The First Chapter of Leo Tolstoy's Death of Ivan Ilyich

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The First Chapter of Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Poor Ivan Ilych is plagued by not one, but two diseases. While his "floating kidney" ends his life, it is a temporal disease - which is actually healed as his kidney disease progresses - that ruins his life. Ivan spends his life in a small temporal space - he managed to "dismiss his past" (51) and instead spend his life focused on his physical trappings and social standing. In his writing Tolstoy made a large effort to fight this condition, "the prejudice of . . . [temporal] closure" (8), which he saw as pervasive in Russian society. But intriguingly, in addition to the characters in the story who have this closed view, the narrative of the first chapter - and the first chapter alone - shares this diseased sense of time in so far as a narrative can be assumed to convey some attitude about time. This singularly diseased chapter works to involve the reader in the attitude that the book then goes forth to destruct

Ivan's temporal disease is first recognized in the opening line of the 2nd chapter, when the narrator tells us that Ivan's life had been "simple and commonplace - and most horrifying" (49). Where does the horror lie, if not in the simple commonplace events of Ivan's life? It seems to lie in Ivan's approach to life, which the narrator indicts Ivan's approach to life when, in censorious terms, he tells us that Ivan "had succumbed to sensuality and vanity" (50). Sensuality suggests much more than an erotic approach to life - and we know from the text that eros was no driving force in Ivan's life. Instead sensuality points to a worldview that is focused on sensual or empirical information rather than thought or emotions. ...

... middle of paper ... this simple condemnation of Ivan, Tolstoy forces us, unwittingly, to view the world through a similarly closed mindset. This allows the reader to feel the visceral results of this mindset. We enter the chapter confronted by the specter of a dead man, but never have to confront the idea of death because the deluge of empirical details numbs our emotions. We are like Pyotr Ivanovich whose emotions are "chilled" at the funeral by the quotidian task of fixing a broken ottoman (42). But we are also allowed to see how apparently innocuous this attitude is from the inside - there is no immediately apparent harm done by the narrator's perspective in the first chapter. By allowing the reader to feel this, Tolstoy shows the reader that this is frequently an unidentified problem that we all fall into, and not one that we should easily ignore in ourselves.
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