A The Isolation of Ivan Ilyich

Discussion in 'Essays & Journals' started by Taylor, Feb 26, 2012.

  1. Taylor

    Taylor EdChat™ PhD

    Oct 13, 2010
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    The Isolation of Ivan Ilyich
    by Taylor V. Smith

    Somewhere in Moscow, in the study of a relatively large, carefully-decorated apartment, an aging and infirm man, suffering from sharp pains in his side, lies on a couch, alone and dying. Noises of socializing and party-making drift into the study from another room in the apartment, serving only to emphasize the man’s already pronounced sense of loneliness. Bitterly, the man begins to curse the partiers for their lack of concern and pity, but his curses are abruptly silenced when he finds himself overwhelmed by a thought – a sudden fear that grips his heart. A single question intrudes his mind, drowning out the noise of the party and dulling the pain in his side: “But can it really be death?” (76-77). To his despair, his heart confirms this apprehension. Thus, the man lives the last days of his life in fear, alone and lying on a sofa in his study, alienated from his friends and family, suffering the worst isolation imaginable (104).

    Leo Tolstory’s character Ivan Ilyich was not always tormented by such relentless isolation. Years earlier, Ivan’s wit, playfulness, and propriety made him well liked among his peers and colleagues (45). This stark change from socialization to isolation merits further inquiry. Consequently, four principle questions arise. First, why is Ivan Ilyich isolated? Second, who isolated Ivan Ilyich? Third, what are the effects of Ivan Ilyich’s isolation? Finally, how does Ivan Ilyich overcome his isolation? In this essay, this author will argue that Ivan’s desire for social acceptance, coupled with his inability to deal with conflict, leads him to isolate himself from both his family and friends – a decision that incites poor family relations and shallow friendships, and ultimately leads to his realization that his life has not been “the real thing.” However, when Ivan finally departs from his customary isolation and reconciles himself to his family, he is able to end his life with the satisfaction that he concluded his earthly affairs suitably.

    To begin, it is necessary to explore the reason for Ivan Ilyich’s isolation. In this author’s estimation, Ivan became isolated for two primary reasons: his personality and his understanding of social affluence. First, it seems likely that Ivan’s peaceful and laid back personality made him unable to deal with conflict appropriately. In Tolstory’s words, “He was a happy mean between [his brothers] – a clever, lively, pleasant, and respectable man” (44). Generally, individuals possessing this personality value peace to such a degree that they would rather run from conflict than face it – in other words, they isolate themselves. Accordingly, as conflicts with his discontented wife increased, Ivan began to distance himself from her, throwing himself into his work (50). Thus, because he felt unable to process conflicts with is wife, Ivan began isolating himself.

    Secondly, Ivan Ilyich became increasingly isolated due to his misunderstanding of social success. Ivan was attracted to people of high social standing from his very childhood. Throughout his career, Ivan pursued friendships with respectable people and social elites, adopting their customs and habits (44). However, as he accepted higher appointments in the government, Ivan’s friendships became progressively exclusive. Says Tolstory, “On taking up the post of examining magistrate in the new town, Ivan Ilyich . . . put a suitable amount of distance between himself and the provincial authorities, [and] chose his friends from among the best circle of lawyers . . .” (47). This Ivan did because he believed that “one could only have official relations with people, and only on official grounds, and the relations themselves had to be kept purely official” (59). Yet, this increasing social selectivity, far from bringing him social affluence, merely isolated him further from the world. Thus, Ivan’s misguided pursuit of social success, rather than increasing his acquaintances, ironically increased his isolation. Therefore, it is clear that Ivan’s inability to deal with conflict, coupled with his misguided attempt at social acceptance, ultimately contributed to his state of isolation.

    Having established the reason for Ivan Ilyich’s isolation, it is necessary to determine who is responsible for isolating him. Three obvious conclusions present themselves, including his wife, his first child, and his sickness. It seems clear that Ivan understood his isolation to be catalyzed by environmental forces: not only did he complain that his friends and family had abandoned him (53), he felt that even God was absent (100). However, his difficult circumstances not withstanding, a closer examination reveals that it was ultimately Ivan’s own decision to isolate himself. This truth warrants further investigation.

    The first and most obvious possible cause of Ivan’s isolation is his wife, Praskovya Fyodorovna. In Ivan’s own assessment,

    For no reason at all, so it seemed to Ivan Ilyich . . . his wife began to undermine the pleasure and propriety of their life: she became jealous without cause, demanded he be more attentive to her, found fault with everything, and created distasteful and ill-mannered scenes (49).​

    Doubtless, peaceful, good-natured Ivan Ilyich found it difficult to internalize Praskovya’s selfishness and discontentment. It is also clear, as afore established, that Ivan’s inability to handle these conflicts with his wife contributed to his isolated state. Nevertheless, Praskovya’s demands on Ivan did not predetermine his response. Optimally, Ivan would have learned to respond to these conflicts constructively, affirming his fortes and admitting his faults. Instead, Ivan responded by occupying his time with additional work, thereby isolating himself from the source of the conflict (50). Thus, while Praskovya’s behavior was admittedly deplorable, it was Ivan’s poor response to Praskovya that finally led to his isolation.

