Franz Kafka’s “metamorphosis” and Leo Tolstoy’s “the death of ivan ilych” Analysis

An in-depth analysis of franz kafka’s the metamorphosis
And leo tolstoy’s the death of ivan ilych

The short story The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka and The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy are good avenues to explore the concepts of Existentialism, Alienation, and also to expose the hypocrisy of the society as suggested by both short stories. In both stories, the main characters faced a physical dilemma that led them to examine the purpose of their life. In the process their examining their existence, the characters slowly became aware of the pretentiousness of the society to which they belong including their own families.

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            The theme and conflict of both the short stories are similar. Both revolved around the struggle of one main character and how the people surrounding the main character reacted to their struggle when they too were affected. But the treatment and method to which the authors achieved to drive the theme were quite different. Tolstoy opted to examine the existential struggles of Ivan Ilych deeper than Kafka. Ivan Ilych’s existentialist dilemmas lead to his self-imposed alienation from his family. The Metamorphosis centered more on the alienation of Gregor Samsa from his family that lead to him examining the reason for his very existence.

            In this research paper, the concepts of existentialism will be discussed by analyzing the character of Ivan Ilych in Tolstoy’s short story and Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.

            The phenomenon of social hypocrisy and individual selfishness will be examined through the behavior and reactions of the characters surrounding Gregor Samsa and Ivan Ilych especially the reaction of their immediate family.

            A short story has five basic elements – character, setting, plot, conflict and theme. For this particular paper, a thorough character analysis would be performed. Also, the conflict and theme will be methodically examined. Both the stories will be compared and contrasted based on the three said elements. Furthermore, the concepts of Existentialism and Hypocrisy will be discussed based on how the authors depicted the concepts in their short stories.

In-depth Analysis
Character Analysis
The story of “The Death of Ivan Ilych” revolves around Ivan Ilych himself. Ivan’s most distinct attribute is that he is mediocre. He neither excelled too much nor slacked too much. He was always in the middle of things, choosing the path that is of least resistance. He lived a life that is expected of him as an upper working class. He executed his duties like as it was expected of him and he acted as what the he perceives as someone with his stature should act. He married because this was trendy to do so and it is what is supposed for a gentleman like him. His opinions were never polarizing or strong. His idea of a life is where there is no discomfort and complication.

            When his wife, Preskovya, got pregnant and married life starts to get complicated, Ivan retreated to his work. Instead of confronting his conflicts with Preskovya, he instead looked for ways to get around the conflict by choosing to have a formal relationship with his family. By adopting a restrained connection with his family he succeeded in eliminating any unpleasantness that might come from intimacy. But with this action, Ivan failed to realize that ha had slowly and progressively alienated himself from his family. He had no real connection with his daughter or his son. His association with his wife was merely out of obligation.

            In Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”, Gregor Samsa, the main character is similar to Ivan in that they both performed duties that were expected from them. Gregor worked initially as an assistant to a man with whom his father was indebted to because this was what was required of him. He performed his duties well, worked hard and then got promoted to traveling salesman. He took over his father as a breadwinner because his father assumed that he will do so. He lived a fairly mediocre life very much like Ivan.

            However, there is a distinct difference in both men. Ivan wanted a life of complacency without and unpleasantness. He made it a goal to work for this kind of life. Gregor performed his duties as a son out of necessity. They were bankrupt and heavily in debt. But he had secret desires, to resign from his dreary work and send his sister to the Conservatory. Ivan had none, no ambition, and no secret fantasies. Probably if given a better opportunity, Gregor would have grabbed life and lived it to the fullest. Unlike Ivan who was presented with opportunities but never made use of them.

Conflict and Context Analysis
It has been said that authors, more often than not, write about things that they themselves could fully empathize with or absolutely understand. The story “Death of Ivan Ilych” was greatly reflective of the life of Leo Tolstoy. Leo Tolstoy was born from a wealthy aristocratic family (Heller 2004). Ivan Ilych came from an upper working class. Tolstoy’s thorough understanding of the workings of the upper class is greatly reflected in his portrayal of the society to which Ivan Ilych belongs.

Tolstoy experienced death early in his childhood. His mother died when he was two. Seven years after, his father also suddenly died. Tolstoy was orphaned at such young age (Heller 2004). In the short story, a character named Vasya, the schoolboy son of Ivan Ilych was the one who witnessed Ivan’s last dying breath.

Between 1875 to 1878, Tolstoy experienced a period of extreme depression.  In this period he wrote the novel Confession, which is a mirror of his struggles. He attributes his psychological mental state to his realization that things have lost their meaning to him. He had questioned his existence as a creation and his purpose for living. Tolstoy attempted to understand his struggle by turning to long dead philosophers and when he did not find answer from their philosophies, he turned to his contemporaries. But even with their answers, he was disappointed. He found both old and contemporary philosophies shallow, valueless and at times irrational. All these thoughts were poured out in his novel Confession  (Heller 2004).

