58), which in term describes how Ivan objectifies his marriage and wife. What displeased Ivan the most was when he was not in control, like when “he could not make ends meet on his salary” (P.61). Along with being a control freak, Ivan is a neat freak and is very petulant about things he has put work into:
“Every spot on the tablecloth or the upholstery, even loose cord on the draperies irritated him; he had gone to such pains with decorating that any damage to it upset him” (P.68).
Ivan bases his existence around selfishness, insincerity, and nonchalance. During Ivan’s life, there are happy moments like his marriage and the birth of a child, but all it says is “And so Ivan Ilyich got married” (P.56) and “Other children were born” (P.58). There is no emphasis on these “joyous” moments. Ivan is a man who refuses to make the sacrifices required for marriage and continues to live life with “the same carefree and proper approach to life that had served him in the past” (P.56). Ivan’s selfishness and insincerity take form when Ivan “[fails] to sympathize with [the family]…[and] his need to fence off the world for himself outside the family became even more imperative” (P.57). When Ivan and his family moved, even though “his wife disliked the new town” (P.58), he could care less about her opinion. It was all about him.
Tolstoy uses symbolic objects to draw a correlation between the fatal incident and his life. It is no coincidence Ivan is hanging draperies and injures himself on the knob of the window frame. The sun is the universal symbolism of truth and that is what Ivan has been from his entire life. Draperies are the symbols for the protection of the truth. Windows are symbolic of 3 things. They are referred to as the eyes of your soul; a view of the visual world; or something you can see, but not touch. The purpose of the draperies is to conceal the “real” life that has ignored his entire life. The ladder, from which Ivan falls, is comparable to the social ladder from which he also falls.
Ivan’s “false” life is what inevitably leads to his downfall. If not for Ivan’s desire to please the upper class, he would have no desire to dress up his house like the rich. If Ivan lived an authentic life, full of love, he would not care of what people thought of him, but his family would be what mattered to him. The most evident element of Ivan’s “false” life is his objectification of others. It is ironic that all his life he objectifies others, and the objects are the ones who kill him.
Ivan, through his time spent with Gerasim, has realized that Gerasim is a true, authentic being. Because Ivan is sick, Gerasim and Ivan spend lots of time together. Ivan notices that Gerasim very often “[breaks into a smile, his eyes and strong white teeth gleaming” (P.100), which is an authentic gesture. Ivan realizes that Gerasim does not objectify and “Gerasim was the only one who did not lie” (P.104). Gerasim’s caring and authentic style of living is displayed through his motivation for helping Ivan:
“’We all have to die someday, so why shouldn’t I help you?’ By this he meant that he did not find his work a burden because he was doing it for a dying man, and he hoped that someone would do the same for him when his time came” (P.104).
Through the gestures and actions of the authentic beings, Gerasim and his son, Ivan beings to realize the difference between a “real” life and a “false” life. Ivan enjoys his time with Gerasim and especially enjoys when a “real” Gerasim holds up his legs rather than the “false” ottoman. Besides for feeling comfortable around him, “he loved to talk to him” (P.102). This was the first thing Ivan ever loved because he was always objectifying and never had a chance. Even staring at Gerasim’s face, Ivan begins to question if his life was “real.” Besides for Gerasim, Ivan’s son is the only one who has true, authentic emotion. Just before Ivan dies his son approaches him and gives him a final taste of what it is to be “real”:
“Just then his son crept quietly into the room and went up to his bed. The dying man was still screaming desperately and flailing his arms. One hand fell on the boy’s head. The boy grasped it, pressed it to his lips, and began to cry” (P.132).
After his time with authentic beings, Ivan starts on his quest for rebirth and a chance for a second, “real” life. As Ivan understood it “except for Gerasim, Vasya was the only one who understood and pitied him” (P.115) and those two helped him discover the “true, “real” life. Ivan’s first display of emotion is when he “cried like a baby” (P.118) because he has the reality and the society around him. Adding to the rebirth of Ivan, “he seemed to be listening–not to an audible voice, but to the voice of his soul” (P.118), which he had never listened to before. Ivan’s rebirth is almost complete when he admits, “in public opinion [he]… was moving uphill, but to the same extent life was slipping away from [him]” (P.120). Ivan’s rebirth is finally complete when his objectification leaves him and “he [actually] felt sorry for them (his family)” (P.133). At the end of the novel, Ivan dies physically, but he has redeemed himself and spiritually, “[spiritual] death is over…there is no more [spiritual] death” (P.134).