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Dec 21, 2012

Notes on "Axolotl" by Julio Cortázar


by Stacy Esch

What’s the difference between a modern short story and the “tale” or especially the mythic tales?
Both the tale and the short story are forms of narrative, but the modern short story features:

•    A fuller plot based on a causal sequence; human conflict acts as the catalyst, the cause of things happening
•    Intricately developed, psychologically complex characters and character motivation
•    An identifiable setting—a particular time and place that lends meaning to the characters and actions
•    The expectation of an open-ended theme inviting each reader’s vision and interpretation
How does the theme of transformation and change that we observed in the mythic tales, and in the Ovid tales, express itself in this short story?

•    The narrator maintains that he’s changed places with the axolotl; that he has become the axolotl by the end of the story—he has metamorphised into an axolotl in some way
Which of these terms would you say describes the boy in “Axolotl”—fascination, obsession, empathy, compassion, or sympathy?

Look up the precise meanings of those words before you make your decision.  Here are a few definitions to get you started.

Fascination (Dictionary)
The state of being intensely interested (as by awe or terror)
• archaic (esp. of a snake) deprive (a person or animal) of the ability to resist or escape by the power of a look or gaze : the serpent fascinates its prey.

Obsession (Dictionary)
an idea or thought that continually preoccupies or intrudes on a person's mind

1: an irrational motive for performing trivial or repetitive actions against your will [syn: compulsion] 2: an unhealthy and compulsive preoccupation with something or someone [syn: fixation]

Empathy (Dictionary)
The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.  (ORIGIN early 20th cent.: from Greek empatheia (from em- ‘in’ + pathos ‘feeling’ ) translating German Einfühlung.)

Compassion (Dictionary)
Sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others. (ORIGIN Middle English : via Old French from ecclesiastical Latin compassio(n-), from compati ‘suffer with.’)

Sympathy
1 feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else's misfortune; formal expression of such feelings; condolences.  2 understanding between people; common feeling; support in the form of shared feelings or opinions; agreement with or approval of an opinion or aim; a favorable attitude; ( in sympathy) relating harmoniously to something else; in keeping; the state or fact of responding in a way similar or corresponding to an action elsewhere (ORIGIN late 16th cent. (sense 2) : via Latin from Greek sumpatheia, from sumpathēs, from sun- ‘with’ + pathos ‘feeling.’)

How does the boy become fascinated by the axolotl in the first place?
He's alone, on his bike, looking for something to do…friendless? It seems so, since we never see him with a friend
Out of boredom? Loneliness?
Our of dissatisfaction with his ordinary routine—he's usually attracted to the more popular animals, the lions and the panthers (see the Rilke poem, "The Panther") but this day they are disappointing. The lions are "sad and ugly" and the panther is "asleep." So he goes into the "dark, humid aquarium" and "unexpectedly" he "hits it off" with the axolotls.
What is the boy's initial reaction to the axolotls?

They seem to capture his imagination, fascinate him. He reads the card, and later he goes to the library to find out even more about them, but ultimately it's not information from a book that he's seeking. These factual details aren't exactly what interest him. If you look at those details, they're the normal kinds of things that you'd find in an encyclopedia or dictionary about a particular animal: They're a species of Mexican salamander (but he already knows this from looking at their "little pink Aztec faces"); they can live on land or water; they're edible; their oil was used like cod—liver oil. But the problem with these facts is that they really tell him next to nothing about what it's like to be an axolotl. They treat these animals, these living, breathing creatures that have captured the boy's imagination, like inanimate objects. Empathy tells him they are far from inanimate. When we turn a human being into an object to be exploited, we call that "dehumanization." What do we call it when we turn animals into objects? But we find it acceptable (for the most part) to turn animals into objects, unless they are our pets, forgetting that they are living, breathing creatures like us. This boy isn't looking for facts; he's looking for an experience. And he gets it.

What do these little details tell you about this particular boy?
He's sensitive; he's open to new experiences. He's imaginative. He's independent.
He may be lonely but even if he is, he makes very rich use of his solitude.
What's the nature of his fascination?

His fascination leads to a growing empathy, which leads to feelings of guilt (for the creature's imprisonment, it seems). At first, watching them sit there motionless, he thought he understood "their secret will, to abolish space and time with an indifferent immobility." But the boy later realizes that there is no romantic "secret will" and that their immobility has nothing to do with abolishing space and time; he realizes that captivity is a horrible burden, an oppressive nightmare; they want to be free like any creature, swimming freely, not sitting immobile in a cage.

Early on and throughout he associates the axolotl with Aztecs, the native Mexicans who were vanquished by the Europeans, the Spanish… the axolotls have "eyes of gold" (Aztec gold); they are "silent and immobile" like ancient statues that serve as reminders of the civilization and the people who were brutally conquered. These eyes, like the eyes of statues may "lack any life, but they are looking"—they see into us and we try to see into them. He directly likens the axolotl to a "statuette corroded by time" (425). He explains that it's the eyes which fascinate ("obsess") him the most. They represent "another way of seeing" that is now a mystery he wants to penetrate. "The golden eyes continued burning with their soft, terrible light; they continued looking at me from an unfathomable depth which made me dizzy" (426).

He begins to identify with the axolotls. He knows they look nothing like human beings, like monkeys do, but he sees the "humanity" in them nevertheless." When he claims the axolotl's were "not animals" (426) what do you think he's driving at?

Once he takes the step of recognizing their "humanity" (we don't have a word for what he wants to describe!) he begins to imagine them aware as a human being is aware. He imagines they are conscious of their condition, as we are. The plaintive cry he imagines is "Save us, save us." It doesn't get more empathetic than that. On another level, the axolotls may be "Aztecs" (who were also considered subhuman "savages") and who also might still be "saved." Once he hears this plea, he begins to feel ashamed, ignoble. Something is taking shape from the larval stage (axolotls never leave their larval stage) that he fears. Some retribution for the cruelty of this imprisonment maybe? He ends up imprisoned along with them in the end. His empathy is so complete that he can't entirely leave them even when he stops visiting.

His conscience goes on overdrive: they are "devouring me slowly with their eyes, in a cannibalism of gold" (427). Just thinking of them places him beside the cage. The eyes never close; they are always with him. He can't escape his feelings of empathy.

Finally he acknowledges that the axolotls are suffering, that they are "lying in wait for something, a remote dominion destroyed, an age of liberty when the world had been that of the axolotls" (427). They are lying in wait for their freedom, and meanwhile they are in "liquid hell." This realization is what allows him to penetrate finally into their world, because it is the "truth." (How do we know it's the truth? We can only empathize.)

From that point on, the identity of the boy is confused; is he now an axolotl or a boy? Does empathy always involve a kind of split, a kind of fracturing of identity? Double vision? He feels "trapped." In what way is empathy a kind of painful trap? Should we avoid it? (Not everyone has it or wants to have it.) Do you think the story warns against empathy or encourages it?
What does the story "mean"?

We can justify thematic statements like:

Empathy is painful.
It's possible for humans and animals to experience a "meeting of the minds."
Like the axolotl imprisoned in its cage, the soul is trapped inside the body.
But those kinds of summary meanings, while they may be justified, seem so inadequate.

Let's leave that question open and answer it with a quote from commentator Susan Nayel: "The nightmare of being trapped inside the body of a beast is the human's experience, and the panic of being abandoned by the man is the axolotl's final cry. The only hope, as noted by the axolotl, is the creation of art where the writer can become another and communicate on behalf of all creatures—expressing the feelings of all creatures so that none may fee the terror of isolation and imprisonment."

Compare this story to Rainer Marie Rilke's poem "The Panther." In "The Panther" by German poet Rainer Marie Rilke, you have a powerful example of extended personification, a very close observation which readers can interpret as the writer’s empathy with his subject.  Where does the subject end and the object begin?  As in “Axolotl,” they seem melted together.  Throughout the poem, the panther is invested with human feeling, just as in “Axolotl” the salamander is invested with human consciousness.  In both works, you could ask whether it is that the speaker, observing the caged animal, identifies with the pain of his imprisonment, or whether he is in fact projecting his own pain upon what he the object of his observation.  Whichever way that river flows, “The Panther” and “Axolotl” are both powerful testaments to the wonder and pain of empathy.

