The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy, Russian (1828-1910)
Who among us is not afraid of death? We spend our days working, buying, selling, and hoarding goods to give our lives meaning and permanence. We know we will eventually die, but we ignore the fact. We think that if we avoid the word “death,” we can escape the inevitable. So, we describe death as “demise,” “passed on,” or “passed away,” telling our bereaved friends, “I’m sorry for your loss.” Not Tolstoy!
On the first page of The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Tolstoy announces, “Ivan Ilyich is dead!” His statement shocks us, sinks into our reluctant brains: We know how the story ends before it begins. So…why read such a morbid story? Can Ivan possibly have a happy ending? Perhaps. It depends on your interpretation of happiness. The story has, however, a realistic ending. It is an intimate, touching, and sometimes terrifying self-analysis of one man’s journey from vibrant health to incurable illness, self-pity to acceptance, and finally, from life to death. In Tolstoy’s short novel, three themes interest me: the hypocrisy, greed, and lack of empathy exhibited by Ivan’s work colleagues, doctors, and family. Even Ivan, as he analyzes his life, recognizes these human weaknesses in himself.
“Besides the reflections upon the transfers and possible changes in the department likely to result from Ivan Ilyich’s decease, the mere fact of the death of an intimate associate aroused…a complacent feeling that ‘it is he who is dead, and not I.’ ‘Now he had to go and die, but I manage things better – I am alive,’ each of them thought or felt; while Ivan Ilyich’s closer acquaintances, his so-called friends, could not help reflecting that now they would have to fulfill the exceedingly tiresome demands of propriety by attending the requiem service and paying a visit of condolence to the widow.”
How hypocritical, greedy, and unfeeling Ivan’s work colleagues are! When Ivan dies, their first thoughts are about promotions. Who will take Ivan’s place? Can they arrange departmental transfers for relatives? Though Piotr Ivanovich pays his respects to Ivan’s “stiffened limbs sunk in the padding of the coffin,” he feels uneasy during the funeral service; he would rather be somewhere else. His lack of empathy is evident when he thinks Ivan’s death should not “interfere with the cutting of a new pack of cards that very evening.” While conversing with Ivan’s wife, Praskovya Fiodorovna, Piotr recognizes his hypocrisy and is “overcome with a feeling of dread on his own account.” He plies the widow with questions about Ivan’s last days, believing that “death” was Ivan’s fault, and it couldn’t possibly happen to him. During the funeral service, Piotr keeps his head down, so he cannot see the body, for he does not wish to become melancholy. Later, he joins his friends for cards.
“Praskovya Fiodorovna, Ivan Ilyich’s wife, “having come to the conclusion that her husband…made her life miserable, she began to feel sorry for herself, and the more she pitied herself, the more she hated her husband. She began to wish he would die, yet she did not want him to die because then his salary would cease.”
Tolstoy is not kind to Praskovya Fiodorovna, describing her as irritable, hypocritical, and greedy. During his illness, Ivan’s wife and daughter have no sympathy for him, abandoning him to his lonely sickbed, while they make merry with their friends, visit the theater, or go shopping. During the funeral service, Praskovya weeps incessantly–all a façade–while she asks Piotr Ivanovich’s advice about increasing her husband’s annuity. “She knew how much could be got out of the government in consequence of her husband’s death, but wanted to find out whether she could extract something more.”
Even the highly paid, arrogant doctors, each one with his diagnosis and prognosis, create a façade. They argue that Ivan’s illness is not serious at all–certainly not a matter of life and death. They dismiss Ivan’s concerns and questions, treating the disease, never the patient. Here, Tolstoy describes other human weaknesses: vanity and power (the doctors put on airs with their imperious “enigmatical utterances”), and the compunction to deceive (Ivan’s wife dismisses his illness as trivial because she views herself as a victim).
“Ivan Ilyich’s life had been most simple, most ordinary and, therefore, most terrible.”
Ivan’s life before his illness: Tolstoy describes Ivan Ilyich as a man of “scrupulous and incorruptible integrity.” As a successful Public Prosecutor, Ivan has the power to indict and imprison anyone he chooses. He enjoys his high salary and revels in his importance. He marries Praskovya Fiodorovna. He does not love her, saying, “Why not marry? After all, she [isn’t] bad-looking…[has] some property and a private income.” After the birth of his first child, he finds married life overbearing and demanding. Ivan decides it is imperative to “fence off a world for himself outside his family life….His pleasures, where his work was concerned, lay in the gratification of ambition; his social pleasures lay in the gratification of his vanity, but his real delight was playing whist.” But, of course, nothing last forever.
Ivan’s accident and illness: During the prime of life, Ivan falls off a step-ladder and bruises his leg–not a serious injury. Then he gets a “dull gnawing ache” in his side and a bad taste in his mouth. He consults several doctors, chooses to abide by one doctor’s advice, and convinces himself that he feels better. He tries not to dwell on his illness. “It’s all nonsense, rubbish! I mustn’t give way to nervous fears.” He still works, attends to family affairs, and meets his friends for card games. However, his friends become “gloomy and silent,” and his wife declares, “You make us wretched,” telling her friends Ivan is to blame for his illness. I think the turning point for Ivan, from an active mental state to one of terror, is when he overhears his brother saying, “He’s a dead man! Look at his eyes–there’s no light in them.” Now, Ivan feels isolated: “And he had to live thus on the edge of the precipice alone, without a single soul to understand and feel for him.” The possibility of death now enters Ivan’s mind.
Ivan’s journey from life to death: We read how Ivan experiences the gamut of human emotions: disbelief, depression, anger at God and his family, and self-pity. “He longed to be petted, kissed and wept over.” He reflects on his childhood and career and feels his life has been senseless and loathsome. This realization causes him more agony and remorse than any physical pain. He finally accepts his impending death but longs to understand “what it is all for…there is no explanation! Agony, death…why?”. During his last hours, after three days of intense suffering, he pities his wife and son, not wishing to make his death painful for them. Suddenly, he does not fear death anymore. “There was no fear because there was no death either. In place of death, there was light. What joy!”
Clearly, Tolstoy was a master at analyzing human behavior. Being old himself when he wrote this story, perhaps he, like Ivan, feared death. He writes about the worst aspects of human nature: the hypocrisy of those in power (including Ivan), the greed of “the bereaved,” and people’s lack of sympathy for others. There is only one person in the novel who is patient, understanding, and kind to Ivan: the young peasant boy, Gerassim. He comforts Ivan and takes care of his physical needs until the end. Gerassim is an innocent soul, possessing the human qualities that Tolstoy most admired: a strong work ethic, a love of the land, and empathy for all living creatures.
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Sarah M. Fredericks © 2015
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