By: Chelsea King
What is the “Golden Line” of The Death of Ivan llych and Hadji Murad?
Ivan Ilych, a respected and valued judiciary of the Russian Court dies a painfully slow and difficult death from an unknown illness. This nameless executioner first presents itself as something seemingly insignificant, yet manifests over the course of several months to an increasingly serious condition that culminates in three days of incessant screaming and suffering as Ilych finally surrenders himself to the unbeatable grasp of death. Yet, before he can finally put to rest his now torturous existence, he must come to terms with the life he has lived. One night while struggling to sleep and helplessly at the mercy of his pain, Ilych desperately grapples with the cause of his suffering and seeks to find its source. For the first time he questions whether or not the life he lived was ‘correct.’ However, this thought remains only a nagging omen and Ilych manages to push it out of his mind where, like the disease, it continues to slowly yet, ever more severely gnaw at the core of his soul.
‘What do you want now? To live? Live how? Live as you live at the courts when the usher booms out; “the judge is coming!”… The judge is coming, the judge is coming,’ he repeated to himself. ‘Here he is, the judge! But I’m not to blame!’ he shrieked in fury. ‘What’s it for?’ And he left off crying, and turning with his face to the wall, fell to pondering always on the same question, ‘What for, why all this horror?’ But however much he pondered; he could not find an answer. And whenever the idea struck him, as it often did, that it all came of his never having lived, as he ought, he thought of all the correctness of his life and dismissed this strange idea (137).
In this moment Ilych for the first time legitimately addresses the reality of his own mortality. He fears and recognizes the inescapability of death, yet almost instinctually pushes aside such heavy thoughts. In doing so, Ilych disregards not only the significance of death, but the very significance of his life as well, which only results in more suffering as he continues to attempt to live on in painful delusion. Having lived his life in a relatively carefree “decorous deception” (134) Ilych now finds himself forced to strip down the decorum of his previous life and expose the reality of his self and the gritty, rather unpleasant falsity of his existence. Thus, Ivan recognizes the painful irony of his position as a judge. As he repeats the phrase “The judge is coming” (134) the word ‘judge’ ceases to refer to Ilych and flips to refer to the higher judgment of God. This creates a parallel between man and God and consequentially emphasizes the crudity of man as he attempts to emulate an all-knowing God. Ilych, a powerful political figure now cowers in suffocating fear at the sentence dealt to him by this truly omniscient power.
The trivial-mindedness of humanity continues to manifest through Ilych’s position as a judge, as Ilych fails to find within himself the ability to judge right from wrong in his own life, in which lies the true source of his intolerable suffering. For the first time in his life Ilych stops to question the “correctness” of his life, yet cannot bear to deal with the truth that he failed to live his life as one ought to. In an act of futile self-defense he attempts to judge his life, but does so as superficially as he has lived. Thus, in this moment Ilych serves as an example as to how not to live and exemplifies all that Tolstoy sees as wrong with humanity. Ilych remains purposefully oblivious to the meaninglessness of his own life and in doing so, denies himself the painful albeit necessary truth. Hence, Ivan Ilych functions as a metaphor for both society and man as they live in dishonest opinion of their nature and resulting actions, and thus, like Ilych suffer a pathetically tortuous existence. Only in truthfully accepting ourselves, our fate, and through living a life free of self-righteous imitation and full of honest compassion can humanity resolve its problems and live harmoniously.
Like The Death of Ivan Ilych, Hadji Murad contemplates the significance of life and how best to live it. Yet rather than following the trail of a cowardly man, Hadji Murad follows a fearless warrior who acknowledges, but does not fear death as he valiantly fights to save his politically imprisoned family. In his final effort to save his family, Hadji finds himself ensnared from all angles in a political trap as both the Russians and Shamil’s band of Islamic warriors seek to kill him—just as humanity remains trapped by the inescapable fate of death. However, neither his looming mortality nor the futility of his efforts deters Hadji Murad from seeking his goal. Thus, in a way that none of the other of the characters in the novel do, Murad transcends the bonds of earthly superficiality and fights on as a sturdy lone warrior without the regrets or blurred motives of his comrades and enemies. Nevertheless, despite his bravery, Murad still falls, and despite the seeming significance of his death, life continues ceaselessly on without him. Similar to his counterpart Ivan Ilych, those around Murad view his death only in terms of personal political desires. The narrator recalls the atmosphere of Murad’s final battle and relates the death to the trampled flower he holds in his hand. Thus, he creates a powerful message on the fickle nature of life and how one should live.