    Another possible catalyst toward Ivan Ilyich’s isolation is the birth of his first child. According to Tolstory, “With the birth of the baby . . . his need to fence off a world for himself outside the family became even more imperative” (50). In raising his first child, Ivan found himself presented with “various difficulties,” not the least of which was Praskovya’s increasing irritability and petulance (50-51). However, is indisputably clear that it was not the child, but Ivan’s failure to understand how to sympathize with his wife and child, which led to his decision to distances himself from his family. Thus, it is clear, once again, that Ivan is ultimately at fault for his isolation.

    The third and final possible cause of Ivan’s isolation is his prolonged battle with sickness. As the pain increased, Ivan became irascible and short tempered, which only caused further conflict with his wife to develop (63). In the instance of his illness, Ivan’s response is more understandable. It is not as if Ivan chose his ailment, as he chose to respond inappropriately in the two previously-noted circumstances. Nevertheless, although his condition does evoke sympathy, it does not appear to absolve him from a responsibility to treat his family with dignity. Furthermore, had he not already begun his journey toward complete isolation, his family might have been more understanding of his condition. Thus, it seems that Ivan Ilyich, though not responsible for his sickness, is responsible for his maltreatment of his family. Therefore, although Ivan admittedly faced serious and trying circumstances, it is evident that he alone is ultimately to blame for his isolation.

    As demonstrated above, Ivan Ilyich chose to isolate himself both because of his misunderstanding of human nature, as well as in response to difficult circumstances. Regardless of the various reasons for this decision, it seems obvious that he made these decisions in order to either benefit or protect himself in some way. Unfortunately, Ivan’s decision to isolate himself had many adverse effects. Ultimately, it does not seem that Ivan’s isolation achieved the ends that he sought. To validate this truth demands a fuller evaluation of the effects of his isolation.

    First of all, it appears that Ivan Ilyich’s isolation prevented him from building substantive friendships. As previously stated, Ivan’s “official” approach to friendships lent him a measure of clout with business associates and other social elites – they approved of his propriety (44-45). Yet, this approach clearly had detrimental consequences. When news of Ivan’s death initially reached the ears of his friends and colleagues, their first reaction was not to be grieved over his death, but to consider which of them might receive a promotion in light of his passing (32). Moreover, “The closer acquaintances, the so-called friends of Ivan Ilyich, involuntarily added to themselves that now they had to fulfill the tedious demands of propriety by attending the funeral service and paying the widow a condolence call” (33). Although Ivan’s social efforts did produce acquaintances that were unanimously “fond” of him, they felt burdened and inconvenienced by his death (32-33). Thus, the effect of Ivan’s distanced approach to friendships was the inability to gain caring friends.

    Secondly, Ivan Ilyich’s isolation destroyed his relationship with his family. The disintegration that attended Ivan’s relationship with his wife was self-perpetuating. In response to his conflicts with Praskovya, Ivan became more isolated, spending more time with his work; the more isolated he became, the more quarrels he would have with his wife (51-52). As this degeneration continued, his wife became more self-centered, and he grew to hate her for her lack of sympathy toward him (76-78). Indeed, he believed that his family did not care that he was dying (76). Thus, by isolating himself, Ivan Ilyich irreparably damaged his relationship with his wife and family. Therefore, far from achieving his goals of social success and personal security, Ivan’s choice to isolate himself from the world led to extensive undesirable consequences.

    Nearing the end of his life, Ivan began to realize that these artificial relations with his friends and family were “poisoning” his final days (88). He became absorbed with a single question: “What if my entire life, my entire conscious life, simply was not the real thing?” (108). Terrified by his loneliness, Ivan finally grew to regret his decisions to isolate himself (90). Yet, this awakening that Ivan Ilyich experiences presents a question: how was he to overcome his isolation? Lying on his deathbed, his family gathered around him, Ivan was miraculously able to overcome his lifelong isolation with a single act. Turning to his wife and son, Ivan uttered these words: “Take him away . . . sorry for him . . . and you” (112). Through this simple apology, as well as a half-successful attempt to request his wife’s forgiveness, Ivan was able to overcome years of isolation, finally reconciling himself to his family. As he spoke these words, Ivan felt that he received immediate relief from what had been oppressing him for years (113). Moreover, for perhaps the first time in his life, Ivan felt sorry for his family, wishing he could avert their suffering. Finally, once this reconciliation had been made, Ivan felt empower to face death triumphantly, drawing his last breath in peace. Thus, by forsaking his isolation and making amends with his family, Ivan Iliych died satisfied, feeling he had ended his life well.

    Therefore it is evident that Ivan Ilyich’s ill-guided pursuit of social affluence, in addition to his natural inability to deal with conflict, ultimately led him to isolate himself from the world. Moreover, though Ivan was certainly confronted with difficulties, it was ultimately his own decision to pursue isolation. Consequentially, Ivan found himself plagued by poor family relations, unsubstantial friendships, and an unsatisfactory life. However, Ivan’s eventual decision to forgo his isolation and reconcile himself to his family enabled him to end his life fulfilled, believing that he had completed what needed to be done (35).

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