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Themes of a Poor Life in
?The Death of Ivan Ilyich?
It occurred to him that what had appeared perfectly impossible before, namely that he had not spent his life as he should have done, might after all be true. It occurred to him that his scarcely perceptible attempts to struggle against what was considered good by the most highly place people, those scarcely noticeable impulses which he had immediately suppressed, might have been the real thing, and all the rest false. And his professional duties and the whole arrangement of his life and of his family, and all his social and official interests, might all have been false. He tried to defend all those things to himself and suddenly felt the weakness of what he was defending. There was nothing to defend.
?But if that is so,? he said to himself, ?and I am leaving this life with the consciousness that I have lost all that was given me and it is impossible to rectify it- what then??
Tolstoy paints for the reader through the discourse of ?The Death of Ivan Ilyich? a social statement on the insignificance and banality of sociological conformity from a variety of viewpoints all perceptible to the reader from many sociological class structures. What we find in ?The Death of Ivan Ilyich? is a way of life, a comparison that defines for the reader a method of living outside that of the accepted sociological norm. This new take on life extends through the above passage as a method by which humanity can asses its place, its role, and the crucial role of the individual in the personal ?success? of the human individual. In this paper, I plan to outline several points used by Tolstoy through a means of sociological placement (i.e. Work, family, social attributes and practices) as a means of describing the true ?death? as portrayed in the work, and how the realizations of a dying man shape Tolstoy?s personal beliefs on life and the construction of personal and individual acclamation. In the above passage, Tolstoy delvers to the reader several main themes used throughout the work as a means of describing the greater role that Ilyich plays in the complex sociological themes outlined in the plot that is his life. ?The arrangement of his life and of his family, and all the social and official interests?.?
We will begin with an analysation of his family situation. Praskovya, his wife, had been a love constructed from the start of an economic and sociological expectation rather than that of a true courtship. The happiness therefore of the union was derived solely of a necessity to fulfill a desire on the part of others for a ?success? of sorts, surely her desire as well. ?Ivan Ilyich could have counted on a more illustrious match, but even this one was quite good. He had his salary, and her income, he hoped, would bring in an equal amount. (Tolstoy, 56)? Tolstoy goes on to make several remarks on the benevolent nature of the relationship between he and his wife. The arrival of his children creates no great marker in his life, and proves to be little more than a factor in his ever-lengthening retreat into his life of solitude and work.
It is obvious to the reader that this retreat into his work is the soul means by which Ivan moves towards a personal goal of self-justification and righteousness. It is no mistake on Tolstoy?s part that he is involved in a position of disciplinary authority. Through this discipline, one is exposed to the impression of society as a disciplinary function. This function is displayed through the judicial system, the work that Ivan creates for himself, as a leader in the federal disciplinary system is a commentary on the necessity for discipline within the social framework within which Ivan lives. This is an ever-present dichotomy that can be tied into both the familial and social framework within which Ivan lives. Is his personal discipline exorcized through the construction of disciplinary discourse as outlined in his work? Is his family a disciplinary presence in his life when regarded through his retreat into the work itself? Certainly, Ivan creates a knowledge if the disciplinary function of the time without a true understanding of the effects of discipline upon his own life. His family being a binding obligation of sorts, Ivan finds himself trapped within the social framework provided him by the actions which he has created through his education as a social creature as well as his marriage and procreation with a woman outside the boundaries of true love.
The absence of this love is apparent in all aspects of his existence. Without any passion for his family life, his social standing or his work (outside of the idea of his obsessive drive to achieve what he is inexorably destined to fail in his work), he finds a trapping the proportions of which lead to his impending death and the pain there in. socially, Ivan attacks the ideological question of true happiness. What constitutes this happiness? What creates a drive to become something more than what society expects in order to create a structure within which one can survive as a successful individual? On a personal level, Ivan fails to create for himself an environment conducive to the romantic ideal of self-fulfillment. However, in forsaking this ideal, Ivan conforms to the sociological norm as prescribed by the standards of the time. In other words, the position into which Ivan conforms is constructed completely of ideals provided him by a sociological discourse as conducted, created and adhered to by the upper social structure of the time period. This structure is regulated by the ever-changing discursive value revolving around necessary normalizations as dictated by the structure itself, in essence, creating for itself a form of disciplinary rule and power structure to be adhered to or disregarded by its members.
My intent here is to examine this ?normalization? process, or the process by which we conduct certain behaviour and the level to which Ivan conforms to this process. Through the normalization of Ivan?s life, he finds placidity, boredom and self-indignation in his actions as prescribed by the discourse. The normalization of his existence acts as the benign factor that leads to his pain and suffering throughout his illness. Contextually, this normalization process is what leads us to our opening quotation from the work. In this quotation, Ivan comes to the realization as to the placid and benign nature that his life took as a result of this conformity and normalization, the turns that his life took as a need to fit into the sociological norms and discourse set before him in his studies. In this most powerful and revealing of passages, Tolstoy uses metaphorically the figure of the ?highly placed people? as a signification of disciplinary function. He uses the family, as a realization of what he wishes his family and life could have been, the joy inherent in the imagery of ?the child.? His professional duties having amounted to little personal success, as well as his ultimate demise are portrayed as unnecessary and having been carried out without cause. It is at this point in ?The Death of Ivan Ilyich? that he realizes his end is near, that his life is the cause of that death, and that his permittance of this extra-discursive disciplinary force was, in hindsight, the true means to his end as an individual.
One of the defining moments of his death comes just after this realization, with the arrival of his wife and her request that he take a sacrament, to which, he agrees to some extent. However, with taking the sacrament, and gaining once again a false hope of being cured, comes the pain that had washed over him to this point. Here, the reader sees Ivan revert back to the demands of his prior constraints, entering yet another disciplinary force into the plot we with that of the accepted orthodox practice of last rights.
This action falls in a time when Ivan is finally at terms with his impending death, when the pain comes as a signification of the sensory deprivation to which he has subjected his physicality throughout his life. Physically, he experiences a re-exhileration of child-hood experience, perhaps the last time that he allowed himself to experience sensory perception at a pure level, a level unhindered by sociological normalization, categorization or disciplinary action. It is for this reason that throughout the pain, he re-lives the experience of childhood. At this point in his death, Ivan invites the pain as a metaphor for the sensory experience that he has not allowed himself to experience throughout his life. With this experience, he comes to terms with the death, with the movement of life to life, realizing that he cannot be cured, as to be cured would be little more than to continue into the life that has lead him to this pain. He would be perpetuating the existence that he has lead, and with this, he finds peace in the realization of it not being too late, but of finding the ability to experience a re-birth of sorts.
Tolstoy transports the reader through these examples of sociological thought with the suffering of his hero. Ivan likely mirrors the thoughts that Tolstoy has in reference to his own life, shunning institutions of society, education and religion. It is in these examples of conformity that the reader sees err, and the justification of that err not to return to a life of perpetual discontentment and conformity, but to move ahead through the pain that Ivan experiences to learn a lesson of accepting freedom, not only on the terms of the freedom itself, but in the burden with which freedom presents itself.
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