Leo Tolstoy was ex-communicated by the Church for having his own ‘orthodox' (meaning right way). As a man who educated his servants, Tolstoy created his own ideal interpretation of the world on his estate. Like Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy had his own social justice agenda. As a “writer of the conscious,” his work can be called psychological realism; it is spiritual and metaphysical. It asks big questions that direct themselves at the meaning of life (opposite of kitsch). Tolstoy dealt with the philosophy of morality and ethics. Unlike radical leftists (socialists) who saw literary criticism as a medium for which to move towards nihilism, Tolstoy saw suffering, but rather than turning to socialism for its relief, he encouraged spirituality.
The Death of Ivan Ilych begins with a lens of a death of someone readers don’t yet know. This defamiliarization (остранение) makes it possible for the reader to experience a familiar scene in a new perspective, as it is atypical to start with a stranger’s funeral. In this first part, Tolstoy emphasizes the theme of expectation. There is a situation with awkward seating, bowing, and making the sign of the cross. Peter Ivanovich tries to figure out what one ought to be doing, as if the main issue is how he will be perceived. Furthermore, the characterization of Ivan’s wife from the start might have been intentional—it displays her selfishness and shallowness right away, so as to warn the reader to keep from empathizing with her.
Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and most terrible.
This is a classic Tolstoy line. It hints at the conformity established by the hierarchical nature of the social system that resulted (ironically) in Ivan’s downfall. Attending law school and marrying Praskovya Fedorovna turn out to be the two key moments in a his overall demise. This idea of playing a role, of fulfilling a duty, denotes the desire for what is easy, decorous, and proper (key word: decorum). Ivan Ilych is nothing more than a function: a role. He is part of a machine; this is the culture’s mechanism. Functions do not have souls: Ivan is about how things are—not what they are. He never has a purpose, never a reason for being; merely one duty after another.
"He [Ivan Ilych]…required…above all that propriety of external forms required by public opinion." p. 94
"When nothing was left to arrange it became rather dull and something seemed to be lacking, but then they were making acquaintances, forming habits, and life was growing fuller." p. 99
"But as soon as he had any unpleasantness with his wife, any lack of success in his official work, or held bad cards at bridge, he was at once acutely aware of his disease." p. 104
"There was nothing to defend." p. 126
The son of Ivan Ilych bares innocence and genuine sincerity. He is representative of cyclical nature. Tolstoy’s description of Gerasim, however, could denote that peasants are grown children, which is condescending in a way. He idealizes the Russian peasant and insinuates that physical work is a purifying force. Gerasim is described as clean and fresh—not adjectives that come to mind while thinking of peasants. Perhaps this is descriptive of his soul, rather than person. Gerasim is simple, uncorrupted, innocent, and more spiritually connected than these social role players in society’s construct, so far removed from god.
"Only Gerasim recognized it and pitied him. And so Ivan Ilych felt at ease only with him" p. 115
Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky
Tolstoy’s writing is significantly more sedate than Dostoy’s. While Dostoy’s is opaque and intrusive, Tolstoy’s is linear and concrete. In both, there is a concern about society’s stance. Both are seeking moral clarity, yet the way the go about it is a stylistic distinction. Dostoy makes emotions so intertwined with characters’ intelligence that there is much contradiction. Tolstoy, on the other hand, is very repetitive, almost as if he fears being misunderstood. While Tolstoy is subtle, Dostoy is paradoxical. Additionally, Tolstoy slowly pulls the reader into his world, then shows how things are not quite as they appear. Dostoy drags the reader in, head first, then goes through the experience as one, from within.
"Death which was the only reality, and always the same falsity. What were days, weeks, hours, in such a case?" p. 116