Reading this poem, we might ask: is it that the panther is able to communicate his pain, breaking across the boundaries that separate our species, and the speaker is sensitive to the panther’s pain? As the poem opens, the speaker tells us that the panther’s vision has “grown so weary” and that his eyes seem blank, they “can’t hold anything else.”  But does the speaker really know what the panther sees or if he’s weary?  He takes further liberties in the third line, announcing that “It seems to him there are a thousand bars;/ and behind the bars, no world.”  Does the speaker really know what the panther is thinking here?  Empathy seems to have given him the liberty to assume that this is what the panther is thinking.  The empathy he feels is projected upon the panther; he “identifies” with it.  Once we accept that projection, once we suspend our disbelief, a powerful story emerges.  From within that cruel cage—which might represent any sort of loss of freedom—the world disappears; any normal vision, normal behavior, is suspended and actions are mere motions, with no force of will behind them.  Life becomes “going through the motions.”  Free will (my favorite topic this semester) is paralyzed—there’s no action but empty ritual.  What happens next is almost too sad, too difficult to contemplate.  That unasked for but inevitable glimpse of freedom appears momentarily, that whisper of possibility as the “curtain of the pupils lifts, quietly—.”  It’s not a real possibility of freedom because the bars haven’t disappeared. The bars are still there.  But the “image enters in.”  It’s almost too painful to imagine!  That momentary glimpse of freedom tears through every muscle, plunging into the heart, knife-like, leaving the poor creature (the panther, the speaker, both?) to suffer.

Even if you read the poem literally and aren’t interested in pursuing other levels of meaning (what might the panther symbolize, and so on), it’s an incredibly sad portrait.  It’s precisely the reason why I can’t have a good time visiting zoos.  I know they do a lot of good work.  But the sight of all those caged creatures!!!  My reaction is always very much like the boy’s in “Axolotl.”  If I allow my fascination to draw me in I become guilt-ridden and horrified; it’s as if I’m trapped in there with them.  I’ll never forget a certain grizzly bear at the St. Louis Zoo in Forest Park (I used to live across the street from it, and went there often when my daughter was stroller-bound)…I still remember the disturbing way it used to pace endlessly in that “ritual dance around a center,” which Rilke describes so brilliantly, unable to go anywhere or do anything which would make it feel like a real bear with real purpose and a real will.  It was so obviously in misery, like this panther.  On the other hand, the polar bears a few hundred feet away were pretty cheerful, usually playing with their big red rubber ball, splashing in their pool, rolling around.  If you wanted to leave in anything like a good mood, you would check in on them and walk very quickly past the grizzly bear, trying not to look.


Notes on Ibsen's Doll's House



Much of this discussion (especially the Act/Scene analysis) derives from Brian Johnston’s criticism, found on his website: ibsen-voyages.com

Ibsen is the first great master of modern drama. In his plays he depicts realistic social problems concerning marriage, gender inequality, the clash between middle class values, materialism, and individual freedom. He does this in a decidedly non-romantic, non-idealized manner.  Some of the main themes in the play include 

  • the clash between love and honor (reputation), 
  • the hypocrisy of middle class values, 
  • the moral and physical degeneracy underpinning middle class society
  • the “woman question” (should women be equals in marriage, should they have equal rights in general?), 
  • the meaning of marriage and its redefinition in modern times


Ibsen exposes these themes by generating dramatic tension and conflict among his characters. Some of the main oppositions can be found in the tensions between 
secrecy / openness
honesty / deceit
appearance / reality
the role playing, dependent self / free thinking, independent individual  

Middle class values. The play questions conventional middle class values. What values are at issue? 

Work hard, play by the rules
Be thrifty with your money
Maintain a respectable public image of honesty and integrity
Believe in the pursuit of wealth; money and things are worth striving for and are markers of social status
Those who follow their enlightened self interest and achieve are entitled to the spoils
Those who don’t succeed are morally degenerate.  
Men are natural born rulers of their households. 
Wives should obey their husbands and take care of the children. Husbands and children come first.

For Torvald Helmer, men are naturally superior to women. They are the rightful kings of their castles. Their wives are playthings. Objects of affection and entertainment. They are in a diminutive position in relation to the husband/master. 

Torvald is the standard bearer for these bourgeois values. He is a man who lives an upright life and feels like he deserves the finer things. He is a man who enjoys pleasures fairly earned and scorns hypocrisy, crime, dishonesty, and those without scruples.

Nora is also a champion of these values to the extent that she “plays along” with Torvald's games. She plays the role of Torvald's doll wife, the plaything, the little girl, the flirt, the songbird. She believes her husband is good and strong, even heroic. She has violated the law only to save his life, so she puts her love for her husband above social convention, but realizes that this violation must be kept secret, hidden at all costs. Appearances are far too important.

Middle class morality, when followed as strictly as Torvald follows it, devalues or represses much that is of potential importance: individuality, authenticity, the unorthodox, compassion, equality between the sexes, equal opportunity and social justice, and freedom. 

For three days, Nora fights hard to keep her violations of the social order well hidden so the doll house will stay intact, but by the end of the play, a dramatic change in her character will unfold, as the secret of her forgery is revealed and she is forced to confront the reality of her deception and Torvald's cowardly selfishness. 

Well before the climax, we see signs of Nora's rebelliousness and strong will. She has dared to forge her father's signature to secure a loan from Krogstad, a loan illegally obtained without her husband's permission. She does this out of devotion to her husband, in order to save his life, to finance a trip to Italy, because she knows Torvald would never accede to her wishes. She defies him, but she is too timid to confront him honestly. She hides it, just as she hides her macaroons. She is also resourceful in her means of playing upon Torvald, indulging his fancy, whether by flirtation, practicing the Tarantella, begging for money, begging Torvald to reinstate Krogstad, and playing upon Doctor Rank’s affections. 
By the end of the play, those middle class values will be overturned, even shattered. The play exposes a seething clash of values: on one side is the importance of social convention, keeping up the appearance of honesty and respectability, fearing public opinion – and the means for maintaining and stabilizing these appearances: infantilized relationships, a world of fakery and pretense, of money grubbing and ruthless social climbing. Pitted against these forces are an unorthodox morality (Nora’s justifiable “crimes”, Krogstad’s ad hoc ethics, a liberated individualism, the importance of honesty, passion, realism, dignity, and equality in human relationships.

The play also exposes the uncertainty of middle class bourgeois life, the constant economic pressures of paying bills, getting ahead, buying the right stuff.  Fortunes can change in a day. Reputations  can be tarnished. Torvald compromises his individuality and humanity for the sake of his position at the bank. Remember, he fires a man on Christmas eve, essentially so he can make himself look more authoritative and respectable. These are the lengths one goes to in modern life to preserve one’s status and self image. Nora, however, will change: she will arrive at a point where she must revolt against her assigned role and claim her individuality. It takes her three acts to get there, but get there she does. 

Materialism v. People. Another central theme of this play is the importance placed on materialism rather than people. This is particularly important for Torvald, whose sense of manhood depends on his independence. In fact, he was an unsuccessful barrister because he refused to take "unsavory cases". As a result, he switched to the bank, where he primarily deals with money. In other words, money and materialism can be seen as a way to avoid the muddiness of personal contact. He is disgusted by his former friend Krogstad. He is embarrassed to be around him, and he wants him out of his sight because Krogstad doesn’t pay him the proper respect. Torvald, to put it mildly, is very status conscious. He is so busy upholding his duty as middle class standard bearer and dominant husband that he’s forgotten that above all that, he’s a human being. 

Women, men, and gender inequality. The play focuses on the way that women are seen in bourgeois society, especially in the context of marriage and motherhood. Torvald, in particular, has a very narrow definition of a woman's role. He believes that it is the sacred duty of a woman to be a good wife and mother. Moreover, he tells Nora that women are responsible for the morality of their children. In essence, he sees women as both child-like, helpless creatures detached from reality and influential moral forces responsible for the purity of the world through their influence in the home.

