The Death of Ivan Ilyich
Title page of the 1895 Russian edition
|Original title||Смерть Ивана Ильича, (Smert' Ivana Ilyicha)|
|Translator||Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (2009)|
|Pages||114 pages (paperback)|
The Death of Ivan Ilyich (Russian: Смерть Ивана Ильича, Smert' Ivana Ilyicha), first published in 1886, is a novella by Leo Tolstoy, one of the masterpieces of his late fiction, written shortly after his religious conversion of the late 1870s.
The novella tells the story of the death, at age 45, of a high-court judge in 19th-century Russia. Living what seems to be a good life, his dreadful relationship with his wife notwithstanding, Ivan Ilyich Golovin injures his side while hanging up curtains in a new apartment intended to reflect his family's superior status in society. Within weeks, he has developed a strange taste in his mouth and a pain that will not go away. Several expensive doctors are consulted, but beyond muttering about blind gut and floating kidneys, they can neither explain nor treat his condition, and it soon becomes clear that Ivan Ilyich is dying.
The second half of the narrative records his terror as he battles with the idea of his own death. "I have been here. Now I am going there. Where? ... No, I won't have it!" Oppressed by the length of the process, his wife, daughter, colleagues, and even the physicians, decide in the end not to speak of it, but advise him to stay calm and follow doctors' orders, leaving him to wrestle with how this terrible thing could befall a man who had lived so well.
He spends his last three days screaming. He realizes he is "done for, there was no way back, the end was here, the absolute end ..." One hour before his death, in a moment of clarity, he sees that he has not, after all, lived well, but has lived only for himself. After months of dwelling on his own anguish, he suddenly feels pity for the people he's leaving behind, and hopes his death will set them free. With that thought, his pain disappears. He hears someone say, "He's gone." He whispers to himself, "Death has gone," and draws his last breath.
- Ivan Ilyich is a highly regarded official of the Court of Justice, described by Tolstoy as, "neither as cold and formal as his elder brother nor as wild as the younger, but was a happy mean between them—an intelligent, polished, lively, and agreeable man." As the story progresses, he becomes more and more introspective and emotional as he ponders the reason for his agonizing illness and death.
- Praskovya Fëdorovna Golovin is Ivan’s unsympathetic wife. She is characterized as self-absorbed and uninterested in her husband’s struggles unless they directly affect her personally.
- Gerasim is the Golovins’ young butler. He takes on the role of sole comforter and caretaker during Ivan's illness.
- Peter Ivanovich is Ivan's longtime friend and colleague. He studied law with Ivan and is the first to recognize Ivan's impending death.
- Lisa Golovin is Ivan's daughter.
- Fëdor Petrishchev is Lisa's fiancé.
Ivan Ilyich lives a carefree life that is "most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible". Like everyone he knows, he spends his life climbing the social ladder. Enduring marriage to a woman whom he often finds too demanding, he works his way up to be a magistrate, thanks to the influence he has over a friend who has just been promoted, focusing more on his work as his family life becomes less tolerable.
While hanging curtains for his new home one day, he falls awkwardly and hurts his side. Though he does not think much of it at first, he begins to suffer from a pain in his side. As his discomfort grows, his behavior towards his family becomes more irritable. His wife finally insists that he visit a physician. The physician cannot pinpoint the source of his malady, but soon it becomes clear that his condition is terminal. Confronted with his diagnosis, Ivan attempts every remedy he can to obtain a cure for his worsening situation until the pain grows so intense he is forced to cease working and spend the remainder of his days in bed. Here, he is brought face to face with his mortality, and realizes that although he knows of it, he does not truly grasp it.
During the long and painful process of death, Ivan dwells on the idea that he does not deserve his suffering because he has lived rightly. If he had not lived a good life, there could be a reason for his pain; but he has, so pain and death must be arbitrary and senseless. As he begins to hate his family for avoiding the subject of his death, for pretending he is only sick and not dying, he finds his only comfort in his peasant boy servant Gerasim, the only person in Ivan's life who does not fear death, and also the only one who, apart from his own son, shows compassion for him. Ivan begins to question whether he has, in fact, lived a good life.