Leo Tolstoy then turned to religion. Although he considered religion the specialty of the uneducated masses, he was drawn to the certainty of life’s meaning that religion provides. In the period of 1878 to 1882, Tolstoy experienced gradual, yet profound conversion to Christianity. In this period he published highly philosophical and spiritual works that reflected his newfound belief (Heller 2004).

The Death of Ivan Ilych is Tolstoy’s first major fictional work that he published after his crisis and then his eventual conversion  (Heller 2004). One might say that the short story is a summary of his journey to self-discovery. This is very evident in the character of Ivan Ilych who lives a life of relative mediocrity, experienced a physical debilitation and underwent an existential crisis where he was forced to examine the entirety of his life. Just like Tolstoy, Ilych questioned his purpose for living, and like Tolstoy he discovered the answer to his question when he encountered redemption.

Franz Kafka has always been alienated. He was of German and Jewish decent but born a Czech. This fact in it self, mirrors Kafka’s unbefitting childhood. He felt out of place among the German-speaking community because he was of Jewish decent. However, he also never felt at home with the Jewish community for he only speaks German. Furthermore, Kafka’s family never really practiced Judaism. This fact further alienated Kafka from his peers (Brod 1995 reprint). The isolation that Kafka felt could be seen in his short story, The Metamorphosis.

In the story, when Gregor Samsa turned into an insect, he lost his capacity to communicate and connect with the people around him. This must be how Kafka felt all throughout his life. Moreover, in the story Gregor lost his capacity to talk in human language. This may be a reflection of what Kafka experience as a German-speaking Jew living Czechoslovakia.

Franz Kafka was born from an upwardly mobile working class family. His father used to be a traveling salesman then slowly become a businessman (Brod 1995 reprint). This background of Kafka could be seen in the story of The Metamorphosis. The main character himself, Gregor Samsa, is a traveling salesman. Kafka was able to provide the details of the dreariness of the life of a traveling salesman because his father was one.

In the story, Gregor’s father was not affectionate to him. All throughout the story he neither demonstrated his concern nor love his son except when matters concerning money were involved. He was only interested in what his son could provide for the family and nothing more. In one incident, he even pelted Gregor. Kafka did not have a healthy relationship with his father. He viewed his father as too harsh, too ambitious and to too unaffectionate to him and his sisters, very much like Gregor’s father (Brod 1995 reprint).

Just like Kafka’s family, the Samsa’s were upwardly mobile as well until the father’s business failed. However, the bankruptcy of the business did not stop the Samsa’s from living beyond their means, renting a big apartment, hiring a cook and a cleaning lady as well. This maybe how Kafka interprets his father’s ambitions and their family’s move towards a greater position in the society. Or this could be how Kafka translates what he sees in the society to which he belongs where a lot of working classes, even though they could not afford it, live a life that were beyond their means. Often times even living in mansion with outrageous rents just so they could keep with the charade.

            Kafka grew up with three younger sisters whom he was affectionate with. And like Gregor, Kafka was devoted to them. Kafka’s relationship with his sisters could be seen how Gregor treats his sister. The story clearly reflects how much Kafka loves his siblings. Tragically though, all of Kafka’s sisters died in a concentration camp during the Holocaust (Brod 1995 reprint).

            Both Tolstoy and Kafka, experienced some form of alienation one way or the other. And just like the characters in their stories, the outcome was different on both instance of alienation. Ivan’s alienation led him to existentialism. And he emerged successful in his quest to find meaning in his life, just like Tolstoy who turned to Christianity for respite.

 If in Tolstoy’s story Ivan found redemption before his death, Kafka’s Gregor Samsa died without redemption. Just like Gregor, Kafka died without being able to resolve his feelings of alienation. His posthumously published works all convey his dark thoughts regarding life and impending doom of individuals.
Theme Analysis
By analyzing the short stories “The Death of Ivan Ilych” by Leo Tolstoy and “The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka, there are certain similarities in the concepts that both short stories are trying to drive at. Existentialism, Alienation and Social Hypocrisy are the three major themes that both stories tackle.

            Existentialism focuses more on the question of the individual’s existence. The quest of an existentialist is to find meaning in his existence. An existentialist maybe driven into this type of dilemma by a feeling of meaninglessness of life. To counter such emotion of nothingness, the individual attempts to justify his existence – to look for a reason why he was created and therefore find the reason to which to live (Barrett 1990).

            Ivan Ilych’s point of existentialism became very much evident. The moment he realized that he is dying he begins to ask why. Why should he die? Why did he live anyway? He was forced to consider what he had done with his life. His desire for a complacent life led him to live a life that is mediocre. Before his malady, he defines life as the lack of unpleasantness but at the time of his death, he encounters battle within himself that made him realize that it is love and compassion that makes up the essence of life.

            Existentialism is very much apparent in Tolstoy’s work that he made it explicit in the dialogues between Ivan within himself. However, in Kafka’s work, it was more subtle. Because Gregor Samsa’s existence was slowly unraveling, the reader may be forced to examine their own lives. Gregor, since he transformed into an insect, became instantaneously useless to his family. And because Gregor’s family is now questioning his usefulness, albeit delicately, the reader is compelled to consider his own usefulness as an individual – whether his worth is based on him as a person or based on his contribution.

