Making a comparison between “The Death of Ivan Ilych" by Tolstoy and “Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad would normally not be an easy task in terms of common themes or plots but where the two novels converge is in their embodiment of modernism. Literary modernism is distinguished by the styles of other significant periods in a number of important ways. First, the modernist novel represents the world as a fragmented place, its inhabitants and characters divided by their external differences as well as internal and philosophical ones. The narrator of the modernist novel is often indifferent or neutral about these differences; rather than offering a didactic or editorializing social commentary about the need to bridge these differences, the narrator in a novel with characteristics of modernism simply reports the nature of the situation and leaves the reader to his or her own devices to render a judgment about whether the differences should be resolved.
Another of the important characteristics of a modernist novel is the sense of interpersonal fragmentation is emphasized by the lack of a unifying moral imperative and shared values system. The world in a novel depicting modernism is chaotic, possibly dangerous, and difficult to understand. This is not to say, however, that there is any yearning for a specific idealized past. The characters and their actions are located fully in the present moment, even when they are unclear about where they are going. This lack of clarity is often left unresolved in the modernist novel; the modernist author feels no compelling need to provide the reader with a clear or neat resolution. An analysis of the novel “Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad as well as some of the important themes in “Heart of Darkness” by Conrad for that matter as well as the novel “The Death of Ivan Ilych" by Tolstoy leads the reader to conclude that it is and “Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad that is the more modernist of the two.
In “The Death of Ivan Ilych" by Tolstoy the relationships among the main characters, especially among Ivan and his family members, appear to be fragmented and disjointed, which is a trait of modernism. The main character of this example of modernism in a novel, Ivan, who is mainly interested in maintaining appearances, distances himself from his wife emotionally and physically because she does not conform to the expectations that he has for her. This appearance of distance is superficial, though, for by the novel’s conclusion the reader observes that there is a high level of emotional connection that exists among all of the characters, even though such distance might have appeared to exist simply as a plot device. In addition to the fact that the characters are more connected and less fragmented than they appear, the narrator conveys a particular lesson to the reader about character in general. As Ivan lies on his deathbed and experiences a transformation of understanding about the nature of his life, the novel’s message is unequivocal: the reader is encouraged to avoid living a life that imitates death.
Near the conclusion of “Death of Ivan Ilych" by Tolstoy, as Ivan is finally beginning to start dying, he declares, “Death is finished" (Tolstoy 81). It is clear that he is not referring to the act of death itself, but the dead life he has been living. This ending provides a clear resolution to the narrative and the philosophical dilemma which has been developing throughout the novel. The kind of ambiguity that typically marks the modernist novel is absent from both the novel and this analysis of “The Death of Ivan Ilych" by Tolstoy . The reader knows Ivan is going to die, and Ivan knows this, too. While these are the most obvious anti-modern characteristics of“The Death of Ivan Ilych" by Tolstoy, there are more subtle ones as well. Ivan is never fully in the present moment until he has his deathbed epiphany. He is always striving either to capture some sense of a past that he views as ideal or to hurry the future along so that he can enjoy a better salary and more prestige.