In the final days of his life, Ivan makes a clear split between an artificial life, such as his own, which masks the true meaning of life and makes one fear death, and an authentic life, the life of Gerasim. Authentic life is marked by compassion and sympathy; the artificial life by self-interest. Then "some force" strikes Ivan in the chest and side, and he is brought into the presence of a bright light. His hand falls onto his nearby son's head, and Ivan pities his son. He no longer hates his daughter or wife, but rather feels pity for them, and hopes his death will release them. In so doing, his terror of death leaves him, and as Tolstoy suggests, death itself disappears.
In his article of 1997, psychologist Mark Freeman writes:
Tolstoy's book is about many things: the tyranny of bourgeois niceties, the terrible weak spots of the human heart, the primacy and elision of death. But more than anything, I would offer, it is about the consequences of living without meaning, that is, without a true and abiding connection to one's life ... (384)
Indeed, the mundane portrayal of Ivan’s life coupled with the dramatization of his long and grueling battle with death seems to directly reflect Tolstoy’s theories about moral living, which he largely derived during his sabbatical from personal and professional duties in 1877. In his lectures on Russian literature, Russian-born novelist and critic Vladimir Nabokov argues that, for Tolstoy, a sinful life (such as Ivan's) is moral death. Therefore death, the return of the soul to God, is, for Tolstoy, moral life. To quote Nabokov: "The Tolstoyan formula is: Ivan lived a bad life and since the bad life is nothing but the death of the soul, then Ivan lived a living death; and since beyond death is God's living light, then Ivan died into a new life – Life with a capital L."
The Death of Ivan Ilyich, therefore, is more than a story about death. Death permeates the narrative in a realistic and absorbing fashion but, interestingly enough, the actual physicality of death is only passively mentioned in the early chapters during Ivan’s wake. Instead, the story leads the reader through a pensive, metaphysical exploration of the reason for death and what it means to truly live. Tolstoy was a man who struggled greatly with self-doubt and spiritual reflection, especially as he grew close to his own death in 1910. In his book, A Confession, Tolstoy writes:
No matter how often I may be told, "You cannot understand the meaning of life so do not think about it, but live," I can no longer do it: I have already done it too long. I cannot now help seeing day and night going round and bringing me to death. That is all I see, for that alone is true. All else is false.
This personal epiphany caused significant spiritual upheaval in Tolstoy’s life, prompting him to question the Russian Orthodox Church, sexuality, education, serfdom, etc. The literature Tolstoy composed during this period can be considered some of his most controversial and philosophical, among which falls The Death of Ivan Ilyich and other famous short stories such as The Kreutzer Sonata and The Devil. From a biographical standpoint, therefore, it is possible to interpret The Death of Ivan Ilyich as a manifestation of Tolstoy’s embroilment with death and the meaning of his own life during his final years. In other words, by dramatizing a particular sort of lifestyle and its unbearable decline, Tolstoy is able to impart his philosophy that success, such as Ivan Ilyich’s, comes at a great moral cost and if one decides to pay this cost, life will become hollow and insincere and therefore worse than death.
Notes and references
- Jahn 1999, p. 3.
- The Death of Ivan Ilyich, pp. 57, 61.
- The Death of Ivan Ilyich, pp. 103, 106.
- Tolstoy, Leo (1886). The Death of Ivan Ilyich. The Story and Its Writer. Ed. Ann Charters: Bedford/St. Martin's (2011). pp. 794–833.
- "The Death of Ivan Ilyich". Sparknotes (2011).
- Freeman, Mark (July 1997). "Death, Narrative Integrity, and the Radical Challenge of Self-Understanding: A Reading of Tolstoy's 'Death of Ivan Ilyich'". Ageing & Society 17 (04): 373–398.
- Nabokov, p. 237
- "Leo Tolstoy". The Literature Network (2000–2011).
- "The Death of Ivan Ilyich: About the Author". The Big Read(2006–2011).
- Jahn, Gary R. (1999). Tolstoy's the Death of Ivan Ilʹich: A Critical Companion. Northwestern University Press.
- Nabokov, Vladimir Vladimirovich. Lectures On Russian Literature. Harcourt Edition.
- Tolstoy, Leo (1886). The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Penguin Red Classic edition, 2006.
- Compare English translations of The Death of Ivan Ilyich
- Translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude
- Full text in the original Russian