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Tolstoy’s View on How to Live a Happy Life in The Death of Ivan Ilyich

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As said from the physicist Albert Einstein, “A quiet and modest life brings more joy than a pursuit of success bound with constant unrest.” By that, Einstein meant that to live well, we need to preserve and valorize the simple things of life; which is the main theme of the book “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.” This book explores the theme of living happily with the criticism to the bourgeoisie and to its false values by comparing this social group to falseness, superficiality, artificiality, and hypocrisy. Therefore; the main theme of the text is the thoughts on living well and happily. This criticism to the bourgeois society is made to show the readers the main intention of Leo Tolstoy, that was to show them how to live a happy and balanced life based on the description of Ivan’s one; so we can use the example of his miserable life, based on status, wealth and lies, to prevent ourselves from making the same mistakes.

The protagonist, Ivan Ilyich, based his relationships all over his life on interest; and the biggest example of that is his marriage with Praskovya Fedorovna, and that is one of the main reasons why Ilyich’s life was miserable and it’s one of the teachings given by Tolstoy to live a happy life. What firstly caused their conflict is the fact that their relationship was based on pleasing society, they didn’t love each other. The motives that the marriage failed are explicit in the excerpt: ‘To say that Ivan Ilyich married because he fell in love with Praskovya Fedorovna and found that she sympathized with his views of life would be as incorrect as to say that he married because his social circle approved of the match.” The beginning of their life together was enjoyable, but, as Tolstoy intention was to show that relationships based on status and interest don’t work, their marriage wore out at some point. The part of the text that illustrates that is: “The preparations for marriage and the beginning of married life […] were very pleasant until his wife became pregnant […] from the first months of his wife’s pregnancy, something new, unpleasant, depressing, and unseemly, and from which there was no way of escape, unexpectedly showed itself.” As the marriage was going downhill, Ivan tried to run away from the suffering, and he regretted the decision to marry Praskovya to please the bourgeoisie. This fact is evident in the part: “He now realized that matrimony — at any rate with Praskovya Fedorovna — was not always conducive to the pleasures and amenities of life, but on the contrary often infringed both comfort and propriety, and that he must, therefore, entrench himself against such infringement.” In conclusion, we can say that the author taught us that having authentic, honest and true relationships is one of the conditions to live a well-lived life. When he describes Ivan’s relations based on interests, status and wealth, as unpleasant, disastrous and disturbing; we can infer that the opposite type of relationship leads to great things.

As well as Ivan’s life teaches living lessons using his actions and consequences as the opposite that we should do to be happy, Leo Tolstoy hasn’t just shown the way to be happy through the example of a poor life; he used Gerasim to personify true, happiness, and empathy and, by that, he evidenced a peaceful way to live. The reader can first perceive the prosperity of Gerasim life through the criticizes to the bourgeois social circle: as Tolstoy portrayed the bourgeoisie as superficial, false, and almost soulless, the proletarian is characterized by the example of Gerasim as compassionate, sensitive, and sympathetic. The fact that Gerasim is a proletarian, and consequently, had all those characteristics can be perceived in the excerpt: “Ivan Ilyich had been particularly fond of him and he was performing the duty of a sick nurse.” As we know his job, we can infer that Gerasim’s position in society is proletarian. Also, unlike the bourgeois characters, Gerasim really cares about others and interact with others in an authentic and reflexive way, he has a connection with people because of the well-being of everyone matters for him. The reader feels that positivity from Gerasim firstly in the part: ‘That must be very unpleasant for you. You must forgive me. I am helpless.’ ‘Oh, why, sir,’ and Gerasim’s eyes beamed and he showed his glistening white teeth, ‘what’s a little trouble? It’s a case of illness with you, sir.’ It is explicit in this excerpt the compassion, warmth, and honesty of Gerasim, as he makes Ivan know that he is actually dying and that he will help him until the end. Gerasim is also the only one who could make Ivan accept death, as he believed that death is not the end. That occurs because Gerasim accepted death and all the bad things that happen to humans as inevitable parts of life. We can understand that by reading: “Once when Ivan Ilyich was sending him away he even said straight out: ‘We shall all of us die, so why should I grudge a little trouble?’ To conclude, Gerasim was a character made to be the right example of how to live well and happy because he could encourage Ivan to face death and he did it himself. Also, his relationships with others were harmonic, honest, and he did the best he could to console Ivan and make him know the truth that others were hiding.

As we can think of the book “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” as a “guide” to a positive, wonderful, and fantastic life, Tolstoy gives us a space to interpret the book as a big criticism to the bourgeois society, since he gives us Peter Ivanovich point of view in the first chapter to analyze how the bourgeoisie thinks, he also gives us Gerasim participation to show how the proletariat is a worker, sincere, virtuous, and honorable class. Peter’s point of view is the most powerful artifice that Tolstoy uses to criticize the bourgeoisie since he is portrayed as an only self-interested man who didn’t have real relationships and that was shallow and false. The greatest example of how he represented the bad characteristics of the bourgeoisie is the part: “Having told his wife at dinnertime of Ivan Ilyich’s death, and of his conjecture that it might be possible to get her brother transferred to their circuit, Peter Ivanovich sacrificed his usual nap, put on his evening clothes and drove to Ivan Ilyich’s house.” As said before, Gerasim was the example of the proletarian in the novella, and, as the book could be considered a social criticism, he had positive characteristics and represented the class in the best way possible, since there was a contrast with the bourgeoisie emptiness. He emanated positivity in all his appearances, and that’s exemplified in: “Health, strength, and vitality in other people were offensive to him, but Gerasim’s strength and vitality did not mortify but soothed him.” Lastly, Ivan’s life based on work, status, and money, just like most of the bourgeois criticized this class, since it shows how bad it can make a person. This is exemplified in the excerpt: “The whole interest of his life now centered in the official world and that interest absorbed him.”, in which we can infer that his focus on work put him apart of his family and “friends”. Taking everything into account, we can say that the book could have been a great criticism to society and the bourgeois class, since we can see all the bourgeoisie’s bad characteristics in Peter’s point of view and the narration of Ivan’s life, and the good characteristics of the proletariat are exalted through the character of Gerasim and all the help and empathy that he offers.

Finally, it may be concluded that the book “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” was a way of Leo Tolstoy to teach the readers in all epochs how to live a pleasant life, since he explicited to us the examples of a suffering life (Ivan’s one) and an admirable life (Gerasim’s one). So, the main objective of the author was to show the readers the best way to live, to live without the need and desire to have material things and wealthy and to be a human being who thinks not only in his personal interests but in the other’s welfare. Make a connection and show the greater significance of the subject you have written about: Making a relation between the story of Ivan Ilyich and of Tolstoy, we can say that they both had unhappy lives and, as they were members of the bourgeoisie which perceived that living for status and wealthy wasn’t a good way to live and tried to change that: Ivan by accepting death and the eternal life that goes after it and Tolstoy by writing this book to make sure everyone who reads it doesn’t have a bad experience with noticing the really important values. 

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