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Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” and “The Death of Ivan Ilych” by Tolstoy


Literature is a rather specific matter for analysis. It reflects the phenomena of reality in their great variety but also has its symbols and other means of decoding messages (Howe, 1993). Thus, the present paper will focus on the analysis of two works created by the worldwide famous writers Franz Kafka and Leo Tolstoy “The Metamorphosis” and “The Death of Ivan Ilych” respectively. The purpose of the analysis will be the consideration of literary and rhetorical means of developing the plot and protagonists of the stories as well as the use of various linguistic and stylistic means for these goals. The initial point in the present analysis will be the comparative overview of the plots of the stories by Kafka and Tolstoy.

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To begin with, the two stories differ from each other by describing real and fictional events. Kafka was the famous author of pessimistic prose whose heroes were attacked by illnesses and fantastic beings. This author was widely known for his talent of encoding the underlying meanings into symbols that are hard to decode without knowledge of the peculiarities of Kafka’s style. On the contrary, Leo Tolstoy is a famous realist writer whose works are reflections of what he had experienced in his own life (Howe, 1993).

Tolstoy’s works are also full of symbols and hidden messages but their realistic nature distinguishes them from Kafka’s masterpieces. Nevertheless, their attempts to reflect the hardships of life, the difficult choices, and decisions that people have to make in life are the topics that join these authors and their works into the unit of the best masterpieces of literature (Howe, 1993).

Thus, Kafka’s work is a fiction novel that, nevertheless, reflects the problems of real human beings. With surprising ingenuousness, the author starts his work with the lines that depict the state of Gregor, the story’s protagonist, after he woke up to find out he turned into a vermin: “One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.” (Kafka, 3) What strikes most of all in Kafka’s manner of narration is the easiness with which he describes this tragedy and the emotions of Gregor. The protagonist also displays no surprise at his mutation and only tries to hide it from his family. When finally, his parents and sister come to know about his metamorphosis, their attitude towards him changes and they start looking for ways to feed themselves and get rid of their insect-son.

In this story development, numerous meanings can be found, but the major one is the loneliness of a person who does not understand the leading principles of life. In other words, Gregor worked for his family as an insect and forgot about himself, while he probably had to pay more attention to his own needs and interests. Thus, the symbol of the vermin becomes the embodiment of taking the wrong path in one’s attempt to help others: “If I didn’t have my parents to think about I’d have given in my notice a long time ago…” (Kafka, 4). Here, the particular use of casual and fearful language by the author can be observed as the means to render the change in the situation – at first, Gregor is not feared by his metamorphosis but his parents are, then he becomes more and more afraid while the family plans their life without Gregor: “Gregor, Gregor, what’s wrong?… Gregor, open the door, I beg of you.” – “I am ready, now.” (Kafka, 5)

Here, the calmness of the protagonist is observed and the anxiety of his parents, while the following lines are in deep contrast to the latter: “…we can’t carry on like this. Maybe you can’t see it, but I can. I don’t want to call this monster my brother, all I can say is: we have to try and get rid of it.” (Kafka, 83) Thus, the use of stylistic devices to develop the protagonist and implementation of dialogues to reflect the situation in the family is of help to the author. Kafka portrays Gregor as the person who became alien to the family only because he wanted to feed them and worked all the time. The final dialog of the maid and Gregor’s father reflects the whole tragedy in simple lines: “Come and ‘ave a look at this, it’s dead, just lying there, stone dead!.. – Dead?..Now then, let’s give thanks to God for that.” (Kafka, 90).

As compared to Kafka’s work, the story by Tolstoy is about real events but its tragedy is not less due to this. The protagonist of the story is high court judge Ivan Ilych Golovin. The story develops together with his life which is focused on career pursuing and getting as many life benefits as possible: “Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.” (Tolstoy, 12) Describing him, Tolstoy makes an obvious allusion to himself as he led similar life until took up Christianity and became a very religious person.

Thus, Golovin tries to climb the career ladder as high as he can but suddenly falls from a real ladder while hanging a picture and his falling leads to his slow death. Golovin knows about the coming end and tries to find relief in religion because family irritates him: “Quarrels between husband and wife became more and more frequent, and soon the ease and amenity disappeared and even the decorum was barely maintained.” (Tolstoy, 21)

Further on, the use of dialogues in mostly narrative works by Tolstoy is implemented by the author so that to reflect the lively changes that happen to Golovin and his outlook of the world: “Will you have some tea, sir? – “He wants things to be regular, and wishes the gentlefolk to drink tea in the morning,” thought Ivan Ilych, and only said “No.” (Tolstoy, 42)

The language which transforms from angry and irritated to calm and friendly is another means of demonstrating the change and development of the personality of the story’s protagonist: “Thank you. How easily and well you do it all!” (Tolstoy, 38) Ivan Ilych would never address his servant like that before as he “saw that he was dying, and he was in continual despair.” (Tolstoy, 24) but the more pain he felt the more he wanted to get relief from it, and he found that relief in the simple world outlook of his servant Gerasim.

Thus, the symbolism of the work can be traced throughout the development of its plot. Golovin was climbing the career ladder, and the ladder became the cause of his death. Here, more than a personal tragedy is symbolized by this ladder and falling from it. Tolstoy’s idea was to demonstrate the things that are of real value in life and show how dangerous it is to become a prisoner of some meaningless material wishes.

The faith in God came to Ivan Ilych too late, and even when he was close to death he doubted God’s existence: “He wept on account of his helplessness, his terrible loneliness, the cruelty of man, the cruelty of God, and the absence of God.” (Tolstoy, 55) In these lines, Tolstoy demonstrates that his protagonist, as well as any other human being, addresses God, even if had not believed in him before. The emotional phrase of Ivan Ilych during his sacrament reflects the whole tragedy of the human life which, however, can not be changed: “To live! I want to live!” (Tolstoy, 70).


To conclude, in this paper I have tried to analyze and compare the styles of work of the two famous writers – Kafka and Tolstoy. I have managed to see how both authors develop the plots of their stories, how they introduce and develop their protagonists, and how they describe the emotional state of the latter. I managed to find out that Kafka is a more fictional writer who uses fantastic plots to render hidden messages about the harsh reality of human life. Tolstoy makes use of his own life experiences and bases his stories upon real events which nevertheless allows him to reach his goal – demonstrate that the actual sense of life lies not in the positions the person takes but in the harmony with him/herself and the God.

Works Cited

Howe, Irving. Classics of Modern Fiction. Wadsworth Publishing. 5th Edition, 1993.

Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis. Waking Lion Press, 2006.

Tolstoy, Leo. The Death of Ivan Ilych. Waking Lion Press, 2006.