OF THE BABY NAME IVAN
Kolya Vdovushkin is a character in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1962 novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a novel that takes us through one day in a Soviet labor camp. Alas, our Nikolai is perhaps not the most sympathetic of characters, being used as he is by Solzhenitsyn as a representation of the uselessness of literary poseurs in the face of brutish reality. Nikolai has an easy job in the labor camp; he is a medical orderly. The only problem is that he hasn’t any medical experience. What Nikolai wants is to be a poet, and the patronage of the camp’s medical doctor encourages him in this endeavor. It is the likes of Ivan Denisovich who suffer from the natural outcome of such favoritism. On the outside, Nikolai would probably be an acceptable person; in the camps, he’s a disaster.
Lisa Ilyich is the daughter of the title character in Leo Tolstoy’s 1886 novella, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. While Ivan lies dying and reviewing his life, turning over all his decisions and actions, his daughter, alas, is not of such a philosophical bent. In her defense, let it be said that Lisa has been raised to be a self-absorbed young woman, much like her mother, whose interests lie in her beautiful appearance, her social standing and her suitors. How is she different from any other twenty-year old girl? The illness her father sustains, which leads to his death, is rather annoying to Lisa, and she is less than sympathetic and helpful to the invalid. In fact, she seems to blame her father for selfishly disrupting all of their lives by this very inconvenient malady. And we have the hint, in the father’s ruminations, of the possible future that might affect the daughter as well. She is young and beautiful now – introspection on the nature of her father’s may come later, as life deals with her as it may.
Ivan is the middle of three sons in the classic Russian novel The Brothers Karamazov, completed in 1880 by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Long acknowledged as a masterpiece of philosophical profundity, the tale of the three brothers is revered worldwide. Ivan is tormented by his lack of faith, his disbelief in a god who would allow base human suffering such as he observes around him. He is unable to achieve the simple piety of his younger brother, Alyosha or the initially insouciant attitudes of his older brother Dimitri. His loathing for his father produces tremendous guilt in him, especially when he thinks he might be indirectly responsible for the father’s murder. This leads him deeper into despair and madness, but there is a distinct possibility left for us at the end of the book that Ivan will find salvation purely through his rejection of a deity, a salvation that comes quite simply from his unadorned love for humanity in all its expressions. This and the loving ministrations of the devoted Katerina give us hope that he will find hope.
Ivan is the title character of Leo Tolstoy’s 1886 novella, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. A high court judge, Ilyich has lived his entire life in the pursuit of the most materialistic, proper way of living, enjoying the trappings of his professional and personal life, and feeling that he is the best and has done the best. His marriage is unhappy, his children are emotionally neglected, his legal judgments are cold and calculated, but he sees none of that. Then he suffers an accidental domestic injury, which leads to his decline and demise. He is in the throes of terror – how can this be – how can one who has lived so well – die? As he contemplates his life with the help of his faithful servant, Gerasim, he comes to see that it has all been a sham, a pretense, and an empty search for meaning in the meaningless. Comes the proverbial bright light, and Ivan Ilyich is delivered into an ecstasy of understanding and acceptance, leaving this world for a better one, in full knowledge and acceptance of all that has been.
Ivan is a prisoner in a Soviet gulag in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s 1962 novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, loosely based upon his own experience in a Stalinist labor camp for eight years. Dinisovich is wrongly accused of being a spy after having been captured by the Germans during World War II. It is an extraordinary novel, an everyday look inside the oppressive Soviet prison system, where the men somehow manage to help and defend each other in small, significant ways even under the repressive regime in which they are forced to work and live. Unlike the heroes of the great, earlier Russian novels, Ivan is a modern day peasant, uneducated and unassuming. He adapts to prison life without any sentimentality, and brings every ounce of his abilities to his tasks, rising above the misery of his surroundings and representing the noble spiritual strength of an entire people.
A tragicomedy by the Russian playwright, Anton Chekhov, Uncle Vanya was first performed in 1899 in Moscow. The title character expresses the boredom and ennui of all when he enters in Act I, yawning. His further musings on the wasting of lives, the passed opportunities, the missed loves and the drudgery of the future are largely ignored by the other characters, but they are certainly already internalized by them. Everyone in this little aristocratic enclave has something to regret and little to look forward to. Uncle Vanya even farcically botches an attempt to shoot his brother-in-law, whom he mainly blames for the waste that is his life. There is little hope here, except for that of the afterlife proffered by Sonya, Vanya’s niece, at the play’s closing: “Ah, then, dear, dear Uncle, we shall enter on a bright and beautiful life… We shall rest. We shall hear the angels.” We don’t want to create too much of a downer here, so let’s take Chekov’s own advice on the matter, as he explained his play in a letter to a friend: “All I wanted was to say honestly to people: ‘Have a look at yourselves and see how bad and dreary your lives are!’The important thing is that people should realize that, for when they do, they will most certainly create another and better life for themselves.”