The nightingales, that had hushed their songs while the firing lasted, now started their trills once more: first one quite close, then others in the distance. It was of this death that I was reminded by the crushed thistle in the midst of the ploughed field (355).
That the birds could continue singing after the death of such a fearless warrior seems almost cruel. Yet, the nightingales, after such a gruesome and important battle, slowly resume their normal songs. Thus, serving as a direct reference to nature, the nightingales symbolize the tendency of life to continue forward without care for the petty conquests of man. After death, the existence of all things simply does not stop– instead it continues on without contemplation in regards to the significance of the events that just occurred. The entirety of life, with its multitude of players does not all together cease with the death of an individual. Rather, the individual, however cowardly or valiant, comes to the same fate and thus, like Hadji Murad, will consequently fade from memory as if they never existed to begin with. However, some hope remains as tranquility returns with the resumption of the birds’ songs. A sense of peaceful closure that comes with the culmination of a life bravely lived accompanies the return of the nightingales’ cheerful trills.
The narrator also compares the death of Hadji Murad back to the thistle he plucked at the beginning of the story. Similar to Murad’s fight against the Russians and the Mountaineers, the thistle put up a valiant fight against the narrator’s desire to pluck it from the ground and add it to his bouquet of fragile flowers. Due to its tough and fearless nature, the thistle does not fit with the easily plucked and quickly wilting flowers that make up the rest of the bouquet, thus mirroring Murad’s own separation from the petty and fleeting motives of the rest of society. In doing so the narrator further exemplifies the incongruous tragedy of his death, as such a strong individual succumbs all the same to death’s indiscriminating scythe. In relating Hadji Murad’s death back to the comparison made on the first page, the narrator creates a precise beginning and end in which Murad’s story lies confined, thus reflecting how our own earthly lives remain confined within the inescapable walls of birth and death. In the passage, the narrator also makes a distinct shift from active to passive voice as he shifts from discussing the continuation of life to his reflection on Murad’s death in relation to the tartar thistle. The utilization of passive voice reflects the fact that Murad can no longer participate in life and remains only remembered through passive reflection.
How does Tolstoy’s portrayal of the upper and bourgeoisie classes in both novels convey his attitude towards society? How does the use of literary devices in both novels further communicate this attitude? Does this attitude reflect the views of Tolstoy’s literary contemporaries?
Tolstoy largely views the upper and bourgeoisie classes with disgust and disappointment. Through the use understatement, metaphor, and organization he portrays them as a petty and selfish group focused not on solving the problems of society or uncovering the deeper meanings of life, but rather on personal political success and thus perpetuate all superficial faults and resulting malignancies of not only his contemporary Russian society, but of the whole of humanity. They remain entangled in their self-protecting delusions of honesty and correctness, hence failing to form any solidified meaning to their existence. Due to their tendencies to flock towards the superficial, the characters in what Tolstoy brands as a class crippled with self-righteous hypocrisy often lack a certain fundamental purpose in their lives, which instills within them a dissatisfied, unpleasant aura.
In The Death of Ivan Ilych, until his spiritual conversion within the final hours of his life, Ivan is portrayed as “an ordinary, unthinking, vulgar man” (Goldfarb qtd in Tolstoy). These decidedly loathsome qualities contrast with his position as a judge. Generally a person who fills the position of a high-ranking judge should exemplify the noble principles of untainted, morally guided, and honest judgment. Ilych even fails to correctly judge himself. That society remains in the hands of such incompetent characters, strongly emphasizes Tolstoy’s negative attitude towards the ruling class.
Tolstoy portrays Ilych’s supposed friends and coworkers in a similarly negative light. When they first hear of the news of his death “the first thought of each of the gentlemen in the room was of the effect this death might have on the transfer or promotion of themselves or their friends” (87). They look at the tragic death of their own friend as an opportunity for personal advancement—hardly taking time at all to contemplate the larger significance of death or stopping to feel any sort of compassion towards their unfortunate ‘friend.’ His wife even seems solely concerned with how to “obtain a grant from the government” (93-94) in order to obtain more funds. In this elitist circle the only true connective tissue seems to reside in the utter selfishness of its members. Tolstoy’s utilization of understatement whilst describing the aftermath of Ilych’s death, parallels the blatant lack of compassion and the shallowness exhibited by these characters, and subsequently shocks the reader in the unintentionally callous cruelty of Ilych’s alleged friends. However, there remains one character in the novel of whom Tolstoy portrays in a positive light. Gerasim a lowly peasant and Ilych’s only true source of support in his final days cares for Ilych “easily, readily, simply, and with a good nature” (126). Gerasim possesses the quality of simple-hearted compassion that remains so disturbingly absent in the other characters. Despite his lack of social nobility, Gerasim remains the sole noble character in the entire novella, thus providing a direct foil for the overly self-indulgent bourgeoisie. In doing so, Tolstoy further highlights the flaws of this unjustly powerful class and makes a desperate cry for a return to the honest simplicity of the morals of the working class.
