The way in which a person relates to the people around them is often indicative of their worldview. This is especially true in fiction, which aims to share the author’s message with their readers. Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illych and James Joyce’s The Dead are two stories which center around an individual’s life and the realizations they come to by the end of the story. Although Tolstoy and Joyce were both astute observers of way of life in their countries, Russia and Ireland respectively, they also recorded the duplicity and hypocrisy which was rampant in the lives of the bourgeoisie. Upon reading both stories, the similarities are obvious in both the way of life between the main characters and the conclusions they come to by the end. The conclusions both men reach at the end of the story could only be reached by a form of death because they had become so entrenched in society and following its norms.
The Death of Ivan Illych begins with a gathering of men who are discussing work issues. Talk soon turns to Illych’s recent death and this causes the men to begin seeing the possible advantages this means for their professional lives. After witnessing how some people fulfill their obligations half-heartedly, the reader is then given the chance to view Illych’s life through his own lenses. The reader witnesses the monotony of Illych’s life, his choices, and his skewed priorities. He is able to understand how devoid of meaning Illych’s life is and how few joys he actually has. This serves as an important buildup to the change which his imminent death catalyzes. By the end of the story, Illych has grasped the error of his ways and has finally understood that life consists of so much more than he ever imagined. If given the chance, he would certainly change. Unfortunately Illych’s awakening has come much too late. (Tolstoy, 1422-1460)
Ivan Illych is a complacent man. He has slipped into the comfortable role of family man, but he is not happy. He is married to a woman he does not love and most likely, never did. "To say that Ivan Illyich married because he fell in love...would be as incorrect as to say that he married because his social circle approved of the match" (1430). His entire life seems to be fragile and built upon layers and layers of lies. He has never truly looked himself in the face, and it is only the awareness of his mortality that causes him to wake up and see himself as he truly is. "It occurred to him that his scarcely perceptible attempts against what was considered good by the most highly placed people, those scarcely noticeable impulses which he had immediately suppressed, might have been the real thing and all the rest false" (1457). As Anthony Daniels writes, Illych’s illness causes him to think about his life which although successful is finally acknowledged to have been “fundamentally meaningless” and causes him to question “what it has all been for” (1-2). Too late he realizes that all the impulses he buried were the sole authentic things about him.
Upon facing the torture that is a chronic illness, Illych finally reaches into the recesses of his psyche. He understands now that he has never truly lived, at least not in any meaningful way. He also realizes that “he has blinded himself to its emptiness” (Daniels, 5). He buried his soul’s protest for so long that he got lost. Although this realization is a grim one, it paves the path to his redemption. "...It was revealed to him that though his life had not been what it should have been, this could still be rectified" (Tolstoy, 1459). There is hope in this tale, albeit in the end Illych dies without the opportunity to change anything. This hope for a better life, for a more true and authentic self is the heart of this story. This hope can conquer fear of all sorts, including death. "He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it"(Tolstoy 1459). It is precisely this hope to be a better person, to live a better life that enables Illych to abate the panic of facing his mortality.
The Dead begins with a gathering to the one opening Tolstoy’s story, although in this case rather than being comprised of professionals discussing business, it is instead a social gathering at Christmastime. All appears to go well, although the reader slowly becomes aware that there is a sense of dissatisfaction on Gabriel’s part. By the time dinner is over and the Conroys arrive at their hotel, Gabriel is full of desire for his wife. In an attempt to get her in the mood, he tries to talk to her. He notices something is on her mind and attempts to be there for her. He is shocked to hear she had a boy from her past that dwells in her memory. He wonders if she has always compared Gabriel to him and is full of pity for her. He acknowledges to himself that he has never been in love before. He has a realization that life is to be lived and that he hasn’t actually done so. Although in some ways the tone at the end of the story is gloomy and oppressive, it is clear that Gabriel has seen the need for a change and one shares a hope that it is not to late to go about the process of living. (Joyce 1945-1974)
Gabriel is similar to Illych in his complacency. Although he seems happier than Illych, he is immensely dissatisfied with his country and fellow citizens. He longs for some European adventures, and even adheres to their fashion. When teased about his fondness for galoshes, he replies that "everyone wears them on the continent" (Joyce, 1949). When he is around his friends and family, he perceives that “the indelicate clacking of the men's heels and the shuffling of their soles reminded him that their grade of culture differed from his" (Joyce, 1948). He finds his peers irritating for the most part, as well as beneath him. Even when it comes to his wife, he is unable to actually feel love towards her. “He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love” (Joyce, 1974). It is at this point that he achieves enlightenment, or an awareness of the true nature of things. “Gabriel's illusions are shattered-he sees himself far more honestly now than he has ever done, he receives in fact a revelation of sorts” (Pecora, 13). He realizes that he needs to start living life to the fullest as he never has before.
After Gabriel finally realizes that his life has been largely inauthentic and bereft of any true passions, he allows himself to entertain fantasies of his own death. In a strange way he seems to glorify Michael for dying in such a way. "Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age" (Joyce, 1973). He acknowledges that it is glorious to be able to feel so intensely, and is disturbed to discover that he has never felt in such a way. “In this fit of romantic illusion, Gabriel is willing to see an early death as a preferable, noble substitute for the humiliation of his existence” (Pecora, 11). Apart from his fascination with death as something desired, Gabriel experiences a shift in consciousness. “His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling” (Joyce, 1974). This passage serves as an intense psychological record of the moment in which one man finally stares himself in the face. “He has arrived at a new conception of selfhood without firm boundaries” (Auslander, 12). This represents the beginning of the journey. In a way, there is a bit of hope in the realization that he has reached awareness while still a healthy man. Still, one is left to wonder if perhaps emotionally he is just as dead.
Fiction has a way of shining a light on those things humans tend to forget about while carrying on with the drone of daily life. The best literature aims to share an author’s personal worldview with their readers. Characters in a story become full of life as their tale unfolds and by having the reader care about the story’s characters, the author is able to ensure the readers get the message. Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illych and James Joyce’s The Dead both share characters that have lost their sense of meaning in the world. They are trapped by circumstances and norms of their choosing. The tragic thing is that in order for them to face the fact that they haven’t lived, they have to undergo a difficult trial. Illych doesn’t make it, but Gabriel has a chance. Although the reader does not know what will happen next, one hopes that Gabriel has truly changed. After reading the two stories, the similarities are obvious in both the way of life between the main characters and the conclusions they come to by the end. The stories survive as classics precisely because of the warning to all readers to live life to the fullest now before it is too late.
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