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The Death of Ivan Ilych | Study Guide

Leo Tolstoy

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The Death of Ivan Ilych | Context


Tolstoy's Conversion to (Un)orthodox Christianity

Tolstoy's crisis of faith led him to question the teachings of the Russian Orthodox church. He sought answers to his profound spiritual questions directly from the Bible—particularly in the words of Jesus Christ. Tolstoy came to believe that the church was corrupt and that it perverted Christ's teachings, and he said so publicly. His heresy led to Tolstoy's excommunication from the Russian Orthodox church in 1901. Tolstoy also repudiated the wrathful God of the Old Testament in favor of the more spiritual teachings of the Gospels. To make a clean sweep of all he found false in the official Bible, Tolstoy wrote his own "corrected" version of the Gospels. He felt his version contained all one needed to live an authentic life and to nourish one's soul.

Tolstoy referred to "the man Jesus," denying that Jesus was divine but believing he was a human of great wisdom who understood how people should live their lives. Tolstoy's Gospel-oriented beliefs led him to adopt a simple, nonmaterialistic lifestyle (very much like the serfs he had tried to liberate). He dressed like a simple peasant and gave up meat-eating, smoking, and drinking in his pursuit of a simple life lived in harmony with nature and other people. Tolstoy also preached the benefits of physical celibacy, though he was unable to practice it himself. He believed that material goods and money were antithetical to Christ's teachings and that holding and valuing personal property was sinful.

Tolstoy wrote The Death of Ivan Ilych after a period in which he questioned the meaning of life that is inevitably erased by death. He confronted the question: "Is there any meaning in my life that wouldn't be destroyed by the death that inevitably awaits me?" Tolstoy's religious beliefs were one answer to this question about mortality. They are mirrored in The Death of Ivan Ilych. In the novella, Tolstoy shows how Ivan Ilych comes to recognize that his life of materialistic propriety has been shallow and meaningless. Ivan Ilych understands that everything in his life has been wrong. Only when he lets go of all the false trivialities of his life can he look death in the eye, accept it, and die with joy. In so doing, true death becomes the beginning of a purified life.

Serfs in Russia

Serfdom began in Russia around the 15th century and came to dominate the Russian agricultural economy by the 17th century. Most serfs were landless workers who were considered property, or chattel, by the noble who owned them. They were forced to work the land belonging to the noble. Chattel serfs could be bought and sold, were unable to leave the noble's land, and were subject to rigid laws controlling their lives. Laws dictated whom serfs could marry, among many other restrictions that left them in a near slave-like condition.

By the early 19th century many serfs were openly rebelling—in word and thought, if not always in deed—against this servitude. Naturally, the nobility that benefited from serf labor fought any attempts to restructure, let alone abolish, serfdom in Russia. But the debacle of losing the Crimean War (the 1853–56 military conflict against Great Britain, France, and Turkey) made many Russians recognize that change and modernization were vital to advancing Russian society and its economy. In 1856 Tsar Alexander II said, "It is better to abolish serfdom from above than to wait until the serfs begin to liberate themselves from below." The practical ruler wanted to free the serfs to head off any widespread rebellion from them. In 1861 the tsar emancipated the serfs, who were free from chattel servitude and in practice could own their own land. The disgruntled nobles retaliated. They sold the former serfs small plots of the lowest-quality land and charged them far more for the land than it was actually worth. Therefore, few serfs could afford to buy and run their own farms.

At the time of emancipation, serfs made up about a third of Russia's population. Of the approximately 22 million serfs, some were privately owned, some were owned by the state, and others were under the tsar's patronage. Tolstoy's serfs were privately owned, and he tried but failed to free them five years before the tsar officially liberated them. In this novella, Gerasim is a rather idealized version of a former serf who Tolstoy had tried to emancipate. Gerasim is described as being good-natured and attuned to the earth as well as to all the vagaries of human life. He does not shrink from death, nor does he recoil from the normal functions of the human body. Gerasim is a simple man whose nature is revealed in sharp contrast to the phony triviality and inauthenticity of people of Ivan Ilych's social class.

Tsar Alexander II and Russia in the 1880s

In 1851 Russia suffered a humiliating defeat to Great Britain, France, and Turkey during the Crimean War (1853–56). The Crimean War was Russia's attempt to actively protect the Russian Orthodox subjects of the Ottoman sultan who ruled the Crimean peninsula at that time. The war was also instigated as a power struggle among various nations (Russia versus a coalition of Britain, France, and Ottoman Turkey) for greater control of the Middle East. The conflict between Russian Orthodoxy and French Roman Catholicism was also a factor in the war. Russia's defeat in the Crimean War led to a great deal of self-examination among Russian intellectuals and government officials, including Tsar Alexander II. The consensus was that Russia was "backward" and had fallen behind European nations in its economic and infrastructural development. Russia in the mid- to late-1800s was a poor nation with little industry and an underdeveloped transportation system. The emancipation of the serfs in 1861 drew a greater proportion of the population to the cities, such as Moscow and St. Petersburg. Urbanization did spur economic growth to a certain extent. Slowly but surely a Russian middle class arose and grew, in many ways mimicking the social mores and values of Western Europe.

Tsar Alexander II was eager to modernize his nation despite the resistance he received from the nobility. Resistance also came from radical groups that sought to rid the nation of its hereditary monarchy altogether. The tsar firmly believed in his God-given right to absolute rule over his country. The tsar felt that Russians were not yet ready for a representative government. However, he did promote and institute some important reforms during his reign. For example, he promoted greater religious and ethnic tolerance within Russia, and permitted more Russian citizens to travel abroad. He also gave other nations under Russian rule, such as Poland, more autonomy.

Many Russians applauded these measures, but others were driven to violent public demonstrations and even calls for the tsar's assassination. Anger at this increased leniency exploded in a national uprising in 1863, which was put down by Russian intervention. More worrisome, in the tsar's view, was the growing popularity in the 1860s of rational egoism, a worldview adopted by many Russian youths. Rational egoism posited that if all people acted solely on the basis of rationality and self-interest, then society would be highly organized, efficient, and beneficial. Rational egoism posed a threat to the absolute rule of the Russian monarch, the tsar. This potentially revolutionary movement was stalled in 1862 when the tsar instituted cruel and repressive measures to crush it. The tsar's strong-arm tactics resulted in an attempt on his life in 1866, from which he miraculously escaped unharmed. However, Tsar Alexander II did try to modernize and industrialize Russia to lift it into a position of power comparable to Western European nations.

Undertaken largely in the 1860s, the tsar's programs to modernize Russia included plans for rapid industrialization in cities. Tolstoy was of two minds about these programs. He felt the reforms would undermine the "real" soul of Russia embodied in rural peasants and farmers. In The Death of Ivan Ilych, the true Russian character and soul are embodied in the character of Gerasim. Ivan Ilych himself, as well as his family and others in the upper-middle class, are shown to be shallow and trivial people who adopt an imitation Western European mindset that Tolstoy shows to be antithetical to Russian culture and values. Tolstoy was also concerned that as young people left the countryside for the city, the traditional Russian family structure would be irreversibly fractured. Tolstoy was also greatly disturbed by the rise of the urban professional and merchant middle class—the class to which Ivan Ilych and his family and acquaintances belong—which embraced Western ideas and culture. He particularly abhorred this class's self-absorption and the value it placed on materialism. Tolstoy's concerns are clearly present in this novella.

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