Nora, as a symbol of woman, is called a number of names by Torvald throughout the play. These include "little songbird", "squirrel", "lark", "little featherhead", "little skylark", "little person", and "little woman". Torvald is extremely consistent about using the modifier "little" before the names he calls Nora. These are all usually followed by the possessive "my", signaling Torvald's belief that Nora is his. Torvald's chosen names for Nora reveal that he does not see her as an equal by any means; rather, Nora is at times predictable and silly doll and at times a captivating and exotic pet or animal, all created for Torvald.

The perception of manliness is also dramatized, though in a much more subtle way. Torvald's conception of manliness is based on the value of total independence. He abhors the idea of financial or moral dependence on anyone. His desire for independence leads to the question of whether he is out of touch with reality. He doesn't realize how dependent he really is on his wife, on the unscrupulous and inferior Krogstad, and society at large.  With Torvald, be on the look out for dramatic irony. He is very blind to what’s really going on in his household. Blind to the loan, blind to Dr. Rank’s affections, blind to Nora’s motivations. 

Nora believes in the lie that her husband is heroic, a defender of her honor, who will sacrifice his own reputation to cover her shame. This is a key motivation for her action. She really believes in the romantic love ideal. Torvald will be her Tristan. He will be her knight in shining armor. He will sacrifice his honor for love. But we know better than that. And she learns that harsh lesson in act III. Torvald will never be able to live outside his predestined social role. Honor means too much for him to sacrifice it for a mere woman. 

Dramatic Reversals. Comparing the husband and wife reveals significant differences. Where Torvald is conventional, Nora has an independent streak. Where Torvald seeks to save the surface appearance (the doll house fiction) at all costs (by saving face), Nora learns to face the reality that their life has been built on pretense, on a foundation of sand. 

Nora begins as a deceiver/concealer and ends as a revealer. She begins as a student child and ends as a the authority, the teacher of her husband. From plaything to serious adult. From cheerful trophy wife to clear thinking individual. She is assisted in this transformation by the actions of Krogstad and Linde, who act as foils to Torvald and Nora. 

Krogstad begins as villain and ends as hero (savior). Torvald moves from heroic savior to cowardly lion. 

Kristine and Krogstad progress from delinquent, desperate loneliness to practical companionship. 

As a couple, Nora and Torvald progress from fake to real, from doll fantasy to human reality. 

Unfortunately, this progression also results in the dissolution of their marriage, which  has no basis for continuing. 

I think Ibsen is implying here that they are better off being honest with themselves, living separate lives as individuals, than they are living in the fantasy world of deception and lies. There is some hope that they will learn to grow up, maybe. And yet, society IS stacked against Nora. Her road will not be easy from here. She will be reviled, seen as a pariah. As a woman in this society, she has no power, no means of support. 

Analysis of Acts 

Act One
Setting: The first Act takes place on Christmas Eve. However, though there is a great deal of talk about morality throughout the play, Christmas is never presented as a religious holiday, and religion as a concept is later questioned by Nora in the third Act. In fact, it is discussed primarily as a material experience. This emphasis is similar to the general theme of the centrality of material goods over personal connection. Christmas is also the time of death (beginning of winter) and rebirth (or the promise of rebirth).

Note how Nora's first line is “Hide the tree, well, Helene.” From the beginning she is deceiving, concealing. It is a pattern. She hides the tree, the gifts, her secrets.  

Act One explores the world of materialism and social reality in the play. We have the happy prospect of Torvald's promotion. Financial well being is within sight. “A wonderful thing” is about to happen. Nora will finally be able to pay off the loan, escape the shadow of Krogstad's secret. Happy days are here again.  Not that they ever weren’t happy, for the Helmers are one of those families that always seems to be doing just fine. 

Note how Nora plays upon her husband. She plays the part of the little squirrel, the baby doll, the charmer. She cajoles him into giving her money. This has become a bad habit. She has accepted a prefabricated social role as the spendthrift woman who uses her charms to wheedle her husband and get her way. Torvald thinks she is irresponsible, fragile, weak, flighty, playful, and beautiful. His role is that of the dominant male: protector, provider, lawgiver, patriarch, upholder of moral standards and clarity. 

Helmer is the standard bearer for middle class bourgeois values: never borrow, never get into debt, be frugal, but also climb the ladder, get the promotion, get ahead in life. The problem though is that by insisting on these values, he would have, had his wife not intervened to save his life ten years ago, be dead of illness because he was too stubborn to go to Italy. He’s also a hypocrite of sorts, not because of the loan, which he doesn’t know about anyway, but because of his behavior towards Krogstad. He has no pity, no empathy; he doesn’t see how much like Krogstad he is, or is capable of being. Instead, he just cares about himself. 

After a few pages of exposition which establishes the type of marriage relationship they have, we have the beginning of rising action. Until this point we the audience are unaware that Nora is concealing anything from anybody, but the secrecy theme is already there. Ibsen has carefully planted it.  

Note the triple repetition of “wonderful” which cues Mrs. Linde's entrance. Kristine comes in to beg for a job. And also to complicate the plot. 

Kristine is a dramatic foil to Nora. When they converse, they expose character traits that compare and contrast nicely. Kristine is a widow, Nora is married. Kristine didn’t love her husband, Nora (apparently) does. Kristine is childless, Nora has three kids. Kristine is financially need, Torvald's been promoted and the Helmers are poised to succeed. Kristine’s parents have died, so have Nora’s. Kristine’s been forced to work, Nora apparently doesn’t, though secretly she has been working quite hard to repay the loan. You could almost see it this way: Kristine in Nora, when viewed by outward appearances, are quite different. But remember that Nora’s identity has a fault line running through it. There is her private self that she conceals from Torvald. At this inner level, she has more in common, is more comparable to Kristine. 

Here is where situational irony enters the picture. Krogstad is getting fired, and Linde is going to replace him. Ironic. Doubly ironic is the revelation that Krogstad the forger has lent money to Nora, who forged a signature to get the money, and whose husband is the man firing him, which will destroy the public reputation he has been striving to reclaim. Krogstad's livelihood is at stake, so he puts the screws to Nora, insisting that she get his job back, or else he'll reveal the loan to Torvald. He has also figured out, being a forger himself, that Nora has forged her father's signature. Then there is the dramatic irony with Torvald's ignorance of the forgery. Once it is revealed to the audience, Torvald's blindness to the truth is heightened. 

The theme of poison, moral corruption and decay is introduced through Helmer and Rank. This house is diseased, the disease of conceit and deception. 

Act One is all about defining human identity in social terms --  how you look, your reputation is paramount. Torvald thinks he can protect his family from social disgrace, the kind of moral corruption Rank speaks of. They are above it, they think. Krogstad comes from the outside (as does Linde) to threaten Nora with social disgrace. This is a direct threat to her and Torvald's identity. But it is the identity of social appearances which is at stake. 

ACT II 
Setting: The Christmas tree has been stripped bare and the candles are burnt down. Symbolic? You bet. 
Act II is the rising action phase of the plot showing Nora’s desperate attempts to escape her predicament. Tensions mount. 

The play’s thematic accent shifts from the social façade of Act I to the psychological level. Characters begin to strip away their outer layers and reveal their interior motivations. But until we get to ACT III, we won’t get authentic revelations. In Act II, the psychological insight remains blind. Nora and Torvald have perpetuated myths about themselves, about their identities. They don’t truly understand who they are and what motivates them. Torvald professes his heroism, that he would do anything to defend his family and  wife. He sees himself as the gallant knight in shining armor. Nora considers the “wonderful thing” that Torvald would do for her (namely, take the fall for the forgery), and she sees herself in melodramatic terms, as someone who will have to resort to, namely suicide to save her husband the shame and infamy of stigmatization. It is a faux heroic gesture, because she is not capable of suicide. It is important to note that she is contemplating it, and by Act III is on the brink of it. She is thinking of how Torvald and the children would get on without her. 

Torvald and Nora continue living in the illusion world. They aren't just deceiving each other, they're deceiving themselves.  

In Act II we also learn more about Krogstad’s motivations and Dr. Rank’s terminal condition and his true feelings for Nora. 

