Tolstoy, who is so often associated with the big, the broad and the epic in terms of his writing, was also a master of the intimate and the personal, as seen in the perfectly formed novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich.
Where a novel like War and Peace is cinematic in its exploration of humanity, Ivan Ilyich is almost microscopic in its focus on what it means to be human and to face the knowledge of our own death.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich, as the title suggests, is the story of the final months of one relatively ordinary man – a reasonably successful middle-aged Russian judge. He has a good enough job, a nice enough home, a wife and two children. Feeling the pressure of society to move up in the world, he gets a better paying job and a larger home.
While decorating said home to the tastes of the day, he incurs an apparently trivial injury (knocking his side while hanging curtains) that very quickly develops into something more sinister. Doctors can’t agree on what is wrong and offer treatments and reassurances but in a matter of weeks, it is clear to Ivan that he is facing death, with all the pain, indignity and loneliness that illness brings.
Plot-wise, it is relatively straightforward, but this is an incredibly precise piece of work with a perfect structure. The death of Ivan Ilyich is announced at the start of the novella and Tolstoy examines the effect his death has on his colleagues. Their response is sobering.
Besides consideration as to the possible transfers and promotions likely to result from Ivan Ilyich’s death, the mere fact that of the death of a near acquaintance aroused, as usual, in all who heard of it the complacent feeling that, “it is he who is dead and not I”
For most of his family and colleagues, his death is an inconvenience. It is an unscheduled funeral to attend, a game of cards missed and an unwelcome reminder of their own mortality.
When Ivan’s colleague Peter Ivanovich comes to view the body, he feels ‘a reproach and a warning to the living’ emanating from Ivan’s dead face, but instead chooses to see
The expression on the face said that what was necessary had been accomplished, and accomplished rightly.
This is ironic, because over the coming short but brutal tale, Ilyich, when faced with the certainty of his death, realises that nothing has been accomplished and by doing what he believed was ‘right’, life has passed him by.
Some critics suggest that Ilyich, through the life he has lead, deserves to see how he has not really lived at all, but I didn’t feel that from the novella. Yes, Tolstoy presents his protagonist as shallow, dull and opportunistic but he also describes him as ‘an intelligent, polished, lively and agreeable man’.
He forges a successful career that he doesn’t really have a passion for and marries well to a woman he doesn’t really love. He lives a successful, ordinary life. A life not dissimilar to many lives, to our own lives. And that in some ways is what makes this novella so affecting.As Tolstoy points out
Ivan Ilyich’s life has been the most simple and ordinary and therefore the most terrible
Tolstoy presents Ilyich with no real stylistic flourishes. The writing is spare, focused and harsh and as Ivan’s pain, isolation and fear grows, so too does our sympathy and ultimately our identification with the dying man. We are forced to examine life along with Ilyich and in some ways, asked to question how we live ourselves.
As death consumes Ivan, slowly and in detail, he is forced to come to terms with the fact that his proper life has not been a good one. That everything he thought was the right thing to do has brought him no real happiness. His struggle with this idea is equated with his struggle with death itself,
And every moment, despite all his efforts he was drawing nearer and nearer to what terrified him. He felt that his agony was due to his being thrust into that black hole and still more to his not being able to get right into it. He was hindered from getting into it by his conviction that his life had been a good one. That very justification of his life held him fast and prevented his moving forward, and it caused him the most torment of all.
But as Ivan Ilyich’s prolonged dying proceeds on, so his awakening begins. He finds solace in the care shown to him by his peasant servant Gerasim, whose lack of disgust at Ilyich’s physical state and simple acknowledgement of the reality death becomes a solace and a lesson for the dying man.
Ivan Ilyich finally gains acceptance of what his life has been just as death comes.
He sought his 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!”
Tolstoy’s memento mori is undoubtedly a harrowing read, but it is also a very moving one. For such a slim volume, it is about many things that are still universal today – societal pressures to conform, consumerism, vanity and the fear of illness. But above all, it is a unique treatise on the need to connect, both with family and friends, but also with life.
Like all great literature, it urges us to find meaning in our lives before it is too late.
I’d like to thank the brilliant Poppy Peacock for nudging me towards this one as part of Novella November. It’s been languishing on my shelves since about 2000 when I bought it after seeing Ivansxtc, a great film adaptation starring Danny Huston which transposes Ivan from Russia in the late 1800s to Hollywood in the 1990s. That the modernisation works so well is testament to the relevance of the source material.
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