Topic: Tolstoy’s narrator remarks that Ivan Ilych’s life has been “most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible” (731). Explain how the events of Ivan’s life support this assessment. What is terrible about the ordinary?
There are many milestones in one’s life. Graduating college, getting a job, getting married, buying a house and having kids. For most people these are joyous events that are celebrated with family and friends; and come with hard work. However some people have a different mindset towards life. They perform tasks for the mere sake of getting the job done and life almost seems like a check list. There is a difference between being alive and truly living. Being alive is fulfilling the responsibilities and duties that are required of you. Truly living is when you seize every moment and make the most of it. One appreciates the small pleasures in life and is satisfied with what he or she has. It is easy to go through life without realizing you are not enjoying it. We get so caught up in trying to be the best version of ourselves that we don’t stop and appreciate the small things that bring every day joy. In “The Death of Ivan Ilych” Leo Tolstoy examines the life of a man, Ivan, who would have seemed to live a typical life with adequate wealth, high position, and family.
However as we read on we come to realize that he is living almost robotically. Relationships don’t have much value in his life. He does what he thinks is the right thing to do, and follows the examples of everyone around him. He is scared of getting left behind and wants to make a name for himself. This leads to Ivan Ilych’s life being “most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible” (1458). His life ends up being a total waste with no real friends, no happiness and lots of regret. It is not until Ivan is on his death bed in his final moments that he realizes that the personal relationships we forge are more important in life than who we are or what we own. But by then it’s too late. Today’s society is very fast paced; everyone is always on the go. People think about the big picture and miss the small details of life. This is a very common mistake in the western culture. All working people want to follow the script of life, but there are some extremists like Ivan that take it to the next level. With every aspect in his life he wants to be perfect and will do anything to achieve and maintain his status.
An example of his extreme behavior is his love life. Ivan was at a point in his life where he settled down in a new town and life was pleasant. There “he met his future wife, Praskovya Fedorovana Mikhel, who was the most attractive, clever and brilliant girl of the set in which he moved” (1461). He establishes a light relation with her; and slowly she falls in love with him. Ivan had no intension of marrying her, he thinks of his marriage primarily in terms of himself. He thinks of marrying her only because she had all the qualities that he thinks a good wife is supposed to have; she came from a good family, was good looking, had an income and “it [marriage] was considered the right thing by most highly placed of his associates” (1461). So Ivan gets married; it doesn’t sound like he is madly in love with her. It’s more like he marries her because other people tell him it’s a good thing to do and he doesn’t have any objections. For Ivan other people’s approval and views matter more than his own views. Marriage is one of the most important and joyous events in one’s life; most people get married when they think is the right time for them and with whom they think is the right person, however for Ivan it’s just another task on the checklist. In other words Ivan got married just for the sake of getting married.
There was no joy or excitement; he makes marriage look like a simple and ordinary event in one’s life. Relationships are easy to make but hard to maintain. As Ivan’s married life goes on he realizes that marriage is not as easy and pleasant as he thought. As things started to change in his life, he felt depressed and helpless. He wants to escape and live life his own way, invite friends over for a game of cards and go to the club in the evenings. On the other hand his wife wanted him to spend more time with her and there was nothing wrong with that, it is expected. Every wife wants her husband to spend time with her especially while she’s pregnant. However for Ivan his work is more attractive because it brings him success and that’s what’s most important to him.
He doesn’t understand the importance of family and ignores his wife; Ivan spends more time at work and becomes more ambitious than before. Money is an essential need in life and it is a man’s responsibility to provide his family with all the comforts of life, since the men are usually the breadwinners of the household. However if you pay too much attention to money it can damage your relationship with your family because you lose out on time with them. Relationships with family have a much larger effect on quality of life than money does. However Ivan fails to realize this and concentrations totally on work, it is not until he’s on his death bed that he understands the importance of family in life but by then it’s too late.
Going back into his childhood it is clear that Ivan was just what “he remained for the rest of his life: a capable, cheerful, good-natured, and sociable man” (1459). Everyone has someone or the other who they look up to and follow in life. Ivan was attached to people of high position, therefore established friendly relations with them. He took their blueprint of life which consisted to wealth and social status; and blindly followed it. Ivan did all the things they did, even though he didn’t like what he was doing. He was disgusted with himself and regarded everything he did to be wrong but because all these things were done by people with good position, it did not matter (1459). Childhood is the best part for most people; they do what they want, don’t care about others and most importantly have fun.
However Ivan got so caught up in being the best version of himself, he missed all these cheerful things. He did what he thought to be the right things, which were the things done by successful people. It is not bad to follow successful people, everyone should do that however not to the extent that Ivan did. He did not listen to his heart or brain. He even chose his friends on the base of their social status and not whether he liked them or not. If something seemed wrong to him, he tried to forget it only because it was regarded right by the people with good position. There wasn’t anything special about his childhood, he basically followed a script. After law school Ivan’s life is pleasant; he performs his job and makes his career in the province. Later in his life he takes up the post of examining magistrate in a new town (1460). His social life picks up where it left off. Ivan “picked out the best circle of legal gentlemen and wealthy gentry living in the town” (1461) to associate with. Here’s another example where Ivan does something because it seems the right thing to do. He wanted to be recognized in society and be powerful so he establishes relationships with rich and powerful people. It didn’t matter if he liked them or not.
