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Posted on September 23rd, 2012, by

In this paper we are going to discuss and compare the two famous pieces of literature- The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy and The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. Franz Kafka was one of the most famous and extraordinary writers of the twentieth century. Kafka and Tolstoy in their famous works  The Death of Ivan Illych and The Metamorphosis developed the themes of isolation, considerable changes of personality and life values.

However, most of Kafka’s works were really estimated at their true worth only after his death in 1924. They were said to present a grotesque vision of the world in which alienated, angst-ridden individuals seek to transcend their tormented condition (Pasley, 12). His story The Metamorphosis (metamorphosis change of the form, appearance or structure.) Kafka wrote in 1912, he needed three weeks to finish it. He expressed his dissatisfaction with the work and assumed the ending was not proper. Still, the work was rather high appreciated and popular, it was even called one of the most analyzed works of the twentieth century literature (Pawel, 2).

Leo Tolstoy is known all over the world for his novellas and novels, The Death of Ivan Ilych is said to be the most celebrated piece of his late fiction; it presents the spiritual struggle of the writer at the moment of his conversion to Christianity (Farrow, 22). One of the central controversies of the story is the nature of life and death and the way of copying with inevitability of death. The meaning of life is one of the central issues argued in the novella; Leo Tolstoy tried to show, that most of the people are concerned about their social position or gaining power, considering it to be the most important things in life. In order to underline the mistakes, people make in evaluating the things during their lives, the author concentrates so much on the inevitability of death. It seemed easy for the main hero to find the meaning of life, when he knew, that he was living, but it turns out to be utterly difficult, when he faces the death approaching. The attempts to avoid death are as well senseless as avoiding unpleasant reality. Thus the only way for Ivan Ilych to find comfort and satisfaction is the realization of the true life values, at least shortly before death.

In contrast to The Death of Ivan Illych, The Metamorphosis is rather a family tragedy, a story of isolation and despair, a story, directly and indirectly reflecting difficulties and unhappiness experienced by the author himself. The surrealism of the story is not entertaining or close to fantasy, it is deeply emotional and touching. Themes, setting, symbols, characters of the story present a mixture penetrating deep into reader’s soul and even the oddness of the plot doesn’t draw so much attention as feelings of the characters. We can not say The Metamorphosis» is incomplete, it is formally structured into three Roman-numbered parts, there is a climax in every part. A number of themes run through the story, but at the center are the familial relationships fundamentally affected by the great change in the story’s protagonist, Gregor Samsa (Pawel, 51). From the first part the reader learns about metamorphosis happened to the main hero Gregor Samsa and about the reaction of his family, in the second part the author describes the development and changes in the relations between Gregor and his family members, especially his sister, and in the last section we read about Gregor’s death and changes that occurred to the rest of his family.

The story is built upon a lot of parallels and symbols, there is certainly the reflection of general depression and despondency of the second part of the twentieth century, but mostly there are clear symbolic connections to the author’s private problems. Unusual plot and profound emotions are on the surface of the novella, in order to study the depth of the story it is necessary to be aware of the author’s biographical facts and then the relation of the story to the personality of the author is evident. His whole life Kafka had to struggle against his father’s will and oppression. Kafka’s real fear of his father was hidden under the idea of Gregor to ask his father for help so that he would be able to turn, but then he still didn’t dare to call loud for the father.

In The Metamorphosis, Gregor’s mother loved him, she was extremely worried when he didn’t come out of his room, but she was so distant and indecisive, she fainted when she saw an insect instead of her son and later on she provided him no support either physical nor moral. In Tolstoy’s writing family relations played also a very important role, the main hero also failed to built a happy family, but in contrast to Gregor this was his own fault first of all.

The theme of isolation is thus one of the most vivid and important in the story about Ivan Illych as in that of Gregor; the main hero experiences physical isolation as he was turned into a bug, and it only worsens the state of his emotional solitude. In the novella The Death of Ivan Ilych both themes of family relations as well as isolation are present. The main hero also feels, that his family has too little sympathy with him and was even irritated by his moaning and worsening state of health. Although he personally, was not so close to his family during the times, when he was healthy.

