Leo Tolstoy and the Beauty of Paradox
My students can not get over how Ivan Ilych responded to the inherent compassion in his servant Gerasim. The class devolved into argument quickly— “Was it just the presence of Gerasim? Was it who he was?” or “Was it actually what he did for Ivan?” or “Had he never met a sincere person before?”
I think the difficulty lay in that most had already determined who they thought Ivan was—a shallow, purposeless man. Now he’s enfeebled by a wasting disease that isn’t diagnosable. And what’s worse, Ivan accidentally brought it on himself by bumping his side when hanging curtains in his house that resembled all the things people of a certain class have in order to resemble other people of that class. Yes, Ivan had always lived for lighthearted pleasure and propriety. Yes, he’s shallow, but not so superficial that he didn’t recognize goodness when he saw it.
The irony was clear to my class—a servant peasant is caregiver, not a family member. No other character in the novella is described as clearly either. The spotlight couldn’t be brighter. He says little, but his behavior tells all.
Gerasim was a clean, fresh peasant lad, grown stout on town food and always cheerful and bright . . . Gerasim with a firm light tread, his heavy boots emitting a pleasant smell of tar and fresh winter air, came in wearing a clean Hessian apron, the sleeves of his print shirt tucked up over his strong bare young arms; and refraining from looking at his sick master out of consideration for his feelings, and restraining the joy of life that beamed from his face, he went up to the commode.
Respectful, humble, compassionate, good. Surely he represents every virtue. Ivan continues to observe him and seems to see his own life more clearly in the light of Gerasim’s presence:
His mental sufferings were due to the fact that that night, as he looked at Gerasim’s sleepy, good-natured face with its prominent cheek-bones, the question suddenly occurred to him: ‘What if my whole life has been wrong?’
Now my class wonders if Gerasim is Christ in some way because his juxtaposed presence brings out truth. I ask in return “Does he have to be? Could he represent anyone or anything else?” After all, his character seems to disappear in the final chapters once Ivan begins to hear an inner voice. That alone may be key because my students wonder why Gerasim doesn’t talk through things with Ivan. Why didn’t Tolstoy use him more?
The most sincere response I heard was that Gerasim was a seed who brought light, comfort, joy, and even beauty—the perfect servant. Though there’s so much more to the full story and its spiritual meaning, Gerasim was just the beginning.
Maybe it does take the paradox of goodness in someone, moments when we witness or see a deep sincerity, hear a piercing truth. Moments when we weren’t looking at ourselves first. Moments when we really see.
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