The relationships he developed with them were on the surface and were just a show, compared to normal friendships that last forever. These men did not have any meaning in his life and vice versa; this is proven when he passed away and his friends care more about their promotions rather than being sad on a loss of a friend. People always compare their lifestyles and what they have to their friends and people around them. It’s a non-ending cycle of always wanting what you don’t have. Ivan was never content with what he had, and it was evident in his life choices. After working as an examining magistrate for a while “he was expecting to be offered the post of a presiding judge in a University town” (1463). Instead to his horror a colleague got the post. In response to this he quit his job. He began actively hunting for a better position and succeeded. His friend helped him land a position that was two times better than his old one.
He was thrilled that he proved his colleagues wrong who failed to appreciate him. It is evident that he was more excited to show off his new position to his “enemies” than to be genuinely happy about being able to provide more for his kids and wife. We should always take a moment to step back and enjoy what they have before life makes us realize it’s too late. With Ivan’s new job came more money. This led to a bigger and better lifestyle. He bought a grand house and furnished it with expensive pieces. Slowly his dream of having everything he could ever dream of was coming true. He had obtained the status he always wanted, purchased all the expensive things and was slowly getting satisfied with everything. As he settled in to the new lifestyle he always wanted; he quickly became bored. It wasn’t as great as he thought it would be. All throughout his life he always looked at the big picture. He was so concentrated on getting his dream job, house and lifestyle that he didn’t enjoy and appreciate the small pleasures that came along the way. He sacrificed all the small joys of life for the end result and now that it was time for Ivan to enjoy the results of his hard work, life took a turn in the opposite direction. As he was setting up his new house, he injured himself while putting up curtains.
As time went on his injury got worse, and he was never able to fully enjoy the things he had worked for. Ivan’s life had no special moments, as he never understood the joy in small achievements. He took them as simple and ordinary things. As we examine Ivan’s life it is clear to us that it was a total failure as most of the time he was lonely and didn’t have any friends or family he confided his worries to. He never paid attention to his relationships and did not make an effort towards them. As his Injury gets worse it begins to take a toll on his life, forcing him to stay at home. Now that he is at home all the time he begins thinking of his life and starts reflecting on it.
Slowly everything hits him. All the mistakes he made are becoming visible to him from his childhood to his relationship with his wife to his job. He is realizing he spent his whole life chasing what he thought would make him a happy man and that he really wasn’t happy at all. He did not establish any friendships at a young age, and the ones that he did were not real, they were on the surface. His life is flashing before his eyes. The empty feeling he had his whole life is turning into regret. As he thinks about his mistakes he realizes that he intended to live life in a certain way, but ended up living in a completely different manner. Like everyone else Ivan didn’t realize this while he was making these mistakes. He wasted his life running after wealth and status; and failed to build real relationships. In reality he didn’t achieve anything in life other than tangible objects. We as the reader saw these opportunities for him to change throughout his life. As a child Ivan didn’t like what he was doing. He was disgusted with the things he did to become one of the high positioned people.
He could have understood that this is not the right way to live life but he was so determined to achieve his goal he turned wrong things into right in his eyes. Later on in his life after he got married, his wife showed frustration towards him, she wasn’t happy with the way of his lifestyle. Most people care about their close ones and try to change for them, whereas Ivan ran away from the situation and started working more and spending less time with his family. He did the opposite of what a normal person would do. Instead of listening to his heart and brain he changed his morals; instead of strengthening his relations he neglected them. His life choices were ordinary; it seemed like he was just being alive and not truly living. Normally when people die, they are remembered for all the memories and great things they did.
Their loved ones grieve over the loss of a friend and family member. A person leaves a legacy after passing away. Many want that legacy to be one of the good times and the memories spent with people you love. However Ivan was unsuccessful in doing that. He was so obsessed with being successful while he was alive it was evident his friends were friends with him for all the wrong reason. After receiving the news of their friend Ivan’s death the first thought of each of his friends was of the changes and promotions it might occasion among themselves or their acquaintances (1453). Instead of being sad, his friends thought of the benefits they’d get. This shows the type of friendship he had established with his friends. Not only had his friends, his wife too thought about the benefits of his death. Her main concern was “how she could obtain a grant of money from the government on the occasion of her husband’s death (1457).
This was a result of Ivan’s behavior and lack of love towards her. She was a good and loving person; but over time marriage changed her. While Ivan was alive he didn’t treat her with love or give her the place of a wife in his life. Ivan’s wife’s and friends’ behavior give a perfect picture of how he lived his life. He just fulfilled his responsibilities just for the sake of getting them done. Ivan was ordinary in the sense that he had no friends or loved ones. For an outsider looking in on his life he had it all; a big house, nice car, wife, kids and respectable job. However life is not about the tangible objects; houses and cars are just materials but life has a bigger meaning than that.
At the end of the day if all the objects were to be taken away from him he has no relationships to hold onto. Life always boils down to the relationships we have, our loved ones and the happiness of our families. It is unfortunate that Ivan realized this when it was too late and he couldn’t do anything about it. Hence his life was “most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible”. Ivan’s misunderstanding of the things that truly mattered in life is what made his life so terrible. Love, respect, intimacy, and happiness are the things that really make life worth living not wealth, power, and property.
Courtney from Study Moose
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