She begs Torvald to rehire Krogstad. He refuses. As she grows more desperate you can begin to detect a stronger will in Nora, which is preparing the audience for her breakout scene in Act III. She begins standing up to Torvald. It does not have a good effect. In fact it worsens the situation. Torvald sends his letter of dismissal promptly, ironically accelerating the doom that is approaching both of them.  
Nora appeals for help to Dr. Rank. Rank is more than willing to do anything for her, but he makes the mistake of confessing his love for her, another psychological revelation. This one happens to be not a myth but reality. Why does Nora refuse to ask for the money from him or ask him to influence Torvald’s decision? It seems this would have solved many of her problems. She can't take money from him now, because it would be a betrayal, it would almost be like adultery. She is still concerned about keeping up appearances. She's still acting the role of the doll wife. Wouldn’t she seem to be prostituting herself for these favors? One can only guess. But maybe even more importantly, Dr. Rank has violated the social decorum, the pretend  game that everyone has been playing. He has good reason to violate it because he is running out of time. He must confess his  true feelings. But importantly, at this stage in the game, Nora can’t handle the truth. She cannot  deal with too much reality. She isn’t used to real feelings. So she evades Dr. Rank’s offer, shuns it, and turns to something she knows better: deceit  and pretense. She dances her tarantella with wild abandon, to show  Torvald how much instruction  she still needs. This is all fakery done to stall the action.  

Dr. Rank. The juxtaposition of their entrances at the beginning of the play (they enter together) suggests that there is something similar about the two. In fact, given both the theatrical standards of the time and the expectations of women, it is easy to see that they might be considered moral forces within the play. In fact, Dr. Rank represents the male moral figure that had been common to plays at the time that Ibsen was writing. Dr. Rank's character usually provided moral standards on which the other, more confused characters of the play could depend. However, Dr. Rank subverts this role. He is both physically and morally tainted. He is dying from a disease begotten from his father's early sexual indiscretions, the son’s body rotting, suffering for the sins of the father. Additionally, though he presents himself as a great friend to the Helmers, his motives are far from pure, for he is in love with Nora. He is playing games too. His views on moral decay  are bitter and probably self-reflective. 
Dr. Rank becomes a force for honesty in the play; his terminal disease is a reminder of the death looming for all. His  body is dying and in Act II he seizes one of his last opportunities to be honest with Nora about his love for her. His existential confrontation with death has made him realize that one has only so many opportunities in life to be true. It should be added, however, the Dr. Rank is not entirely free of social role playing. He is going to secretly hide himself away to die so no one has to deal with death. In a way he is keeping up appearances too. He certainly is not honest with Torvald. His presence is more subversive. He is not a wise older man dispensing sage advice. He is a “rank”, decaying, diseased individual who learns to accept his terminal fate.  

Mrs. Linde, similarly, represents the hollowness of the role of wife and mother. Left destitute and unhappy by an unloving marriage, she has derived her livelihood from being useful to others. However, when she is left alone, she only feels empty. Her life has been based upon appeasing material wants for herself and for others and has had little to do with personal growth. Now that she is alone, she is terribly unhappy and in despair. She needs a companion. She needs to adopt the role of wife and mother again. There  is something good and bad about this, I suppose. The good is that when she ultimately reunites with Krogstad, we get a sense that her life will improve. There will be more meaning to her life, more of a sense of purpose. The bad side is that she is so dependent on the  roles of wife and mother that there is no other way for her to be happy. One would  hope she could have the option of being an individual on her own. 

Both Dr. Rank and Mrs. Linde enter the play as influences on Nora and Torvald. Dr. Rank is a foil for Torvald's unyielding sense of morality. Rank is the underbelly of Torvald’s incessant moralizing. Mrs. Linde is a foil for Nora's belief in the importance of motherhood and marriage. Mrs. Linde’s circumstance also foreshadows where Nora may be headed. A life of lonely wandering, working for herself.  

The Tarantella. A tarantella is a folk dance from southern Italy that accelerates from its already quick tempo and alternates between major and minor keys. In its constant fluctuation, it is like Nora's character. In this Act, it serves as Nora's last chance to be Torvald's doll, to dance and amuse him. Also, the tarantella is commonly (and falsely) known as a dance that is supposed to rid the dancer of the bite of the tarantula. Applied to the play, its use suggests that Nora is trying to rid herself of the deadly poison of an outside force, however fruitlessly. Rather than alleviating the bite, though, the music and her life only continue to accelerate and spin out of control.

ACT III 
This is where the major revelations all come out. The climax of the play and the denouement. We turn from the sham public/social persona of Act One, and the false psychological myths of Act Two, to the realities of the existential self. No more time  for games. We’re down to business for real. 
For Linde and Krogstad, the existential news is good – faced with personal despair and  economic ruin, they turn to each other with honesty and love, and they “do the right thing.” They reveal their true feelings for one another. They see that being together might be the best way for them to realize their potential. It is the one positive outcome in the play. 

Mrs. Linde realizes that the truth needs to come out for the good of Nora and Torvald, and Krogstad realizes that he must send the IOU (the bond) back as a gesture of compassion and good will.  They “get it”.  So  what is being set up here? Torvald  will learn of Nora’s deception, her forgery, and the jeopardy to his status and reputation. But Krogstad’s good deed will be to remove the threat by returning the bond. Without that, there is no blackmail. 

The existential forecast is not so bright for Nora and Torvald. Reality crushes in on them. The tarantella dance ends. Nora’s desperate attempt to stave off reality is coming to an  end. The party’s over. Dr. Rank exits their lives to go and die. There is no more time for dancing, play acting, or sexual fantasy. The false pretenses occluding their lives keep getting interrupted, first by Kristine’s presence, then by Rank. 

In their moment of crisis, when Torvald finally reads the letter, both characters fail to be what they thought they were in Act II. Nora fails to sacrifice herself through suicide, and Torvald proves himself to be an insensitive, judgmental, cowardly fool. He doesn't do the wonderful thing Nora was expecting. He isn’t even close to wonderful.  

Faced with the real truth, Nora rebels against her pre-determined roles as wife and mother after rejecting another choice forced upon her – to commit suicide. Why does she want to commit suicide? To save Torvald from the shame of having to stand up for her and risk his reputation by defying Krogstad, which she is certain he will do. Only after she realizes that she is incapable of self-sacrifice (another fantasy) and only after she sees Torvald's failure to be heroic under pressure, his fear and his cowardice at the very moment when heroism was demanded, does she choose to abandon her husband and her children. 

Why does she confront Torvald then leave him? She needs to discover her own identity. “Who am I?” She needs to develop her own self consciousness, a mature sensibility, free of male oversight.
A major epiphany ensues. Nora puts on that dark dress. No more costumes. What does she know for the first time? That her husband is a stranger, that she is a stranger to him. That they don't have a serious marriage. That her father and husband have prevented her from discovering who she is as person. That she doesn't really know for herself the first thing about religion, morality, love, motherhood. She knows just  how ignorant she is. And she realizes that it is up to her to find these things out for herself. This is her primary duty, the duty to yourself. It is your duty, Ibsen in telling us, too. It's your duty as an individual in modern middle class society to figure out who you are. Don't just accept the values you're given. Test them against your own experience. Discover who you are, what you love. Learn about the world. This doesn’t mean you need to be a selfish egoist. It means that before you can be there for somebody, before you even know who you want to be with in a marriage, you need to discover and develop your own life. 

All that was familiar has been made strange. But what would be the “most wonderful thing” of all, the miracle discussed at the end of the play? What could save both Torvald and Nora?  Nothing less than Self-transformation and true marriage, which means a total redefinition of marriage.  First you have to transform yourself into an authentic human being, and then you can come together with another true human being as equals

This implies a radical reordering or reform of society, I think. Society must be dematerialized. Economic priorities need to be deemphasized in favor of humane values. Everybody deserves equal rights, equal opportunity, education, and complete liberty. You can imagine what a bombshell this was in society when Nora slammed that door shut at the end of the play. It reverberated throughout Europe.  

Conclusion
Ibsen has structured his play with intricate dramatic linkages, situational and dramatic ironies, dramatic foils, clearly drawn character motivations, and smart stagecraft welded to theme. Here we experience an art form that exposes the fraudulent face of social convention. 

