Both Leo Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” and Gustav Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart (Soul)” capture the conflict that existed between social classes in the nineteenth century. Please answer the following questions in a two to three paragraph response.
- Drawing upon evidence from the texts, compare and contrast the ways in which social class is depicted in these two works.
- To what extent are these stories a form of social critique?
- To what extent do the authors present these stories as such?
“The Death of Ivan Ilyich”
Count Lev (Leo) Nikolayevich Tolstoy, best known as one of the world’s greatest novelists, was a Russian writer, social reformer, and philosopher.
Tolstoy was born in 1828 his family’s estate, Yasnaya Polyana (Bright Glade), located 130 miles southwest of Moscow. He was the fourth of five children born to Count Nikolay Ilyich Tolstoy and Marya Nikolayevna Tolstoya. Even though his mother died when Tolstoy was barely two, the young count enjoyed a privileged childhood typical of his social class. Early on, the boy showed a gift for languages as well as a fondness for literature. Orphaned at age nine by the death of his father, Tolstoy and his brothers and sister were first cared for by a devoutly religious aunt. When she died in 1841 the family went to live with their father’s only surviving sister. Tolstoy was educated by French and German tutors until he enrolled at Kazan University in 1844. There he studied law and Oriental languages and developed a keen interest in moral philosophy and the writings of Rousseau. A notably unsuccessful student who led a dissolute life, Tolstoy abandoned his studies in 1847 without earning a degree and returned to Yasnaya Polyana to claim the property (along with 350 serfs and their families) that was his birthright.
After several years of debauchery and gambling in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Tolstoy journeyed to the Caucasus in 1851 to join his older brother Nikolay, and army lieutenant participating in the Caucasian campaign. The following year Tolstoy officially enlisted in the military, and in 1854 he became a commissioned officer in the artillery, serving first on the Danube and later in the Crimean War. It was while in the army that Tolstoy began his literary apprenticeship. His conversion from a dissolute and privileged society author to the non-violent and spiritual anarchist of his latter days was brought about by his experience in the army during this time as well as two trips around Europe in 1857 and 1860–61.
In 1862, at the age of 34, Tolstoy fell in love with 18 year old Sofya Andreyevna Bers, who was living with her parents on a nearby estate. The two were married on September 23, 1862. The early years of their marriage were happy and coincided with the period of Tolstoy’s greatest novels, and in all they had thirteen children together.
On March 18, 1873, inspired by the opening of a fragmentary tale by Pushkin, Tolstoy started writing Anna Karenina. Originally titled Two Marriages, the book underwent multiple revisions, ultimately receiving popular and critical praise. It was during the torment of writing Anna Karenina that Tolstoy experienced the spiritual crisis that affected the rest of his life. Haunted by the inevitability of death, he underwent a conversion to the ideals of human life and conduct that he found in the teachings of Christ, particularly non-violent resistance. At this point, he renounced his career as a professional writer in favor of proselytizing his own brand of rational Christianity in whatever way he could. His consistent challenges to conventional assumptions in his novels was one thing, but his outspoken diatribes against state-sponsored violence and organized religion posed a direct challenge to the Tsarist government, which tried to silence him. Censorship only increased his zeal. And Tolstoy’s marriage deteriorated badly as he became increasingly vocal about his political and religious views.
Written in 1886, it “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” was the first major fictional work published by Tolstoy after his crisis and conversion. For a considerable period Tolstoy had turned away from literature altogether in favor of his biblical and theological writings. This novella is a satirical account of the life of the well-to-do professional class of late-nineteenth-century Russia. His basic subject is the inevitable confrontation of a human being with his or her mortality, the coming to grips with the certainty that our lives will end.
The story begins at its end. But this is not just a familiar novelistic device, followed by a rewind of a life. The intention is to shock in an unconventional way. It succeeds. The unspoken reaction of Ilyich’s friends and colleagues to the sad news is, ‘What about that, he’s dead; but I am not.’ His intimate colleague Pyotr Ivanovich is anxious to be done with the obligatory visit to pay respects and get away to his game of cards. So told, an anonymous note that resounds throughout the story: no one wants to face the mystery of death as inevitable in his or her own person. Person after person makes a travesty of death. Even Praskovya Fyodorovna, Ivan’s wife, weeps while she enquires about the price of the burial plot and whether she could not somehow extract more compensation money for her husband’s demise from the government in which he had a prestigious position as a member of the Chamber of Justice. Only the peasant servant Gerasim, handing Pyotr Ivanovich his fur coat, remarks innocently, “It’ll be the same for all of us.”
