The lens essay is a commonly-assigned paper, particularly in Writing Seminars. The prompt for such a paper often asks students to “critique and refine” an argument, to use a source as a lens through which to view another source and in the process gain a better understanding of both sources. This type of essay can be hard to explain and difficult to understand, so it is one of the most common types of essays we see in the Writing Center.
Recently, I read Y.J. Dayananda’s paper “The Death of Ivan Ilych: A Psychological Study On Death and Dying” which uses the lens technique. In this paper, Dayananda examines Tolstoy’s famous short story The Death of Ivan Ilych through the lens of Dr. E. K. Ross’s psychological studies of dying, particularly her five-stage theory. Dayananda’s paper features strong source use, shows how structure can be informed by those sources, and serves as a model for an effective and cross-disciplinary lens essay.
Dayananda establishes the paper’s argument clearly at the end of the introduction, setting up the paper’s thesis in light of this lens technique and providing the rationale (part of the motive) behind applying Ross’s study to Tolstoy’s story:
I intend to draw upon the material presented in Dr. Ross’s On Death and Dying and try to show how Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilych in The Death of Ivan Ilych goes through the same five stages. Psychiatry offers one way to a better illumination of literature. Dr. Ross’s discoveries in her consulting room corroborate Tolstoy’s literary insights into the experience of dying. They give us the same picture of man’s terrors of the flesh, despair, loneliness, and depression at the approach of death. The understanding of one will be illuminated by the understanding of the other. The two books, On Death and Dying and The Death of Ivan Ilych, the one with its systematically accumulated certified knowledge, and disciplined and scientific descriptions, and the other with its richly textured commentary, and superbly concrete and realistic perceptions, bring death out of the darkness and remove it from the list of taboo topics. Death, our affluent societies newest forbidden topic, is not regarded as “obscene” but discussed openly and without the euphemisms of the funeral industry.
Dayananda then organizes the paper in order of the five stages of Dr. Ross’s theory: denial, loneliness, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. This gives the paper a clear structure and places the texts into conversation with each other on an organizational level. As the reader moves through each stage, Dayananda combines quotations from Dr. Ross’s study and evidence from The Death of Ivan Ilych to show how Ivan Ilych experiences that stage.
Dayananda’s interdisciplinary close-reading of Tolstoy’s text through the lens of Dr. Ross’s study allows us to better understand what Ivan is experiencing as we learn the psychology behind it. As Dayananda writes, “psychoanalysis offers a rich, dynamic approach to some aspects of literature.” The only way Dayananda’s paper could have been strengthened is if the essay also argued explicitly how reading the literature critiques or refines the psychological text, as the best lens essays run both ways. However, overall, Dayananda sets up and executes an original and effective lens reading of The Death of Ivan Ilych.
–Paige Allen ’21
Dayananda, Y. J. “The Death of Ivan Ilych: A Psychological Study On Death and Dying.” Tolstoy’s Short Fiction: Revised Translations, Backgrounds and Sources, Criticism, by Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoi and Michael R. Katz, Norton, 1991, pp. 423–434.