It exposes the clash of individual against middle class society, freedom vs. convention, independence vs. conformity, honesty vs. deception, truth and lies, the private, authentic self buried by the public persona. 

The play strips the middle class of everything they thought they valued. It questions the traditional basis for marriage. It shows us the materialistic demands forced upon people and spotlights the desperate measures they will take to regain a reputation or save one. And even though women have come a long way (baby) since Nora slammed that door at the end of Act III, the play continues to unsettle audiences. 

Why? We're still preoccupied with middle class virtues, we still have plenty of stocks and securities held in the advantages of law and authority, in keeping up appearances and saving reputations, in getting ahead, in the ideal trophy wife at the side of the buff rich man with the bronze tan, in the righteousness of money, the productive grace of the protestant work ethic, in the defense of a man's honor and the right to be kings of the castle (or as Bernard Shaw called them, suburban Kings Arthur). 
Ibsen's social problem play feels all too realistic. The pressures points are still there. A bit of progress in women's rights doesn't keep it from cutting to the bone, for ultimately this is not a play about women only, but about all humanity. To reduce A Doll's House to feminist agit prop is to do it an injustice. The play champions the cause of women, and feminists are right to sing its praises. There is nothing trivial about that. But the play’s reach extends beyond women’s rights. Ibsen is defending the rights of individual self determination. You (man or woman) have the right, even the obligation, to figure out who you are, what's important to you, to exercise your freedom and independence, to educate yourself, learn from experience, and only then will you be prepared to accept someone else into your life, in what Nora calls a true marriage. That would be "the most wonderful thing" of Act Three.  

What makes the play socially dangerous is the realization that even the socially powerful, the Torvalds who are in charge, the rich and famous and respected, are no more self-realized than the powerless. Torvald by play's end, is a mess. Mr. Middle Class has been cut to size. He has been found wanting and is left in shambles. He is not the man he thought he was. He's been pretending, and he's been blinded by his own platitudes and attitudes. His middle class virtues haven't made him truly happy. As Nora puts it near the end of the play, she has never been happy in this marriage, only cheerful. There's a huge difference between cheerfulness and happiness. Middle class wealth might bring good cheer, champagne and Cuban cigars, but it won't get you any nearer to the truth of yourself. The middle class emperor has no clothes. 

I don't think audiences have really come to grips with the suggestiveness of this play's themes. For if bourgeois values are nothing more than false fronts, the moral equivalent of a Hollywood backlot, then a different kind of society is needed to foster true freedom for individuals. Ibsen doesn't hint at a clear answer to the question of what such a society would look like. He's too good an artist to proscribe a solution. It's not the job of an artist to proscribe solutions. I would suggest it'd have to be the kind of society where people were free from the necessity of money grubbing, where they weren't living in constant fear of financial ruin, where all had equal rights under the law and equal access to education, and where everyone who wanted to work, could. A society founded on basic human dignity, that valued common humanity above almighty profit and social status. 

A Doll's House is not an exhilarating nor a liberating play. It is a gut wrencher. It is, arguably a kind of tragedy, depending on how you interpret the ending. Nora abandons her family for a future that can't lead to much good, at least by middle class standards. Nora, however, IS free. And that for Ibsen is preferable and a necessary prerequisite. On the ruins of the Helmer's marriage, something better could be born. The seeds of that birth are in the play itself, in the relationship between Krogstad and Linde, and in the possibilities raised in Nora’s exit scene. Krogstad and Linde are imperfect creatures. They're not perfect. Far from it. But they are capable of self-redemption and forgiveness. They are shipwrecked sailors joining hands to save themselves. Theirs will be a marriage of equals, freely chosen, not for the sake of reputation or looks, but for love and the desire to live for someone else, although it must be added that there is certainly an element of economic dependence that comes to play here as well. Ibsen shows us through Krogstad and Linde  that he is not an enemy of marriage at all. Rather, he's struggling to redefine marriage on equal terms. As for Nora, her instructive discussion with Torvald at the end of the play diagnoses what is so wrong with so many marriages, even today. Her prescribed path for achieving a true marriage of individuals with equal rights is certainly a road less traveled. 



Dec 19, 2012

Discussing "The Judgment" by Franz Kafka


Some preliminary discussion points on a classic Kafka short story...

A book must be like an axe to the frozen sea within us, says Kafka in a famous quote, which speaks to his belief that literature can transform a person by opening them up to the depths within. It is important for readers to break through the clutter and walls that enclose them. Kafka thought it would take a certain kind of art to cut through the ice, namely a violent, disturbing, unsettling art -- art to make you uncomfortable, art that grabs you and won’t let go.

"The Judgment" is that kind of art. Kafka himself thought of it as breakthrough story in his own artistic development. He wrote it during a long September evening, and afterward expressed satisfaction in his achievement. Clearly the story has biographical overtones. It is a story of deep resentment between father and son, ending with the father’s sentencing Georg to death by drowning, an act which he promptly, impulsively, and dutifully performs to somehow prove his love of his parents.

What begins as a mild mannered almost sleepy story of Georg’s letter writing and decision to announce his engagement to his distant friend in St. Petersburg, takes a sudden and awful turn when he discusses the letter and friend with his father. “Am I covered up yet?” the father asks. “No!” he shouts, throwing off the blankets, standing on the bed, whereupon he mocks, shames, and brutally takes apart his son. It happens so suddenly that we as readers, like George the protagonist, are thrown off balance, horrified.

The story plays out like a nightmare. Reeling from this relentless guilt trip, Georg is squashed by the domineering parent. It is easy to see Freudian echoes here: the deep Oedipal conflict between father and son: the father who feels threatened and challenged by the younger generation, who feels he is being displaced and ultimately replaced, who doesn’t feel respected or properly cared for; and the son who has been gaining in power and influence, is about to marry (and play the role of father himself), and is ready to assume a parental role towards the old man. At the same time he has been neglecting or ignoring his father (remember he has not visited Dad's room in a long time).

Another angle worth pursuing is to compare the characters of Georg and his friend. Georg is the man of society, engaged, a success in business, who has stayed at home to care for the family and business, while his friend is in another country, friendless, single, struggling to make it on his own. Are these two characters symbolically two sides of the same person? Some critics have asserted that Georg and his friend represent two sides of Kafka: the stay-at-home dutiful (yet resentful) son and the more authentic, single artist pursuing his life’s work for better or worse.

No matter what interpretation we lay over this story, we may get the sense that we can’t quite point exactly to a particular meaning. The story resists any reductive reading. What can’t be resisted is the gravitational pull of the tense energy produced by the maelstrom of family tensions between father and son. Just as Georg was compelled to meet his death by drowning, so we are drawn into Kafka’s fictional world, where he breaks down the walls of realism , sending us down into deeper psychological meanings where emotional pain and dislocated identities take over. Kafka’s fiction follows a kind of surreal dream logic where we sense that we’ve arrived at something important and fitting, even though we can’t exactly delineate a coherent representation of something other than the story itself.





Dec 17, 2012

Notes on The Death of Ivan Ilych


This novella by Leo Tolstoy, is one of the great summits of existential literature. It tackles some of the most essential themes faced by human beings:  what is the right way to live? Why do we see the artificial life and forego a life of more authenticity?  What does the awareness of mortality do to us? Why is it a necessity that we face death head-on, and how does this confrontation bring meaning to life?  What are the merits of a life lived on behalf of the body versus the soul?

Yeah, it's that big.

Below are chapter summaries with interspersed commentary. Page references come from the Dover Thrift Edition.

Chapter 1
We open with the news that Ivan has died. An account in the newspaper. The setting is the law courts. Among the men gathered, Peter Ivanovich sees the obituary in the paper. The first thing they think about is not Ivan's life and the sense of loss (although he was "well liked") but what this will do to advance their own careers. Who will be promoted? What changes will occur now that Ivan is gone?
The second reaction produced among the men of the court is the "complacent feeling that it is he who is dead and not I" (16). Tolstoy's narrator is revealing the insensitivity of death. It doesn't really affect you unless it happens to you or to one very close to you. Going to the funeral then becomes a burden for others. It is an obligation. One must go, but it intrudes on your comfortable routine. Peter Ivanonich drives to Ivan's house to express his condolences to the family. He's not certain exactly how to behave (17). Why? Perhaps because most people prefer to keep death at a distance. They don't like to think about it. They arrange their lives to avoid its contemplation. They are not living an existentially authentic life, which means that they are not in touch with the truly important things in life. What are the important things that give life meaning? We don't know yet, but by the end of the story we'll have a better idea.

