We wonder why Ilych, the novel’s protagonist, was actually dying from such a superficial injury. At first, we are mildly surprised by the mishap, and as the story continues, a modern reader is bound to feel a sense of detached pity, not just for Ivan Ilych, but for the people of that time. The practice of medicine in the 19th century was nothing more than a collection of eclectic algorithmic diagnoses and treatments. An effective treatment of minor disorders was limited. The notion of infection being the result of cellular transmissive agents, such as bacteria or viruses had not been developed. Surgery was in its infancy. Tolstoy's fictional Ilych, as he progresses in his medical treatment, illustrates with horrifying clarity, the primitive state of medical science at that time. Of course, this was not an intentional effort on Tolstoy's part. In fact, he probably thought his work to be portraying the realistic state of medical science. But, just imagine if your doctor explained a mere appendicitis case with such mumbo-jumbo as floating liver and melancholy! Worst yet, if the treatment didn't cure you and they could only control your pain, with morphine. To think it's only appendicitis no less! At least, that's what I surmised it to be. Of course, we have our incurable maladies today, yet we look back, with arrogance, at a time when what we take for granted in the field of medicine, was a death sentence. This is the theme that Tolstoy develops and uses to take us into the world of Ilych.
Moreover, Tolstoy does an excellent job of not overdramatizing his subject’s condition. We feel, hope and pray with Ivan, that he may live and understand his illness. Therein, we also understand what Ilych finally does too, that hope, the subsumption of desire, is not enough. He must have faith, belief in an ideal, to suffer his pitiable fate.
Tolstoy, represents God in the work as a faceless, pervasive, yet almost gentle probing being that takes Ilych, born of this life into the next with that terrifying instrument death. Death is always set diametric to him. This contrapuntal texture makes for a powerful theme. Ilych wants a cure for his sickness, but Death cruelly won’t relent. Balancing the plot action is Ilych’s mental soliloquies of his earlier life. He did have life at one time, but never knew anything more than his orthodoxy of living. While Ilych ponders on the question of why he must die, he remembers the the events of his past and feels doubly wronged. He never did anything to ‘deserve’ to die. He was upstanding, he was fair in all his dealings with friends and family. Yet, he is evanescing to an inescapable death. Why? Here is where Tolstoy has the reader entranced. We are forced to ask ourselves, why has he lived and why has this dumb luck fate befallen him?
This is an existential question, Tolstoy explores in the latter portion of the story per force. At this point, Ilych has given up all hope of his surviving. He becomes increasingly introspective, mundane and resigned. At points his hope of living on is renewed, only to be destroyed by another bout of deteriorating illness.
In the end, he accepts his fate, because of an appeal to Christian belief in the goodness of the God. My identification with Ilych was broken at this point. I had not expected Tolstoy to make such a blatant appeal to Christianity. I later discovered that Christianity became a focal point for him after many personal setbacks. This is unfortunate too, because the story had such a well-defined theme, and to end up with something like a Jehovah's Witness conclusion. Well, you know what I mean... Readers of Satre or Camus would have found much to identify with up to the denouement. The existential questions of meaning and purpose are so well explored through Ilych's mental ruminations. It was truly a disappointment to have it come down to a Christian moral play endpoint.
Tolstoy achieves something few writers have been able to do, in the romantic novel genre. He brings to life an epic tragedy. No need to suspend disbelief, you will wonder how anybody couldn’t believe this exploration of the lives of wealthy Russian gentry given here. The character of Levin strikes me as most intriguing. He is a farmer, yet an intellectual, a closed-minded aristocrat, while entertaining the revolutionary changes of his time. It was riveting for me to see Tolstoy wresting with the then nascent philosophy of Marxism through Levin’s brother. There are plots and sub-plots galore, all tied together with the unfolding tragedy of Anna and Vronsky. One other comment on the Levin character is Tolstoy uses him very well. He gives the reader a sense of realism through the perceptions of this man. For instance, when he portrays the early spring at Levin’s estate, one senses the atmosphere of the setting through his meticulous concern for his farm and the peasants he employs. There are some flaws to this novel. One is Tolstoy’s concern with romantic dialogue. The conversations of Levin and Oblonsky ring true to the modern reader. You could actually imagine yourself having a chat with these characters. This familiarity is lost when Vronsky engages Anna in dialogue. The exchanges seem affected, one step removed from Elizabethan prose. This is due to the fact that Tolstoy wrote in 19th century romance style. Nonetheless, I found their passion forced, out of synch with the tone in the rest of the novel. It is sometimes stultifying to the movement of plot. The ending is perfect however. Anna's choice is as it should be, given the course of events, and Vronsky is lead to his inevitable fate.
Next, Crime and Punishment
A review of Master and Man, short story by Leo Tolstoy.Master and Man
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