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People from different generations, walks of life and backgrounds have all contemplated death in comparable ways. Some people choose to look to the afterlife as a means of explanations of the mystery that is death. Others look at the science behind death and gather as much information as possible on what happens. In The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy and Death Be Not Proud by John Donne we can identify two ways in which both of these writers deal with and view death, through metaphors and personification.
Metaphors have been used throughout history to compare things we don’t quite understand to things we can recognize and accept. Both John Donne and Leo Tolstoy used metaphors in their works to explain their thoughts about death. In Death Be Not Proud John Donne first compares death to rest or sleep in line 5 when he says “from rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee.”
Donne is saying that death is a more powerful version of sleep, one that rest and sleep can only faintly imitate, that death is the real deal.
In The Death of Ivan Ilyich the biggest metaphor Tolstoy uses in his explanation of death is the comparison between death and “a sack” in chapter 9, page 50, when he says “it seemed to him that he and his pain were being painfully pushed into a long, narrow, black sack, pushed in deeper and deeper and yet could not be pushed right through.” In both of these quotes we do also see elements of religion in their explanations.
In the first we can look at Christian teachings and compare the time between “death” and Judgement Day as a period of “sleep” from which the Christians will be woken up from and let into Heaven. In the second we can look at Ivan’s relationship with God.
Once Ivan falls through the sack then he has regained consciousness and woken up from his sleep, and begun talking to God with the realization that he did not live his life in the way he would have wanted to. Human relationships with others and the object around us are the easiest way for people to relate and begin to understand the things we have not registered. Personification has been used to create relationships between us and the things we cannot communicate with in order to get a better understanding of them. Both authors use personification to relate to Death. In Death Be Not Proud, Donne refers to death as proud, mighty, dreadful, and speaks to death, “nor yet canst thou kill mee (line 4).” In The Death of Ivan Ilyich Death is one of the main characters. Constantly looming over Ivan, ever since his pain first arrived and the eminence of his death became real, Death was a constant reminder to Ivan that he was a fragile human like everyone else, and that ultimately material goods left you nothing as you passed.
In Death Be Not Proud the speaker didn’t seem fearful of Death, only aware of it, as Ivan came to be. In line 14, the speaker says “and Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.” Only as Ivan was dying did he no longer fear death, although the reminder of death still plagued him, “‘And Death? Where is it?’ He sought his old, habitual fear of Death but could not find it. Where was Death? What Death? There was no fear, because there was no Death.” Both John Donne and Leo Tolstoy had close encounters with Death, provoking both to search for a meaning, an understanding, and an acceptance of death, which they explored through writing. As the Doors lead singer Jim Morrison once said, “People fear death even more than pain. It’s strange that they fear death. Life hurts a lot more than death,” something Ivan discovered, something the speaker in Donne’s poem knew, and something we all will figure out for ourselves.
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