Ivan Ilyitch and Wasted Lives
Ivan Ilyitch and Wasted Lives
The stories dealt with in this paper seek happiness in the wrong places. They stress the failures of modern life, the falsity of success and the elusiveness of happiness when it is not grounded in virtue. Virtuous and simple living are the last things to be discussed in these stories, but happiness is searched for according to the easiest and most sensual manners possible. Modern society has failed to bring happiness and fulfillment, and these stories speak as to why. What is terrible about modern life is the definitions of happiness and fulfillment based on money and social standing.
It is roundly condemned by journalists and moralists, but remains as powerful as ever as motivating factors in behavior. In Tolstoy’s famous Death of Ivan Ilyitch, the film’s hero, Ivan, is a lawyer, a member of the prestigious judicial council (127) who has recently taken ill, as lies in his last few hours considering his life. His main concern throughout his life is what Tolstoy calls comme il faut, that is, the maintaining of appearances regardless of circumstances. Even his marriage was based on social standing and on the opinions of high society, rather than love (130).
In “The Necklace,” the young woman wants the necklace that nearly destroys their life solely so that she will look like a successful person at the party given by the Ministry of Education. It ends in disaster as the necklace is lost. After being passed over for several promotions, Ivan was sent to a remote outpost in “the country,” where he quickly fell into boredom and ennui. He then left his family to go back to his Petrograd post, because high society is the only place he felt comfortable. His social cues came from that society.
After falling while decorating his house–decorating solely for the approbation of the same society–he developed what appears to be cancer, and quickly died, mirroring the life and death of Aurora in Terms. The will cannot bring happiness and human life often has a rhythm of its own that cannot be controlled by the state, social institutions or an overprotective mother. It is in this interval that he meets Gerasim, a simple peasant without pretense or guile, the opposite of Ivan (148). Gerasim was Ivan’s assistant when he was ill.
Gerasim cared not for society, but for the simple hard work that typified the peasant. He was a “natural” man rather than Ivan, the “artificial” one. But in Chapter IX is where a “voice” begins to speak to Ivan, speaking to him about life. Happiness is based on simplicity, not on the worship of the status quo and the domination of social norms. The artificial world of high society was not joyous, but merely a set of obligations. “And that deadly official life, and anxiety about money and so for one year, and two, and ten, and twenty, always the same thing” (157).
But this was the life of success, of high society, of the elite: and it failed to make Ivan happy. The move from childhood, with its simple joys, to that artificial world of elite adulthood was correlated with the falsity of his happiness and the deadening of joy. This is also to be seen in “Araby,” where children are the only ones left with imagination as they come of age. The complex and hypocritical world of high society deadened him and his life. This story about a dying man looking at his life seems to be well read, but never heeded.
Ivan is all of us who equate success with money and social standing, who view childhood as “trivial” and the approbation of institutions as central. Ivan conformed his entire life, from his marriage to political views, around what was dominant in high society. In this process, he was successful, but not happy. If anything, the two concepts exist in an inverse relation. Success in modern life is not a happy life. It is unhappy because ultimately, it is one set of obligations after another.
Money is always a problem–investments, the market, inflation, taxes, economic cycles all contribute to the anxiety of all but the most wealthy of moderns. Social life, as in Ivan, is a bore, with a set round of obligatory social relations and gatherings, all of which seem to set the “success” class apart from the commoners. But Ivan, through the example of Gerasim, sees that the simple peasant, the agriculturalist, without the social obligations of the Petrograd lawyer, is happy, joyful and finds a great deal of satisfaction in labor and its invigorating aspects so common in farm work.
But labor, in modern life, is something to be avoided rather than embraced and farm work is seen as “backward” in the prejudice of moderns. In the film Terms of Endearment, the parallels are subtle, but present. Aurora is the protective mother, always concerned for the ultimate happiness of her daughter, Emma. Once’s Emma’s first romance fails, and Aurora seems pushed out of her life, the latter finds romantic comfort with a married, “successful” man, a banker, Sam Burns. At the same time, Aurora, after remaining sexless for many years, has a whirlwind relationship with an ex-astronaut, Garrett Breedlove.
It is hard to see the placement of the false society here, as is the case with The Necklace and A Good Man. Both Emma and her mother live within the false society of modern life, believing that sex and finding the “right” man will bring happiness. Virtue is not mentioned, nor the life of the mind, but happiness is defined solely in respect of an other, a romantic, sexual relationship that is supposed to make people happy. Both characters, Aurora and Emma, are trapped and the free sex that exists throughout the movie is a conformist device, not a rebellious one.
If anything, the fact that Aurora dies of cancer tells her that happiness cannot be found in this life, for even if Aurora was right all along, and Emma was her best friend, she still would have died a miserable death. Having sex with the drunken Breedlove has changed nothing. This film seems to be a set of negative examples: overprotection does not lead to protected children, and sex does not lead to happiness, nor does romance. If anything, it is a veiled attack on the modern obsession with the sexually carnal, that promises pleasure and happiness but usually ends with emptiness.
Such is also the final scene in “Araby,” where the fair itself, symbolizing all sexual and sensual, is a disappointment. The build up the young boy has created in himself was far too high for actual reality. Sex is modern life is often considered this Holy Grail of acceptance that often leads to disappointment. The Necklace, a short story by Guy de Maupassant, has far more parallels with Tolstoy than Terms. The single reality is that the necklace is part of the world of falsity within which Ivan and his ilk live.
The very fact that the necklace itself is a cheap fake is part of the scheme–it matters not if the object is genuine, it does its job of making the world think that you belong and that you’re part of the “successful” club. The obligation that Ivan finds in his life is mirrored in the couple’s having to work for a decade to repay the alleged price of the genuine necklace, which never even existed. The necklace is the ultimate attack on the falsity of “successful” life–the necklace exists solely to convince others of something, but it is not even real.
At the same time, the labor that has gone into paying for the non-existent real necklace speaks of the waste and profligacy of the wealthy, who normally pay huge sums for such trinkets, and call it happiness or success. The young boy in “Araby” though that his love interest and the fair at Araby would provide this. All these sorts of things provide is emptiness. “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is a far more subtle work, centering around a self-centered grandmother that speaks of The Misfit, a killer who is allegedly making his way though to Florida, where her family wants to go on vacation.
The family eventually makes their way to Tennessee where, in an accident caused by a hidden cat, the disabled car is sat upon by the Misfit and his group, who eventually murders the entire family when the grandmother yells out that the Misfit is here, hence, necessitating the Misfit’s murder of his identifiers. There is a hint that the Misfit is in fact the grandmother’s son, and the grandmother, possibly attempting to save her own life, attempts to calm of Misfit by touching him, which leads to a scene where the murderer hesitates, but soon steps back to shoot her.
It seems that Terms and Good man are highly parallel, showing an overprotective parent seeking happiness in all the wrong places. Where The Necklace and Ivan are centered around the concept of falsity and the lies and hypocracy of modern life and its arbitrary definition of “success. ” All four are concerned with happiness broadly speaking, but only Tolstoy holds out the hope for any real happiness, a happiness that can only be gained by simplicity and a return to the land. Modern behaviors cannot understand this.
University/College: University of California
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 16 October 2016
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