In “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” by Leo Tolstoy, the
main character, Ivan, leads a life of physical pain due to his interior mental
anguish. He experiences severe bodily
symptoms because of his state of mental distress, yet never discovers the
source of his torture is essentially internal.
Sigmund Freud’s theory of the “unconscious mind” describes how
repression and resistance of an agonizing idea can be expressed through
excruciating bodily symptoms. He
recognized the body “acted out” with external pain, and focused on curing the
cause of the problem through psychoanalysis, not just healing the outward
The first era of Ivan’s life
is lived happily with abundant contentment, but in his young adulthood he
succumbs to the societal pressure of marriage.
He weds a woman named Praskovya who claims to have fallen in love with
him, despite his lack of reciprocated passion.
Ivan is indifferent toward the wedding and his new wife, not
particularly thrilled but not downtrodden either. As marriage becomes a way of life for Ivan, he begins to see an
unpleasant side of Praskovya, but realizes he is trapped into his marriage for
the rest of his life. Searching for an
alternative source of happiness, he focuses the greater part of his existence
on his career, removing himself from the distasteful situation that has
consumed his life.
The turning point of the story comes when he
accidentally bumps his side on the knob of a window frame. From this point on Ivan experiences
increasingly horrendous painful episodes that mount in extremity, as he grows
older and more discontent with is family life.
Unbearable aches intoxicate his body, extending throughout his chest and
rendering him incapacitated at times, usually accompanied by a bad taste in his
mouth, and irate irritability. In “Studies on Hysteria,” Freud reveals the key to
overcoming bodily pain is consciously experiencing the emotion of a repressed
memory, and verbalizing the realization.
By confronting internal painful thoughts through conscious articulation,
a person is able to overcome their “traumatic moment” and ameliorate physical
symptoms. Ivan Ilyich’s unconscious
source of grief manifested itself as physical pain, endlessly torturing
him. Had he recognized his pain was due
to misery regarding family life, his unconscious would have been alleviated of
this repressed resentment.