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Tolstoy uses The Death of Ivan Ilyich to show his readers the negative consequences of living as Ilyich did. Ivan Ilyich made decisions based on what others thought and what would benefit him monetarily. As death approaches, Ilyich realizes that he squandered everything pure and meaningful in order to work and make money. His materialism and desire to conform made Ilyich’s life miserable and led to his demise.
From the outset of the story it is clear that Ilyich did not live a full, rich life. When his friends hear of his death, they are more concerned with “what effect it would have on their own transfers and promotions or those of their acquaintances” (Tolstoy 32) than the loss of their friend. Ilyich failed to establish close relationships with them, and after learning of his death they seem almost indifferent: “There is, in fact, no reason to assume this incident can keep us from spending a pleasant evening” (36), one remarks. They attend the funeral only “to fulfill the tedious demands of propriety” (33). Even before the reader learns of the manner in which Ilyich lived his life, she sees that the consequences are grim.
Geraism, Ilyich’s servant, serves as a foil. Even though Geraism is of a lower class than Ilyich, he is happy and knows what he wants; moreover, he is not burdened by the pressures of materialism. Ilyich admires Geraism because he “[does] everything easily, willingly, simply, and with a goodness of heart” (86) and, at the end, is the only person whose company he enjoys. Unlike Ilyich, who married Praskovya only because people of the “highest standing” thought she was a good choice (56), Geraism is free of societal expectations and can do as he pleases. While Ilyich dies at 45, Geraism lives well into old age, suggesting that an unhappy, burdensome life leads one to an early grave.
One of Ivan’s main downfalls is his materialism and emphasis on work. As an example of his obsession with material things, he puts up drapes in his new apartment to make the place look like “the homes of all people who are not really rich but who want to look rich” (57). As for work, Tolstoy states that Ilyich strove for money and prominence “by spending less and less time with his family and, when obliged to be home, tried to safe-guard his position through the presence of outsiders” (52). Neglecting his family resulted ultimately in severe alienation. He recognizes his downfall on some level at the end of his life, admitting that “Perhaps I did not live as I should have,” but immediately returns to self-protective denial as “he immediately recall[s] how correct his whole life had been” (102).
Tolstoy used The Death of Ivan Ilyitch to show that social conformity, materialism, and single-minded focus on work lead to unhappiness and isolation. While not an uplifting novel, Tolstoy’s work does benefit its readers – they conclude the story with greater appreciation for the need to live an honest, balanced life.
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