In the first chapter note the brief appearance of the butler's assistant Gerasim, whom the narrator tells us Ivan was particularly fond of. Gerasim will prove to be a vital character in the story.

We then see Ivan's dead body through the eyes of Peter Ivanovich: it has a quiet dignity that Ivan didn't have in life. There is also the suggestion that the dead man's face is signalling a warning to the living. What is the warning? Tolstoy is arousing our curiosity. This will be a story about mortality, and what an awareness of death can teach us.

Ivanovich's friend Schwartz is waiting for him in the other room. He makes it clear that the funeral will not intrude on their planned card game later that day. At this point we see Ivan's widow Praskovya Fedorovna, who invites them into the service. We get the sense that the scene is operating on two tracks: the "official pretense" of mourning that is proper for a funeral, and the undercurrent of impatience and insensitivity. In conversation with Ivanovich, Praskovya Fedorovna speaks of Ivan's terrible suffering at the end and she says she can't understand how SHE bore it, which indicates I think, I kind of selfishness on her part, focusing on her suffering, not Ivan's. Anyway, the conversation strikes Peter Ivanovich with horror, how his old mate could have suffered so. It makes him afraid of his own death; however, he beats back the fear by reassuring himself that this happened to Ivan; it couldn't happen to him. And why give into depressing thoughts like that?

Praskovya Fedorovna turns the conversation towards matters of practicality: how to get a government grant after her husband's death. How much of a pension is she entitled to? We see that even Ivan's widow is thinking beyond the funeral towards the business of life. Another suggestion of insensitivity.

We are then introduced to the priest, Ivan's daughter and her fiance, and his schoolboy son. During the service, Peter avoids looking at the dead man. He is avoiding the confrontation with death. He is one of the first to exit after the service. He has no time for death. Note Gerasim's prescient words to him as he leaves: "We shall all come to it some day," he says (21). Gerasim gets it. His point of view contrasts with the others, as we will discover later in the story. Peter Ivanoich escapes the confining atmosphere of the funeral and arrives at a friend's house where he enters into the card game.

In this first chapter, Tolstoy has shuffled the normal order of the story. The plot (sujet) begins at the end of the story (fabula): Ivan's death is announced and we go to the funeral. The omniscient narrator views the action through one of the supporting characters, Peter Ivanonich, a friend and colleague of Ivan, a man of society who wants to avoid thinking about death. We have been introduced to several of the major characters already, and Tolstoy has introduced one of his major themes: the confrontation with mortality, and the unavoidable reality of death, despite our efforts to ignore and avoid it.

Chapter 2
Tolstoy's narrator starts with brutal honesty: "Ivan Ilych's lief had been most simple and most ordinary and therfor most terrible" (22). Ivan is just like you and me and everyone else. He is an "everyman". There is nothing extraordinary about him. But strangely, the narrator concludes that this means his life was terrible. What could be terrible about an ordinary, normal life? Ahh, that is what we will find out.

The plot now jumps to the beginning of the story: the life of Ivan Ilych. He died at age 45. He was a member of the court of justice. His father was a government official in St. Petersburg. Ivan was the second of three sons. The youngest son was the failure, the black sheep of the family. He had one sister. Ivan was known as the phoenix of the family (22), a description that will become thematically relevant later in the story, because Ivan's spirit will rise like the mythological phoenix, from the ashes of his decaying self, his body in death. Ivan is a likeable person: he is smart, refined, pleasant, easy to get along with, sociable. He went to law school. Ivan was drawn to people of high standing in life. The narrator tells us that as he matured from childhood to adulthood "he succumbed to sensuality, to vanity, and latterly among the highest classes to liberalism, but always within limits which his instinct unfailingly indicated to him as correct" (23).

After graduating from law school, he fitted himself for civil service and a career of social climbing. He bought new clothes, wore a medallion around his watch chain with the inscription "respice finem" (think of the end) on it. This, like the phoenix, is thematically important. As a young man, he fit into society well. He had an affair, occassionally went to the brothels, sowed some wild oats, but did so in the "proper" way. He did not overdo these indiscretions, and there was nothing about his habits that could be considered out of character for a man of his social position.

Ivan was a civil servant for five years then was promoted to the position of Examining Magistrate. He lived a decourous and proper life. He gained in social power and status. He never abused his power, but he felt important. He made new connections, new friends. He settled in a new town. He lived for two years there and met his wife, Praskovya Fedorovna. He was a good dancer. He and and his wife made a good match. His marriage was the appropriate thing to do at his age. His wife met with social approval and gave him personal satisfaction, but the narrator hesitates to admit that he married her out of pure love. It was the thing to do, so he did it.

When his wife got pregnant, Ivan's marraige became disagreeable. He felt like his marital obligations were disturbing his normal pleasures and the "propriety" of his life. His wife got jealous, demanded his uncompromised attention, picked at him and caused fights. He became henpecked. And he realized that married life was "not always conducive to the pleasures and amenities of life, but on the contrary often infringed both comfort and propriety, and that he must herefore entrench himself against such infringement" (27). He started liberating himself by means of his work duties. He now thought of his married life solely as a means for satisfying basic conveniences: meals and domestic comforts, and the appearance of social normality demanded by public opinion.

Three years later, Ivan is promoted to Assistant Public Prosecutor. His devotion to work has paid off with increasing social status and power. His wife has more children and becomes more disagreeable, but Ivan has in effect innoculated himself from his homelife troubles. He can always escape into his work. After seven years of service, he is transferred to a new province. He gets a raise, but the cost of living is higher. Two of his children die. The hostilties between he and his wife increase, and their moments of affection are briefer and more distantly spaced. They becoome more aloof. The sad thing is that Ivan doesn't do anything about this widening gulf; he thinks it is "normal". He spends less time with his family, disengaging and escaping further into his official life. This life continues for another 16 years. Another child dies, his daughter reaches the age of 16, and there is one scholboy son left.

In this chapter, Tolstoy begins the chronological sequence of Ivan's life. Notice the rapidity with which he is telling the tale. After the concentrated scene of chapter one (the funeral day), we cover the first 43 years of his life, from 1837 to 1880 in the space of one chapter. That is a lot of territory to cover. We breeze through his youth, his years in law school, his years of upward mobility and the first 17 years of marriage. What are the priorities in Ivan's life? Honor, duty, status, respect, power, the appearance of normality, propriety. Social acceptance, doing what is expected. In the outward view, Ivan's made a pretty good life of it so far. His marriage is far from ideal, but then again, isn't that normal?


Chapter 3
Now some wrinkles appear on the face of Ivan's life. He is passed over for a promotion he was counting on, and he takes offense. He is passed over again after expressing his irritation. In 1880, the hardest year of his life, his salary is not keeping pace with the cost of living. Nobody seems to care, either. His father won't help. He feels abandoned. His wife nags him for money. That summer, they go to the country on a leave of absence to save money. He experiences ennui (boredom: a disheartened weariness with life) for the first time in his life. And depression. He takes action. He rushes to St. Petersburg to get a new, higher paying position. Unexpectedly, he receives an appointment in his former ministry, two levels above his former coworkers, plus a 5000 ruble salary and moving expenses. He comes back to the country in a good mood. Life is good again. They move into a delightful new house in the city. They make preparations to decorate and furnish the house with nice things. He gets involved in the decorating, and one day, while rehanging curtains, he slips and knocks his side against the knob of a window frame. This bruise will be the seed of his doom. It is as if death has been at his side all along, waiting for an opportunity to strike. He shrugs off the injury initially. Things go well for the family at first. Life is becoming more fulfilling. "[O]n the whole, his life ran its course as he believed life should do: easily, pleasantly, and decorously" (32). Ivan gets involved in his official duties and leads a kind of double life: one being the side of official relations, the other his real life. The two don't mix much. Life, however, is basically normal. "Everything was as it should be" (33). The family hosts a dance, which goes off relatively well, despite an nasty quarrel with his wife. Ivan has been enjoying the life of ambition and vanity (excessive pride in one's appearance, accomplishments, and status), and he passes his idle time playing bridge.

