Leo Tolstoy: The Death of Ivan Ilyich, 1886

Lilias Buchanan: “Gerasim” from the series of illustrations for “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”

Ivan Ilyich’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.

My local Fiercely Independent Community Bookstore scheduled this book for this month’s Classic Book Club meeting. Being embarrassingly deficient in my Classic Lit, I read it. As it happened, it was raining on the night of the meeting, so I didn’t go (yes, I’m a wimp). But at least I read it, and therefore I can still post about it.

Not that it needs much posting about; it’s one of the most reviewed books on the Internet, including a wealth of material at the NEA’s Big Read site. The novella in translation is available online as well.

I have this problem with “classic” literature. It’s like with Star Wars. Yes, Star Wars, the original Star Wars. I saw it (with a geek friend) in 1977 (and like everyone else in the theatre, thought they’d got the reels out of order when “Episode IV” rolled across the screen), and it was astonishing. Lightsabers, complete with Doppler shift sound effects! All those incredible aliens in the bar! The homage to the classic Western! Holy cow, have you ever seen anything that amazing?!? If you’re under, oh, 30, you’re probably wondering what the big deal is, because, gee, it’s a movie. The big deal is, this was in the era before PCs and smartphones – before Pacman, for pete’s sake. It was new, and it was spectacular.

So maybe it’s hard for me to get excited about The Death of Ivan Ilyich because I’ve been reading books about dying for decades. Kübler-Ross published On Death and Dying almost a decade before Star Wars, in fact. The white light and sense of peace has been part of the culture for a couple of generations now.

Not to mention literature about the shallowness of societal demands and the too-late realization that one has lived an empty life chasing The American – or The Tzarist Russian – Dream. Nearly 20 years ago Paul Tsongas’ book Heading Home, about his own impending death, quoted the wisdom of his friend, Arnold Zack: “Nobody on his deathbed ever said, I wish I had spent more time at the office.” Methinks Zack read Ilyich. That was, by the way, a century after Tolstoy wrote his novella.

Hey – I wonder how Tolstoy knew all about that stuff back in 1886? Maybe that’s why it’s so classic, y’think? Aha – the light dawns.

In terms of the story itself, there’s a progressive mounting of tension, culminating in said death. But – hey, it’s a book, that’s what books are supposed to do. What else you got?

What interests me most is how this fits in with Tolstoy’s biography. He underwent a crisis of faith in the early 1880s and decided the Russian Orthodox Church, and his aristocratic background, had misguided his life. This story/novella is an expression of his new brand of spirituality (which got him excommunicated in 1892); the character of Gerasim, the servant who is the only one able to offer Ilyich any comfort, manifests his belief in peasants as those closest to God.

Gerasim is the only one who isn’t awkward around the dying Ilyich; he elevates Ilyich’s legs on his shoulders for hours at a time, which somehow brings some relief from the pain. The generosity isn’t lost on Ilyich, or on the reader, which is why I chose that particular illustration from Lilias Buchanan’s wonderful series of illustrations to accompany this story. This character matches my experience with the current American health care system: distance from actual hands-on patient care and impact upon patient comfort is inversely proportional to a health care worker’s status and pay. Your doctor may give the orders that cure your disease, but your CNA will make you feel better (or turn life into living hell. It works both ways).

The structure is also worthy of note. We start with the end: Ilyich’s funeral. His friends pay their respects but really have their regularly scheduled card game on their minds. Peter, his closest friend – who is not all that close – is made most uncomfortable when he sees Ilyich laid out, particularly when he sees the expression on the dead man’s face:

The expression on the face said that what was necessary had been accomplished, and accomplished rightly. Besides this there was in that expression a reproach and a warning to the living. This warning seemed to Peter Ivanovich out of place, or at least not applicable to him. He felt a certain discomfort and so he hurriedly crossed himself once more and turned and went out of the door — too hurriedly and too regardless of propriety, as he himself was aware.

