Letting Pain Be
To many individuals the word "progress" has a positive meaning behind it. It suggests improvement, something humans have been obsessed with since the dawn of society. However, if closely examined, progress can also have a negative connotation as well. While bringing improvement, progress can simultaneously spark conformity, dependency, and the obsession of perfection within the individuals caught in its midst. It is this aspect of progress within modern society that negatively affects Ivan Ilych, Leo Tolstoy's main character in The Death of Ivan Ilych. Ivan's attempt to conform to modern society's view of perfection takes away his life long before he dies. Furthermore, his fear of death and reactions towards it reflects modern society's inability to cope with the ever present reminder that humans still suffer and die, despite all attempts to make life painless, perfect, and immortal.
Although we as a society have advanced and made people's lives easier, our mental suffering is as present as ever, due to our incessant need to have everything perfect. We seem to forget that the fascination of living comes from the imperfect and the unexpected. In her essay "On the Fear of Death" Elisabeth Kubler-Ross suggests that the modern age, while increasing life span and ease of life, has at the same time given way to a "rising number of emotional problems," amongst the living (Ross 407). She also suggests that because of modern society's progress, there has been an increased anxiety towards death. While Ross is writing for twentieth century society her ideas apply to the nineteenth century as well, when Tolstoy wrote The Death of Ivan Ilych.
Ivan Ilych is living during the industrial revolution, a time of technological advancement, that mainly advances the upper class, which he is apart of. Ivan's number one priority in life is to be comfortable and to do the correct thing at all times. Every decision he makes, including who he chooses to marry, is with the intent that it does not damage his "easy, agreeable, and always decorous character of his life," (Tolstoy 213). Ivan is convinced that the best way to have an easy and agreeable life is to be wealthy, marry a woman from his own class, and live in a house full of modern conveniences and luxury. Ironically, it is these same things that will bring him a fatal and disagreeable end.
In Ivan quest to always do the "correct" thing he looses his humanity and therefore the vital aspect that makes him alive to begin with. The physical death he must face at the end scares him because it forces him to realize the life he has lived has been completely false. When confronted with death Ivan starts retracing his past, wondering what he has done to deserve such pain and suffering. He realizes when he is bed ridden that he was much more alive as a child then as an adult. In chapter five of The Death of Ivan Ilych, Ivan admits that "
the further back he looked the more life there had been. There had been more of what was good in life and more of life itself," (Tolstoy 238). If one were to observe small children play, they would notice it does not take much to hold a child's interest, and often they are much more fascinated by things that don't work correctly then things that do. With the pressure to conform to society's views of perfection as an adult, Ivan loses the liveliness he possessed as a child. Having to face death terrifies him because it forces him to admit he actually did not do the correct thing like he thought he did.
The progress of modern society and the pressure to conform has not only hastened Ivan Ilych's death but also made him a die a very miserable death. As soon Ivan realizes he has a physical problem, a problem that began with his obsession of having the perfect house, he consults one of the best doctors he can find for a solution. He finds out the doctor is more interested in figuring out what the problem is then how...
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