Tolstoy has introduced the suggestion that Ivan's life may not be very fulfilling in the existential sense: this is the source of ennui and depression, but there is a temporary reprieve, as Ivan is able to get a better position, and the family distracts itself with moving in to a nicer home and adapting to society. But the fatal accident happens in this chapter. It is as if amid the plenty and success, the normal flourishing of life, death lies in wait to destroy people.

Chapter 4
Ominous physical symptoms present themselves. Discomfort in his left side, and a bad taste in his mouth. It gets worse. He fights with his wife more. He loses his temper. The wife begins to wish Ivan were dead. Finally she insists he see a doctor. The doctor treats him "officially" in the prescribed way. Nothing out of the ordinary. Ivan wants to know whether his case is serious, but the doctor wouldn't treat the question in those terms. He looked at it as a medical diagnosis, a scientific or technical problem, not a matter of life and death, which it was to Ivan. The doctor, in short, is indifferent to him and Ivan feels self pity. Ivan follows the doctor's orders, takes his medicine, but there is an uncertainty about the proper diagnosis. The pain persists, but Ivan tries to convince himself that he is getting better. He is no longer good at suffering unpleasantness with his wife or at work. Now he gets upset easily and thrown into despair. He gets annoyed at the slightest infringement of his peace. He keeps consulting with doctors and condition continues to get worse. His doubts increase. Different doctors give different diagnoses; do any of them really know? He is confused. He even considers miracle cures, then reproaches himself for being irrational. His breath gets smellier, and he loses his appetite. Everyone around him does'nt understand and life goes on as if nothing terrible is taking place. His wife and daughter get annoyed by his impatience and suffering, as if his illness is his fault. He is not taking his medicine consistently, the wife says. She blames him for his sickness. Even at work, it seems that people are treating him differently. They are starting to imagine that one day he will no longer be there, and his position will be vacant. His friends tease him for being in such low spirits. His illness becomes the butt of their jokes and light-heartedness. All of this is quite alienating. He doesn't even enjoy playing bridge anymore. None of it matters. He is bringing down everyone at the card game with his suffering. His life is poisoned and he is poisoning the lives of others. Knowing all this, and feeling such pain in his side, he has trouble sleeping. "And he had to live thus all alone on the brink of an abyss, with no one who understood or pitied him" (40).

This chapter shows the increasing alienation of Ivan as the illness takes over his body. He is steadily being divorced from his former "normal" life. He is increasingly alone with his suffering. Nobody from the doctors to his family to his coworkers and friends really understands or empathizes with him.

Chapter 5
Months pass. When his brother-in-law comes to visit, Ivan immediately sees that his appearance shocks the man. The change is obvious. He looks at himself in the mirror and he senses the enormous changes. Ivan sees his friend Peter Ivanovich about seeing another doctor, who says the problem is his vermiform appendix, which might come out right in the end. Ivan is sleeping, symbolically I might add, alone in his study -- has been since the onset of illness. He tries to convince himself that night that his appendix is getting better, but the old familiar pain returns. He realizes this night that this has less to do with his appendix or kidney and everything to do with his life and death. "Yes, life was there and now it is going, going and I cannot stop it" (42). He faces the terror of his death. He admits to himself that he is indeed dying. Nobody else is willing or able to admit it, and nobody else cares, he tells himself. There is no pity for him. He is angry, miserable, as in other parts of the house, a party is going on. His wife checks in on him and kisses him. He hates her "from the bottom of his soul" (43).

The reality of death has thundered upon Ivan. He is terrified by the thought of dying. He wants to cling to life. He resents that noone understands or cares. At this point, the novel enters into Ivan's mind directly. We see his interior thoughts. Death has forced him to finally have an interior life.

Chapter 6
Now that he knows he is dying, Ivan is thrown into despair. He knows with his rational mind that all men die, but he cannot grasp that this truth could apply to him. Surely not to me, Ivan, could death come. I am not abstract. I am real. It is too terrible to think that this individual person, not an abstract man, could actually die. He is thinking morbid thoughts. He strives to return to his old ways of thinking, which had ignored or screened him from death. He wants to devote himself to his duties again. But while at work, the pain gnaws at him. He can't ignore it; he can't imagine it away or distract himself from its presence. He wonders whether death alone is the only truth. He makes mistakes at work, loses focus. IT (death) is drawing his attention not to deliver him from IT, but simply to confront it and suffer for it. He seeks new screens to hide himself from death, but nothing will accomplish such an impossible feat.

Ivan cannot escape his fate. He denies death, he attempts to distract himself, but this intractable impersonal force will not leave his side. It will not leave him alone. The reality of his death is forcing itself upon him, and he must confront the reality of his life.

Chapter 7
The third month of Ivan's illness. Everyone is aware that he soon will die and it is only a matter of time. It is as if everyone is waiting for him to leave them in peace. He is increasingly doped on opium and morphine; it is only temporarily helpful. He loses his taste for foods. He has to be cared for with respect to his bowel movements too. The peasant Gerasim, the butler's assistant, is the man for the job. He cleans up after Ivan. Ivan is embarrassed about making him clean up after him, but Gerasim, a strong, healthy youth, takes the chore in stride, saying "what's a little trouble? It's a case of illness with you, sir" (47). Gerasim lifts him, supports him, and carries him to the sofa. This makes a powerful impression on Ivan. Finally, someone has supported him. Gerasim holds up his legs, which brings some comfort to Ivan. He doesn't feel the pain, and Gerasim is glad to be of assistance. This becomes a new routine, the good natured Gerasim holding Ivan's legs, bringing comfort. Gerasim's innocent strength is soothing to Ivan. Gerasim is not a phony. Ivan resents the lie going about that he is merely ill and not dying. Death is teaching him to value the truth over the deceptions of life. He realizes that nobody really cares about him. Nobody feels pity. No one has empathy. Except Gerasim. Gerasim doesn't lie. He very simply feels sorry for his master. He says directly: "We shall all of us die, so why should I grudge a little trouble" (49). An ethical principle is being espoused here: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. He does not begrudge helping a dying man, because he would want someone to do the same for him when it came time for him to die. Ivan just wants someone to feel sorry for him, to care for him, pet him, as one would do to a child. But instead, he has to pretend that he is still a man of high status. He must keep up appearances. He must prop up his pretender soul, as Saul Bellow would put it in his  novella Seize the Day. This falsity embitters him.

This chapter gravitates around the theme of empathy as embodied in the character of Gerasim. Gerasim is a foil to the upscale society of Ivan's friends, coworkers and family. Gerasim is genuine, honest, and sympathetic. Simple values that Tolstoy's narrator is contrasting against the insincere, deceptive, and ignorant others, who happen to be the "normal and respectable" people of society. By implication, something is wrong with a society like this.

Chapter 8
The days lose their meaning for Ivan. His constant pain makes him lose consciousness of time. The only reality is death. In this chapter we learn that the far greater pain is his "mental anguish". The spiritual sickness is far worse than the bodily sickness, as bad as that is. Ivan vacillates between hope (the hope he will recover) and despair (the certainty that he won't). The doctor arrives. He puts on an act for Ivan. Ivan sees through his deceptions. Death is teaching him to have acute vision, like a moral xray vision. He can sense falsity, deception, lack of authenticity when it comes in the room, whether it is the doctor, his wife, his friends, his daughter. He realizes that the lawyers he used to work with are just as fake as the doctors. They all lie. He hates his wife. In her attitude, she blames him for making HER suffer. The narrator judges her quite harshly on page 52. Next, a specialist arrives. Ivan is seeking some hope from this man, but the feeling fades out very quickly. Then his wife and family go off to the theater without him. Life is going to go on without him, and nothing will stand in the way of them getting to see the renowned actress Sarah Bernhardt. Ivan notices the frightful look of pity on his little boy Vasya's face. Vasya is the only other one besides Gerasim who has genuine pity for him. (54). In the bedroom as the family chit chats, Ivan's eyes are staring with silent indignation (54). Again, he is seeing through the charade here. Death is teaching him to "think of the end" and what is really important. And NONE of this is important in the grand scheme of things.

