The Death of Ivan Ilyich (Smert' Ivana Il'icha) by Lev Tolstoi, 1886
THE DEATH OF IVAN ILYICH (Smert' Ivana Il'icha)
by Lev Tolstoi, 1886
Lev Tolstoi's career falls into two fairly distinct phases: the master of realism as demonstrated in his two great novels War and Peace (Voing i mir) and Anna Karenina, and the religious mystic whose fiction sometimes resembled polemical tracts more than traditional stories. Many readers find that the second phase suffers, in purely literary terms, compared to the first. In at least one work, though, "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" ("Smert' Ivana Il'icha"), the two phases meet in one of the most memorable short stories ever written.
Until the very end of the story Tolstoi's later concerns—religion and mysticism—seem hardly in evidence. Throughout most of Ivan's life his interests lay in everything but the spiritual; since the story is an account of his life it is only proper that little of it concerns the spiritual. But that is exactly the point.
The title of the story is both highly appropriate and appropriately misleading—"appropriately" because the reader, like Ivan himself, is fooled into thinking that death has been the important issue when the climax of the story clearly shows that death is irrelevant.
This is not to say that death is given slight shrift in the story. Indeed, one could argue that no more vivid, harrowing, and moving account of dying has ever been written. The reader is spared none of the physical and emotional trauma of a wasting illness: a floating kidney, according to the doctors, but the story warns against putting too much faith in the medical profession. Here is Tolstoi the realist with his matchless eye for physical and psychological detail: the wife's bad breath, the bowel movements, the numerous but futile tricks with which Ivan tries to convince himself that he is getting better, but most of all the pain, incessant and remorseless. Ivan screams for three days before his death.
A large portion of the story is taken up with this graphic account of Ivan's dying—but not all of it. The accident that eventually leads to his death is not introduced, in fact, until one-third of the way into the story. Furthermore, if this is merely the story of a man's dying, why does the entire lengthy first section transpire after Ivan's death? Indeed, Ivan and perhaps even the reader does not realize his experience's true relevance until it occurs to him that his dying is so terrible because "maybe I did not live as I ought to have done" (translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude). At that point it is obvious that Ivan's life, not his death, has been Tolstoi's chief concern.
What kind of life was it? The perceptive reader will not be as easily fooled as Ivan into believing that before the accident his life passed, as the story's refrain would have it, "pleasantly and properly." To be sure Ivan seemed to be successful in all the outward, material ways, but that is just the issue for Tolstoi, the religious mystic who believed that one should live simply and spiritually, governed only by the most fundamental Christian precepts: love God, love one another.
The first section of the story is indeed of little consequence if the story's theme hinges on how Ivan died; but if we concern ourselves rather with how he lived, the first section is illuminating. The evidence shows, sadly, that Ivan left little mark on the people—colleagues, friends, and relatives—to whom he was closest. The story opens with the announcement of Ivan's death. His colleagues are momentarily taken aback, but their principal concern is soon evident: how they might benefit from his judge's position being vacated. In a very few moments they are joking once more, making plans for a game of cards, trying to decide if there is any recourse from the irksome task of attending his funeral. At the funeral the reader encounters Ivan's grieving wife, but clearly her emotion is aroused more by her own suffering ("For three days he screamed incessantly…. I cannot understand how I bore it") than for her late husband's. In accepting condolences from Ivan's best friend (who could not think of a reasonable excuse for avoiding the funeral), she is more interested in his opinion of her chances of receiving a large pension than in his fond remembrances of Ivan. Only Ivan's son, glimpsed fleetingly, shows what appears to be genuine grief.
Why did Ivan elicit so little regard from friends and family? Essentially they gave back what they got from him: little worth having. He married his wife, for instance, not because of any profound love but because she fit into his picture of what comprised a pleasant life. When she began to upset his pleasant routine by making "unreasonable" demands on his time and patience—when she became pregnant—his solution was not to become more understanding, patient, and loving but to leave the house and devote himself to his friends and career. The fact that his children are barely mentioned in the subsequent account of his life is not evidence that Tolstoi ignored them but that Ivan ignored them.
When he is injured, then, tortured by pain and fear, Ivan elicits the same degree of devotion and compassion that he offered his family: precious little. Indeed, it is the lack of love and understanding that plagues him even more than his floating kidney. Significantly his only solace comes through the person of Gerasim, a simple peasant who tends him with honest goodness and caring. Ivan's pain stops only when Gerasim holds his legs up—testament to Ivan's craving for human contact.
It is another human touch that leads Ivan to his final epiphany. Thrashing about in his death agony Ivan touches his son's head. The grieving son catches his father's hand and kisses it. For perhaps the first time in his life Ivan puts someone else's feelings before his own; he realizes he is making others wretched. At the same time he realizes that death is natural, inevitable, and, compared to the simple virtues of living, inconsequential. Instead of fearful darkness before him he sees a joyous light. His last thought is: "Death is finished. It is no more."
The most somber and forbidding of stories, "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" is also the most optimistic. It shows that a man can live his entire life in darkness but in the final moment be resurrected into the light.