By the end of the book, the reader is certain that Ilyich himself probably experienced the same discomfort, the same feeling that “this has nothing to do with me,” many times himself. So while this chapter provides a preview of how little impact Ilyich’s life had on those around him (other than an interest in who might assume his position in the court), it’s also an indication of how Peter Ivanovich might spend his last days on this earth – that he, too, might repeat the same mistakes Ilyich learned from too late, because he shows no sign of pondering his own mortality.

Ilyich’s marriage seems to have started out well, considering:

To say that Ivan Ilyich married because he fell in love with Praskovya Fedorovna and found that she sympathized with his views of life would be as incorrect as to say that he married because his social circle approved of the match. He was swayed by both these considerations: the marriage gave him personal satisfaction, and at the same time it was considered the right thing by the most highly placed of his associates.

But this sours as time goes on, and as his career path fails to meet his expectations. His career makes a recovery, which is more than we can say for Ilyich, who injures himself while hanging draperies in his new house, the house he’s so proud of now that his position is more in line with his expectations. It’s hard to resist the urge to diagnose; does the fall have anything to do with his illness? That seems to me to be the clear implication, that his promotion (and his obnoxious insistence on things being done a certain way rather than relying on those who know how to climb ladders and hang draperies) is directly responsible for his death.

His denial is shared by his doctors, family, and friends, whose refusal to acknowledge the obvious decline in health is more for their comfort than his. I recognize some bargaining (he hires a “celebrity doctor”) and then anger at his family and depression. He doesn’t reach acceptance until two hours before his death (and about a hundred words before the end of the novella):

And suddenly it grew clear to him that what had been oppressing him and would not leave his was all dropping away at once from two sides, from ten sides, and from all sides. He was sorry for them, he must act so as not to hurt them: release them and free himself from these sufferings. “How good and how simple!” he thought. “And the pain?” he asked himself. “What has become of it? Where are you, pain?”
He turned his attention to it.
“Yes, here it is. Well, what of it? Let the pain be.”
“And death…where is it?”
He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. “Where is it? What death?” There was no fear because there was no death.
In place of death there was light.
“So that’s what it is!” he suddenly exclaimed aloud. “What joy!”

Notwithstanding the title “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” the death itself occurs only in the last sentence, with only the first chapter devoted to the aftereffects. I’m pretty convinced this is because his life, as lived, had no significant aftereffects, and that is in fact the moral point being made. It’s our lives that make our deaths significant; in Ilyich’s case, it’s a matter of rescheduling a card game, and that’s about it. One of the readers in the NEA Audio Guide mentions how the initial chapter also firmly establishes there will be no remission for Ilyich; there’s no tension of whether or not he will die, but merely how, and how his life will affect his death. This is pretty much the case for all of us, and is a point Tolstoy included via structure. His own personal crisis of faith seems to have begun with the visceral realization of the fact that he would, in fact, die. It’s one thing to know, intellectually, that everyone dies; it’s quite another to truly grasp it.

Since we know from the first chapter Ilyich is going to die – there will be no miracle cure – where is the suspense of the novella? Just as in Real Life: We know we will die; it is how we live, and how we die, that matters, not avoiding death, but fulfilling our lives. The suspense, in Ilyich’s case, is: will he figure that out, or die a bitter man? Will he find peace?

I kept thinking of my own family as I read the book. My mother died when I was nine; she was rarely mentioned again, as no one wanted to “upset” me. In retrospect, it was probably their own “upset” they were avoiding. I grew up thinking it was something to be ashamed of, having a dead mother, so I avoided telling anyone. By the time my father died 30 years later, my family hadn’t changed much, but I had.

So maybe this particular piece of classic literature is more current than I first thought. Maybe that’s why classic lit becomes classic – because it sends out ripples that are picked up by other works, because it has meaning across oceans and cultures and centuries – because it lasts. Y’think?

One response to “Leo Tolstoy: The Death of Ivan Ilyich, 1886

  1. Pingback: Lara Vapnyar: “Fischer vs. Spassky” from The New Yorker, 10/8/12 | A Just Recompense

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