Tolstoy also frequently utilizes furniture throughout The Death of Ivan Ilych as a symbol to represent the sheer triviality of this upwardly mobile middle-class he so detests. Ilych’s friend Pyotr Ivanovich sits on an ottoman, “with deranged springs which yield spasmodically under his weight” (91), the narrator describes Ilych’s drawing room as, “crowded with furniture and things” (91), and Ivan himself is described as being brought down to a vermin-esque level “by that very decorum to which he had been enslaved all his life” (127). The opulent ottoman, rather than described as an object of enviable luxury, takes on the quality of something “deranged” and spastic. In creating a comparison between this cumbersome furniture and the bourgeoisie, Tolstoy states that the members of this class are themselves “deranged,” spastic, and like the ottoman, unable to effectively deal with the “weight” of the true problems of society. Just as Ilych’s drawing room lays cluttered with meaningless “things,” Tolstoy argues that society remains concerned with meaningless things. Thus, these unnecessary baubles distract and hinder humanity from ever making true progress—enslaving us and slowly destroying us from within just as Ivan Ilych’s disease destroys him from within. The comparison of the bourgeoisie class to unnecessarily opulent furnishings also serves to de-personify them. They themselves become inanimate decorum. The people of this upper-middle class Tolstoy claims, mirror the same unfeeling, unthinking, excessiveness of cumbersome furnishings. Therefore, furthering Tolstoy’s belief that they only burden society and remain as worthless as Ivan Ilych’s overtly pompous, yet painfully broken ottoman.
Tolstoy portrays high society in a similarly negative fashion in Hadji Murad. Murad essentially dies because he finds himself imprisoned by the political desires of the opposing Russian and Caucasian forces. Due to a desire for Murad’s power, the Caucasian leader Shamil, turns against Murad and despite surrendering to the Russian army, the Russians turn against Murad because they too see him as a threat to their political power. Just as Ilych’s friends and coworkers selfishly view his death in terms of how it relates to their own political pursuits, the Russian officers selfishly take Murad’s head as a war trophy. Despite the fact that many of them personally knew and ostensibly respected Murad during the time he stayed in the Russian camp, they proceed to throw his severed head into a crude sack and drunkenly laugh at the decapitated warrior, casually stating that the death of Hadji Murad remains “good for us, but bad for others” (345). These officers of whom could just as easily meet a similar fate, laugh in the face of death and think only of personal gain, rather than recognizing any true significance in the death of their victim.
Tolstoy also presents both the Russian Tsar, Nicholas I, and the Caucasian rebel leader Shamil, in an incredibly unflattering manner through his use of understatement. When sentencing a rebellious university student to a deadly twelve thousand lashes the narrator claims that it “pleased [Nicholas] to be ruthlessly cruel, and it also pleased him to think that we have abolished capital punishment” (307). Likewise, when sentencing his own prisoners, Shamil calmly sentences “two […] to have a hand cut off […], one man to be beheaded for murder” (323), and then continues with his daily business. These two cruel men lead powerful nations, yet take no time to contemplate the utter ruthlessness of their actions and remain blinded by a personal need to exercise and expand their power. Tsar Nicholas views himself as an honest man and prides himself in his “abolishment” of capital punishment, yet sentences a man not only to death, but also to an unusually excruciating death. Shamil views himself as a man of honest family values, yet without hesitation condemns three men, who certainly also have families, to dreadful fates. Thus, through the hypocrisy of these two supposedly respectable leaders, Tolstoy contends that these men create a society as shallow minded and hypocritical as themselves.
