Tolstoy and Hemingway couldn’t be further apart, but their characters are obsessed with the same things. In A Farewell To Arms, Frederic Henry refers to that which is “pleasant,” “unpleasant,” or “fine” a total of 85 times. In The Death of Ivan Ilyich, a much shorter work, “pleasant” or “unpleasant” appear 34 times. For Frederic and Ivan, there is no more important quality for a man’s life to attain to than the pleasant, and there is nothing worse than “unpleasantness.”
Much like Hemingway’s heroes, Ivan views a common life as an awful life. Life is naturally awful, but pleasure is supernatural and has the power to lift man out of the doldrums of the mundane.
For Frederic, liquor has the power to save man from the terror of the common world, to take man to a place safe from the filth and boredom of the world. Ivan requires something far more complicated, for we find Ivan always posturing himself, styling himself, feigning and performing a greater dignity and intelligence than he has any right to lay claim on. Ivan requires a tenuous and delicate balance of impression, reputation, luxury and high self-image to escape the meaningless, dead world. He is not rich, though he is desperate to feel rich and to convey wealth.
When Ivan moves into his new home and furnishes it, Tolstoy writes that Ivan has not succeeded in looking rich. Rather, he has succeeded in looking like someone who has just enough money to appear that he has more money than he actually does. He has “all the things people of a certain class have in order to resemble other people of that class.”
It is not surprising that Ivan “acquired a method of eliminating all considerations irrelevant to the legal aspect of the case, and [reduces] even the most complicated cases to a form in which would be presented on paper only in its externals…” Ivan is all external, all show.