Now, read “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” – http://www.ccel.org/ccel/tolstoy/ivan.pdf.
“A Simple Heart (Soul)”
Gustave Flaubert was a French writer of the realist school best known for his sensational novel Madame Bovary and for his emphasis on aesthetics. He was dedicated to realism, and to the nonjudgmental representation of life.
Flaubert was born in Rouen, France on 12 December 1821, the fifth of six children in a family of doctors. His father, Achille-Cléophas Flaubert, was chief surgeon in Rouen. Flaubert’s mother, Anne Justine Caroline, was the daughter of a physician, and was to become one of the most influential people in his life and works until her death in 1872.
In the 1830s Flaubert attended the Collége Royal de Rouen. Already in his youth, Gustave Flaubert wrote tirelessly, and he began to write his first theater pieces, dramas and historical novels in 1834-35. He also began to travel. A disappointment in his teens – Flaubert fell in love with Elisa Schlésinger, who was married and some 10 years his senior – inspired much of his early writing. In the 1840s Flaubert briefly studied law at Paris to please his father. However, the diagnosis of a nervous disease changed Flaubert’s life. He failed his law exams and decided to devote himself to literature.
After the death of both his father and his married sister, Flaubert moved at Croisset, the family’s country home near Rouen, where he lived the rest of his life. Until he was 50 years old, Flaubert lived with his mother – he was called ”hermit of Croisset.” The household also included his niece Caroline. From November 1849 to April 1851 he travelled with the writer Maxime du Camp in North Africa, Syria, Turkey, Greece, and Italy.
He spent the next five years after his return writing his greatest masterpiece, Madame Bovary. Because of the realistic depictions of adultery it contained, Flaubert was sued with charges of obscenity. Despite this setback, the book sold tremendously well and was positively reviewed, Flaubert’s defense won the case, and the novel came to be the most influential French novel of the nineteenth century. Flaubert’s career progressed with another novel Salammbô (1862) and a political drama Le candidat (The Candidate) in 1874. He wrote a collection of short fiction stories, Trois contes (Three Tales) in 1877.
Flaubert published less than that of his peers because of his painstaking perfectionism. He would spend days and sometimes even weeks to compose a single page. And he was still never satisfied with what he wrote. Flaubert believed in the principle of finding le mot juste (the right word) always. His ultimate aim was stylistic perfection, and repeatedly revised his work. He did not make a distinction between a beautiful or ugly subject: the quality of writing was in the style, not the content.
Flaubert died of a cerebral hemorrhage on May 8, in 1880. He is buried at the Rouen Cemetery in Normandy, France.
Three Tales (Trois Contes) was originally published in French in 1877. It consists of the short stories “A Simple Heart” (also sometime translated as “A Simple Soul”), “Saint Julian the Hospitalier,” and “Hérodias.” This collection won Flaubert the greatest acclaim of all of his books during his lifetime, and “The Story of a Simple Heart” was the most admired of the tales.
In many ways, “A Simple Heart” is a relatively straightforward tale, an account of the uneventful, narrow life of a pious country girl named Félicité. Felicite’s simple-mindedness in many ways is inseparable from her good-heartedness, and her simple heart enables her to find her own spiritual fulfillment. Flaubert treats his protagonist, the quintessential faithful family servant, with compassion as he probes her feelings and impressions of the world around her. At the same time, the story is a study of the psychology of servitude. The reader must wonder if the uneducated and provincial Felicite is good only because she does not realize she is being exploited.
The story’s structure offers clues as to its meaning. Felicite’s experiences follow the same pattern; she falls in love and experiences happiness, which is followed by some kind of parting, which results in grief. The beloved is first a lover, then the little girl in her care, then her nephew, then an elderly neighbor, then a live parrot, and finally the same parrot, dead and stuffed. Some critics have interpreted this sequence of events as a decline from human to animal to dead thing, while others have understood it to be an ascent from erotic love to a more charitable love of others to a spiritual awakening.
Now, read “A Simple Heart (Soul)” – http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1253/1253-h/1253-h.htm.