The job fulfilled was differently treated by the two heroes. Gregor, who worked as a traveling agent, didn’t like his job at all, although performed it rather well. In the novella Gregor had to work so much in order to pay the debt of his father, in his real life Kafka didn’t have to pay any financial debts, but the whole life he seemed to work off some moral debt to his father. Although in fact he was a free person, could choose his major education subjects and his profession, but Kafka couldn’t get rid of his father’s oppression and control. On the contrary, Ivan was much more concerned about his solid position in the Russian court system (Nabokov, 237). His social life had been always more important, than his family and this choice was absolutely conscious. He preferred to build his career, instead of building strong family relations with his wife. He proved to be absolutely intolerant towards everything that could hinder his well-being and his personal comfort.

The news about pregnancy of his wife  are quiet unpleasant to him and he plunges into his work even more, trying to spent less time with his wife. Instead of close, sympathetic relations with his family, Ivan developed a kind of formal attitude to the other family members. Ivan transferred cold, deprived of any emotions attitude to solving work problems to his family life as well. As long as everything goes well with his life, his career and first of all state of health, Ivan is ready to accept all the values of the aristocratic society instead of looking for his own true meaning of life.

The title of the story The Metamorphosis is probably connected not only to changes happened to Gregory, in fact as readers get to know from the last episodes of the novella, all the family members were changed, after the death of Gregor – they were not so depending any more, they started to develop their own plans how they could go on without his support and finally the situation seemed not so pitiable as it was from the beginning. There is a contrast between wasting state and then death of Gregory and efflorescence of his sister, which was underlined by their parents at the end of the story.

In The Death of Ivan Ilych metamorphosis also did take place, as the attitudes and ideas of the main hero were gradually changing during the period of his illness. He changed both physically and spiritually. He had never been concerned with the issues like life-meaning or major life goals, as they seemed quite clear to him before. Finally, Ivan starts to ask himself, if he did everything correct, if he did enough and what was the meaning of his whole life. Finally, he came to conclusion, that he still missed the point, but it was already too late to change anything. During his last minutes, not physical pain, but rather realization of the fact, that he wasted his whole life, caused his moaning and screaming.

The story by Kafka is controversial and profound, there are some unclear symbols, like for example a portrait of a woman in Gregor’s room or repetition of the figure three (three parts of the novella, three members of the family, three lodgers lived in their house), thus it provokes a lot of questions: What were these changes that the author was looking for himself? Was his wish to be free from his family true, or maybe he wanted to be related to his parents, but in a different way not on the basis of oppression and subjecting to his father’s will? Was he looking for their sincere approval of his writings or at least for their understanding of his true wishes? It is rather hard to answer all this questions with confidence. Kafka’s novella The Metamorphosis helps to understand in a way the author’s inner world, on the other hand, without knowing any of his biographical facts, it could be read superficially as a fantastic story – most of the symbols and themes would seem unclear and groundless.

Speaking about The Death of Ivan Ilych, we should note, that the profound meaning of it is also very closely related to the author, like in The Metamorphosis, his life and feelings, namely to Tolstoy’s concern about the values of conventional society, which turned out to be absolutely meaningless, if a person counters such situations like disease of death. In such situations, social position doesn’t’ matter so much any more, as people around are interested in a person, when he is strong and powerful, otherwise he is simply rejected by the society. Here the readers are to meet also some sophisticated symbols, like for example the dream of Ivan Illych about the deep black sack. There can be two levels of interpretation of this symbol, first it symbolizes death and when Ivan is able to break through the sack this means, that he managed to escape from the power of death. On the other level the sack symbol can be understood as a womb, the life source. The difficulties and sufferings Ivan has to come through, when getting out of the sack are the same like the trauma of birth into new life (Farrow, 24).

Overall, comparing these two literary works, we may conclude, that they have some common themes like for example isolation, relations with family, satisfaction with work and physical well-being; at the same time, probably due to different backgrounds, authors used different approaches to presenting the main ideas and were more concentrated on the ideas, which played vitally important role in their lives.

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