            In sociology, alienation is defined at the estrangement of an individual from his community or the people around him. Alienation happens when an individual’s relationship in the society becomes debilitating to him and/or the society. Also, alienation may happen when the individual loses his capacity to effectively communicate or connect with the people around him. Simply put, alienation is when an individual loses his ability to form a relationship with the society. This maybe because of the individual’s own decision to withdraw from the world or because the society with which he moves failed to effectively accommodate the individual’s uniqueness (Baker 2007).

            When Gregor was transformed into an insect he lost his capacity to connect and communicate with his family, thus alienating himself. Unlike, Ivan who slowly and voluntarily alienated himself, Gregor’s alienation was instantaneous. Furthermore, Gregor did not choose to be alienated. He was inexplicably thrust in the position to where he was, unlike Ivan who placed himself in that position.

            Both men experienced a point of no return. For Ivan it was his slow and painful death. For Gregor it was his transformation into an insect. Ivan’s point of no return made him realize how greatly alienated he was from his family that at the time when he need them the most he was unable to communicate with them. Gregor’s point of no return, however, was the cause of his alienation. If he did not mysteriously turn to an insect, then he would still be able to maintain his relationship with his family. But what came out of the situation was that Gregor was confronted by the truth about how his family really feels towards him. It made him realize what his true worth is. For all his life he has considered his worth based on his being a dutiful son and what he could provide for his family.

            Hypocrisy is the act of saying one thing and doing something else. This occurs when there is a certain disconnect between what an individual ascertains as his moralities and principles, and his conduct in reality. Hypocrisy is often a question of morality. An individual with the outward sincerity and morality but behaves differently in private is considered a hypocrite (Davidson 2004).

            Ivan is a judge. Therefore his work entails only what is the truth. However, he has been living a lie. Outside he has the trappings of a well to do family but the truth was far from it. They were, at times, in debt and more often than not, living beyond their means. However, Ivan has no qualms about such difference between their true net worth and their lifestyle. For him this is as it should be. He never did consider it as a form of hypocrisy. This is the same with Gregor Samsa’s family. They were also pretending to have more than they actually have. This is a common phenomenon. Even today there are a lot of families living beyond their means and eventually resulting to their ruin. It is inherent in humans to create their own self-deceptions if they could not accept the truth.

            Ivan’s death exposed all the social hypocrisies and pretentiousness around him. His friends viewed his funeral as an inconvenience from their usual routine. Furthermore, when Ivan was already showing signs of sickness, his friends were only thinking of who would probably succeed him in his position. They did not really care about him; this is considering that he had known some of them for a very long time.

            His wife’s, Praskovya’s, primary concern during his funeral was how much pension will she be receiving and if she will still be able to receive some more. Even when Ivan was in his deathbed, she was primarily concerned about her convenience.

            Similarly, Gregor’s family was the same. When he transformed in to an insect and became useless. They only cared for him initially, but when he was becoming a burden they wanted to get rid of him. The biggest hypocrite for them all was his sister. In the beginning it was his sister who took care of him; proving him food and cleaning his room. But when she became too exhausted from work and taking care of Gregor, she was the one who was vocal in getting rid of Gregor.

The short stories are a reflection of the lives and the personal struggles of the authors. There are certain parallelisms between the lives of Ivan Ilych and Leo Tolstoy. Likewise with Gregor Samsa and Franz Kafka.

Although both Ivan and Gregor lived mediocre lives, Ivan chose such life while Gregor was thrust into it. Given more opportunity, Gregor would have lived differently. But as for Ivan, he really just chose to be mediocre despite the fact that he was given more opportunities. However, in the end, Ivan was able to resolve his inner conflicts, while Gregor, just eventually died.

The theme of the two short stories revolved around the three social concepts – Existentialism, Alienation and Hypocrisy. All throughout the plot, the characters displayed either one or two of the concepts. The major conflicts in both the stories also centered in one or two of those concepts.

It is goal of both stories to drive the reader to pause and reconsider their own lives. Tolstoy was more blatant about his ideas on existence. He was explicit in pointing out the meaninglessness of position, material wealth and status quo. Kafka was more understated in his portrayal. By depicting Gregor’s family’s struggles as they are without any embellishments or too much interpretation of their actions, Kafka was successful in subtly urging the reader to reflect on their own lives.

Work Cited

Baker, Amy. Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2007.

Barett, William. Irrational Man: A Study on Existential Philosophy. New York: Random House, 1990.

Brod, Max. Frank Kafka: A Biography. New York: Da Capo Press, 1995 reprint.

Davidson, Jenny. Hypocrisy and the Politics of Politeness. UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Heller, Otto. Prophets of Dissent: Essays on Maeterlinck, Strindberg, Nietzsche and Tolstoy. New York: Adamant Media, 2004.

Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis. Utah: The Editorium, LLC, 2006.

Tolstoy, Leo. A Confession and Other Religious Writings. London: Penguin Group, 1987 reprint.

Tolstoy, Leo, translated by Louise and Ayler Maude. Death of Ivan Ilych. US: Kessinger Publishing, 1986 reprint.


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