The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy and Billy Budd by Herman Melville present two tragic characters who differ a lot from each other with a few common characteristics. The death of Ivan is a natural one whereas Billy receives capital punishment. The former fails to get any admiration even from his own people whereas the latter wins the admiration of many. Both have their own tragic flaws and rise to the level of tragic heroes winning the sympathy of the readers. The story of Ivan is presented on a broad canvas narrating the incidents during the span of thirty years and the changes that gradually takes place. On the other hand, the story of Billy Budd takes place during the span of a few days and the setting of the story is a warship called Bellipotent. Ivan stands out for his shallow experience of life and final realization, whereas Billy wins our attention and admiration with his pure innocence.
The very beginning of the novel The Death of Ivan Ilych sets a tragic tone with the description of the death of the hero. It was a quiet scene where a group of judges gather together in a private room and one of them announces Ivan’s death. It is followed by their discussion of who will get promoted to fill the chair of the deceased. Their talk reflects the shallowness of the society and people that filled the world of Ivan Ilych. Throughout his life tried to live up to the expectations of such people and society which he realizes in his last minutes as vain and meaningless. The superficial nature of the people he lived with and the façade of society he lived in disturb him deeply and help him realize his folly. He neglected his family and his life for the sake of his career and society. In the end, “he endures not only great suffering but a kind of absolute abasement; an experience so rending it destroys the seeming unity of his being.” (Stewart Justman)
Billy Budd’s story starts with his joining a British naval war ship leaving the merchant ship. He is young, handsome and dynamic and proves himself soon as a sincere hardworking man. He wins the affection of the more experienced fellow sailors. Billy’s primary quality is his extraordinary, even disturbing innocence. He has never directly confronted evil even at the age of twenty one. His good looks endear him to many and their admiration has made him believe that the world is a good place and everyone who lives in that is good. He never thinks that there could be evil-minded people in the world and especially around him. His naïve trust in others and his speech impediment render him unable to defend himself when Claggart accuses him of mutiny. His death is the culmination of his own innocence, ignorance, weaknesses and evil influences that are outside of him.
Ivan’s defining characteristic is that he lives his life by the dictates of others. It is his greatest weakness which makes his superficial and shallow. He does not bother to live his life by his values and principles. Instead he blindly adopts the beliefs and values of aristocratic society. It is the knowledge that he is abiding by an established code of conduct that allows him to act so unreflectively. He gets attracted to their life style and believes that it is the only way that helps him progress in his life. He wrongly believes that he can lead a life of fulfillment and strictly imitates the practices of high society. Ivan becomes obsessed with standards of propriety and decorum, the etiquette of the upper class. He marries because a man of his standing in society should marry and he buys a house in the city and furnishes it well because as a cultured man he should have them all. Style and status mean more for him than living and experiencing a life of fulfillment. On his death bed he realizes, “I was going up in public opinion, but to the same extent life was ebbing away from me. And now it’s all over and there is only death.” (The Death of Ivan Ilych). Thus, we see Ivan leading an inauthentic life devoid of any meaning and fulfillment.
On other hand, we see Billy Budd quite innocent of all these things in life. Once he joins the naval ship, and he is deeply affected by the sight of violent lashing given to a crew member. To avoid such a punishment for himself he works hard and wins the affection of many. But he is ignorant that he is under close scrutiny of some evil minded people like Claggart.
Billy disregards the advice of Dansker when he is warned about the evil intentions of Claggart. Billy is blinded by his open hearted nature and misjudges Claggart. He innocently believes that Claggart as his friend. He becomes totally defenseless when he was accused of mutiny. Stimulated by Billy’s harmlessness, Claggart’s antipathy arouses him to use rational means to pursue irrational, even insane, ends. Unable to defend himself verbally, he hits Claggart which turns out to be a fatal blow. (Elmer G. Wiens) He becomes a victim and receives the judgment with a capital punishment. His mental and emotional shortcomings make him extremely vulnerable to the evil minded people.
The common characteristic in both the stories is that both Ivan and Billy know that they are going to die, the former because of his ailment and the latter with a capital punishment. The death in the case of Ivan is natural one but what moves us most is his suffering and realization that his life has been futile and meaningless. On the other hand Billy’s death is a forced one. It is a punishment that he receives for his emotional and unbalanced act.
On the deathbed Ivan realizes the meaninglessness of the life he led and feels sorry for his son and wife. Ivan has got much time to contemplate over his death and for preparing for it. On the other hand, Billy has no much time to prepare mentally for meeting his death. Yet he displays heroism by his peaceful mind and grateful attitude to Captain Vere.
Although Captain Vere understands fully Billy’s innocence and his victimization by an invidious man, feels compelled to convince his subordinates to carry out the capital punishment. (American History through Literature) Vere even cries out that Claggart has been “struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!” (Billy Budd. p. 101).
Billy’s last words “God bless Captain Vere!”(Billy Budd) produce an unexpected sentiment and echo in the assembled people Billy dies with a surprising peace. Melville portrays Billy’s innocence as something to be both admired and pitied.
Contrastingly, “Ivan Ilych is neither admirable nor depraved, and suitably to the satiric logic of tragedy, the very principles in which he found his safety prove his ruin.” (Stewart Justman)
At the end of the Discourse on Inequality Rousseau observes that “Social man lives always outside himself; he knows how to live only in the opinion of others.”(Rousseau). The hero of Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych” is portrayed in these terms exactly. His very existence seemingly a façade, Ivan squares all that he does with the opinion of others.
Undoubtedly, Ivan is a tragic hero who led a false life – a life of imitation and inauthenticity, envy and emulation. Thus, Tolstoy exposes the egotism that tragically blinds average people as they search for ways to become respected by their societies
Ivan and Billy leave a strong impression on the readers each for a distinct reason. Ivan for living a life designed after the expectations others which proved futile in the end and Billy for his innocence and his inability to nip the evil at the budding stage itself.
American History through Literature (1870-1920)
Billy Budd, Sailor -by Herman Melville
Elmer G. Wiens
Stewart Justman, Literature and Human Equality 2006
The Death of Ivan Ilych -by Leo Tolstoy
Note: Please make any changes necessary for the citations page. I have provided all the links to you.