The Death of Ivan Ilych and Hadji Murad also share a similar organizational structure. Tolstoy wrote both novels using a third person omniscient point of view and both novels begin at the end of the story. The narration lends a sense of impersonal objectivity, while also allowing for deep psychological insight into the normal day-to-day lives of the characters. The ordinary thoughts and lives of the characters rather than the dramatic events of the plot, take center stage in the two stories. This focus on the ordinary as communicated through the honest, all-encompassing narration parallels Tolstoy’s belief that the simple and the sincere should take precedence over the elaborate and the delusional. In beginning the stories at the end of the plot, Tolstoy also creates a frame in which the lives of his characters remain confined, and therefore parallels the imprisonment of humanity by man’s unquenchable thirst for petty power games. The unique organization also emphasizes Tolstoy’s opinion that the importance of life lies not in it’s beginning, but the end, just as The Death of Ivan Ilych and Hadji Murad begin at the end instead of the beginning.
Tolstoy’s praise of the ordinary and the objective, and his renunciation of the elaborate, petty ways of the bourgeoisie coincide directly with the views characteristic of Realism. The Realists, like Tolstoy, attempted to make the reader feel as though the events they read, could not only plausibly occur in real life, but also could actually happen to them. In response to the overabundance of Romanticism, many of Tolstoy’s contemporaries such as Chekhov and Dostoevsky sought a return to the honest, simple values of the working class, and consequently criticized high-society for its hypocrisy and self-centered excess. Thus, Tolstoy’s chastising attitude towards the bourgeois and ruling class as communicated through his utilization of metaphor, organization, and understatement, in both The Death of Ivan Ilych and Hadji Murad not only fits within the values most cherished during the reign of Realism, but also largely provides the foundation upon which these values first took root.
The Death of Ivan Ilych and Hadji Murad both seek to find the correct way in which to live of our frighteningly transitory lives. In this regard, what do I believe constitutes a noble existence and do my views agree or disagree with those of Tolstoy?
The Death of Ivan Ilych and Hadji Murad forced me to question the values of my own life thus far, and at an age where frankly, the looming presence of death hardly crosses my mind, seriously think about my eventual fate. I found that while pondering death, the same mind-numbing fear experienced by Ivan Ilych grasped me as well. Although written over a hundred years ago, Tolstoy writes with such psychological precision that the themes addressed and feelings expressed in the two novels remain lucidly relevant. Am I too not a member of this still present petty bourgeoisie class? Do I too not also remain selfishly focused on trivial matters and do I too not strive to do what constitutes as socially expected out of mere complacency? Ivan watched himself become slowly imprisoned in not only his body, but in his soul. He lived a superficial life that when it came to a close, left him struggling to let go because he realized in his heart that he had never actually lived. Opposite of Ivan Ilych’s cowardice, Hadji Murad, a fearless and unwavering warrior found himself reduced to a mere trophy, that despite his strength still succumbed to the indiscriminating hand of death. Not only does Tolstoy make it vividly clear that we all die, but he also attests to the fact that life continues callously on after death.
So if we essentially are born merely to die, how does one possibly live a life of meaning and significance? In response to this enigma, Tolstoy largely prescribes a cure of brotherly love, and honesty. Fundamentally, I agree with him on these terms. Unconditional respect and honesty with oneself and others ensures that life remains free of poisonous superficial illusion, thus curing the disease of stagnation and hypocrisy. Yet, I also believe that the cure includes a daring dash of joi de vivre– a fearless spontaneity and full embrace of life’s small joys, whims, and the pursuit of what one truly loves to do. Thus, I believe that a truly noble existence comprises of upon the principles of living for the sheer thrill of living, maintaining an objective honesty with oneself, and upholding an unconditional positive regard for all. I stand at a major turning point in my life as I begin to prepare myself to leave for college. As I embark for the first time out into the world truly on my own I must not live in fear of my own morality and succumb to the complacency of society, but rather sap each ounce of life out of my own fleeting existence and live what I believe to be a noble life.
“An Introduction to Realism and Naturalism.” Walters State Virtual Campus. Walters State University. Web. 22 Feb. 2010. <http://vc.ws.edu/engl2420/2001/unit3/intro.htm>.
“Literary realism – The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia.” Main Page – The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia. Art & Popular Culture Encyclopedia, 17 Nov. 2008. Web. 22 Feb. 2010. <http://www.artandpopularculture.com/Literary_realism>.
Tolstoy, Leo. The Death of Ivan Ilych & Other Stories (Barnes & Noble Classics). New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003. Print.