Chapter 9
The wife returns. In the middle of the night, Ivan is in a "stupified misery". He thinks of himself and his pain as being thrust inside a black sack. The black sack is a symbol of death. He is being pushed into the sack, but he can't be pushed all the way to the bottom. (55) He is afraid of being pushed in, but at the same time, he wants to fall through the sack, so he both struggles and cooperates with the feeling. He breaks through, falls through the sack and wakes up. He sends Gerasim away, then weeps uncontrollably. He is alone, he curses the cruelty of man and God. Why me? He is saying. Then on page 56 he enters fully into his interior consciousness. This is a kind of interior monologue, rendered as a dialogue between Ivan and his soul. He tells the soul he wants to live and not suffer. He wants to live as her used to live: well and pleasantly. And as he remembers these so called pleasant moments in his past, they no longer seem very happy, with the exception of his childhood memories. His adulthood strikes him as trivial, meaningless, nasty, and dare we say "terrible". He is taking account of his life. Surveying, evalauating, and rendering judgment. Life now seems to him worthless, senseless, and he is bitter because he is suffering in terrible agony for such a meaningless existence. Finally, on page 57 he shows evidence of learning something: "maybe I did not live as I ought to have done?" he asks. But how could this be? He followed the rules. He played the game. He lived a normal life. He did everything properly, the way it was supposed to be done. And this is what it came to anyway? But he is still struggling with the answer. He is not satisfied with it. HE struggles against it. We end the chapter with a repudiation of his self-judgment, and he dismisses the whole episode as a strange abberation. He still wants his old life back.

Chapter 10
Two more weeks pass.  Ivan is confined to the sofa. Narrative space has shrunk to this isolated and  lonely place. The suffering continues. It is so pointless. The altnerating feelings of despair and hope are giving way to fatalism. He is lonely as he lay on the sofa, and in that lonely despair he thinks of his past again, especially his happy childhood memories. The farther back he goes, the more life is there, the happier he was. The illness has taken all that away. He senses that it is impossible to resist death, and he seeks understanding. But he cannot give up the conviction that he lived a proper, good life, and so he can't admit that he didn't live the right kind of life. You should be wondering by now what the right kind of life is. Note how Tolstoy has established a narrative tension. You already know the outcome (Ivan dies), but you read on because you need to know what discoveries dying produces in Ivan.

Chapter 11
Well, it's all getting very bleak now. Another 2 weeks pass, and we learn that Ivan's daughter is getting married. And he now utters the honest truth to his wife. "Let me die in peace" he tells his wife. He tells the doctor to leave him alone. The narrator reminds us (60) that it is his mental suffering that is far worse than the physical suffering. And here is part one of Ivan's epiphany. As he looks at Gerasim, he says "What if my whole life has really been wrong?" It might actually be the truth. What had been considered good by most people wasn't good. HIs impulses to resist which he suppressed  was the wrong thing to do. That was real. That is what mattered. All his social climbing, official duties, and inauthentic relations with his family: all wrong. So he now finally begins to accept the truth. That former life has not prepared him in any way to deal with death. He lived a shallow life. He didn't swim in the deep end of life. HE asks 'can I fix it?' Is there still time to get on the right side of life? This is what the end of the book is about. Now he lays back and rescans his life from this new perspective. His entire life has been a deception. A lie. And this awareness brings more physical suffering to him. HIs wife urges him to take communion from the priest, who hears his confession.

Chapter 12
The last 3 days of Ivan's life. He screams for three straight days. The suffering is immense. Time doesn't exist anymore for him. He thinks again of the black sack. He struggles against it. He is being drawn nearer to what terrifies him. Now another way to think of the black sack is to see it as symbolic not just of death, but as the struggles of Ivan in the womb of his rebirth. He is going to be the phoenix rising from the ashes of his old life at the end here. On page 62 he falls through the hole. And what is at the bottom? Not blackness and nothingness, but light. Then Tolstoy offers up an incredible simile, the feeling you get on a train when you think you're going backwards when really you're going forwards. Dying is like that. And now, on the third day (and I feel this has strong religious overtones, referring to Christ's three days in the tomb), Ivan will have part two of his epiphany. Two hours befor dying, he is screaming, and his hand falls upon the head of his son. The boy catches his hand, presses it to his lips, and cries.

Then and there, Ivan falls through, sees the light, and all is revealed. There is still a chance to get on the right side of life. It isn't too late. What is the right thing to do? He asks. He looks at his son kissing his hand. And he FEELS SORRY FOR HIM. Ivan feels empathy. He even FEELS SORRY FOR HIS WIFE. No more grudges, no more bitterness, no more self-pity. Just the realiziation that his suffering is making them suffer, and that it will be better if he lets go of life to leave THEM in peace. He doesn't have the strength to utter these truths to his family, he can only act. He looks at them and says, take him away, sorry for him and you. And with that small gesture, the asking for forgiveness, the thinking for others, the burden lifts from him. This is the spiritual burden, mind you. The physical pain is as bad as ever, but in Tolstoy's view, the body is far less important than the soul. By releasing them, Ivan frees himself from suffering too. What a good and simple message! With that, his fear of death dissipates. Can't find it anywhere. O Death, where is thy sting? IN the place of death, the black sack, there is light. "So that's what it is!" he says. "What joy!" It all happens in an instant, a flash. For two hours, his body goes through the death throes, and at the end, someone calls "It is finished" (another echo of Jesus Christ on the cross), and Ivan's understanding of that sentence is not that his life is finished, but that death is finished. Death is what dies in the end, as his body dies with it. What lives on? His spiritual awakening, his spiritual rebirth. He learned the meaning of life before it was too late.

Now you can interpret the ending religiously if you want. You might talk of near death experiences and what science has or hasn't learned about that. You might take a more philosophical, secular appraoch and say that even though Ivan dies, he died in joy, because he realized the errors of his ways, and he perceived the truth, and he acted upon that truth at the end. He let go. He accepted the reality of death. And he realized that it is only your capacity to love others, to have feeling for them, to express understanding, that life has any value whatsoveer. None of the other stuff means anything when your day of reckoning comes. So in the end, Ivan Ilych is "saved". The phoenix rises again.

As we now reconsider the beginning of the story, the funeral scene, we can reinterpret it. The people at the funeral, with the exception of Gerasim and maybe Vasya (who is still young and innocent), do not "get it". They are blind to the truth. They haven't reconciled themselves with their own death. They are avoiding coming to terms with it. We also learn that Ivan, although he had a personal epiphany at the very end of his life, learned his lesson to late for him to have any lasting impact on anyone else. His life will be rather quickly forgotten by those close to him. He didn't leave an impression. By not living rightly, he failed to show empathy for others, and thus, no one is going to miss him all that much. It is Tolstoy's way of cautioning us. How much better it would be for everyone, if we learned what Ivan learned earlier in life, so we wouldn't waste those precious years of life, so that we would spend them by valuing the truth, love, and compassion for others.

Notes on Tolstoy's narrative technique
The narrator is omniscient third person, directed primarily into the mind of Ivan.

Tolstoy compresses the time sequence to focus acutely on what matters most in Ivan's life.

Chapter 1: the funeral day, establishes the setting and themes
Chapter 2: 40 years of Ivan's life, an accelerated pace thorugh the meaningless years that amount to nothing in existential terms
Chapter 3 and 4: the last year and a half of his life.
Chapters 5 thru 8: the last months
Chapters 9 thru 12: the last 4 weeks

He spends more and more textual space on smaller and smaller time frames.

A parallel development is the contraction of space in the novel. In Chapter 2, Ivan moves from place to place. In Chapter 3, he settles in the house where his accident occurs. In 5-8, he is confined to his study. In 9 - 12 his sofa. This increases the focus on Ivan in his alienation, isolation, loneliness, and his inevitable confrontation with the ultimate reality: the moment of death.


Please do yourself a favor and read (or reread) this book. It matters.