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. Continue reading