The Death of Ivan Illyich
by Leo Tolstoy
The Death of Ivan Illyich is a beautiful thought provoking book by Leo Tolstoy that grapples with a fundamental question. Death. Ivan Illyich is an average man. He does his regular duties and rises up to be a Court Justice. He suddenly falls victim to a fatal disease (kidney? since no one is really sure). And is dead at 45. He goes from perfectly healthy to pale and suffering in a few weeks to terminal condition in a week afer that. He suffers the last three days in absolute agony before passing away. The above description nor the title (duh!) should not put you off one bit. Please let me explain.
Tolstoy has signature way of beginning his books or the description of a person. In Anna Karenina, it was the epic first line.
"All happy families are alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way".
In this book, the description of Ivan Illyich starts thus.
"Ivan Ilych's life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.".
The story begins with Ivan’s colleagues discussing the news that Ivan Illyich is dead. First the shock. Then the complacent feeling that “it is he who is dead, not I” and then they actually feel sad for themselves that they have to attend the funeral and pay a condolence visit to the widow. Then the story moves on to the funeral service, where Ivan’s best friend Peter Ivanovich meets the widow, Praskoyva Fedorovna. On one hand, Praskoyva is seen describing, “For the last three days he screamed incessantly. It was unendurable. I cannot understand how I bore it; Oh, what I have suffered!”. For a quick moment, Peter feels what it would be if he went through and immediately dismisses the thought of death and proceeds to ask questions about the suffering since it happened to someone else. Praskoyva promptly proceeds to ask about the pension she would be due and how much more she could possibly get.
The next few chapters go about setting up the story for us of Ivan Illyich’s life. I liked how Tolstoy described the late 1800s Russia to us of how there are some Government jobs which exists solely for its own reason.
which brings men to positions from which by reason of their long service they cannot be dismissed, though they are obviously unfit to hold any responsible position, and for whom therefore posts are specially created, which though fictitious carry salaries of from six to ten thousand rubles that are not fictitious.
Yet again explaining the average individual that Ivan was, Tolstoy explains how he rationalizes about getting married thus.
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. So Ivan Ilych got married. And Ivan Ilych evolved such an attitude towards married life. He only required of it those conveniences—dinner at home, housewife, and bed—which it could give him, and above all that propriety of external forms required by public opinion.
Of course, after a few months, things are not as it seems and there is constant fight between Ivan and his wife. And how he tries to balance his life. Then he doesn’t get a promotion he has been hoping for and gets mad at the authorities, quits his job and moves cities and then eventually gets a better job and proves him. All the usual mid-life drama with class.
Fast forward to the part where he eventually feels terribly ill, he contemplates each action of his wondering if a small fall could’ve caused all this.
"What is it all for?" "It really is so! I lost my life over that curtain as I might have done when storming a fort. Is that possible? How terrible and how stupid. It can't be true! It can't, but it is."
At this point in the story appears the most beautiful character, Gerasim. He is an assistant to the butler but has a very honest outlook on life. And he is Ivan Illyich’s only consolation. There is this one exchange where Ivan feels very bad that someone has to help him with doing his daily duties.
this was a torment to him every time—a torment from the uncleanliness, the unseemliness, and the smell, and from knowing that another person had to take part in it.
And he calls Gerasim and explains his sad situation.
"That must be very unpleasant for you. You must forgive me. I am helpless." "Oh, why, sir," and Gerasim's eyes beamed and he showed his glistening white teeth, "what's a little trouble? It's a case of illness with you, sir." Gerasim did it all easily, willingly, simply, and with a good nature that touched Ivan Ilych. Health, strength, and vitality in other people were offensive to him, but Gerasim's strength and vitality did not mortify but soothed him. What tormented Ivan Ilych most was the deception, the lie, which for some reason they all accepted, that he was not dying but was simply ill, and that he only need keep quiet and undergo a treatment and then something very good would result.
Gerasim’s view of life is that it is one’s duty to help another. That if he helps someone, then someone else may help him when his time comes. And very outright knowledge : “we shall all of us die”.
"We shall all of us die, so why should I grudge a little trouble?"—expressing the fact that he did not think his work burdensome, because he was doing it for a dying man and hoped someone would do the same for him when his time came.
The next few descriptions are particularly moving as Ivan Illyich goes through anger, despair, hopelessness and self pity.
He wept on account of his helplessness, his terrible loneliness, the cruelty of man, the cruelty of God, and the absence of God. "Why hast Thou done all this? Why hast Thou brought me here? Why, why dost Thou torment me so terribly?" "Go on! Strike me! But what is it for? What have I done to Thee? What is it for?"
And the back and forth with himself at various stages. I will provide just a short sample.
"Why, to live as I used to—well and pleasantly." "As you lived before, well and pleasantly?" the voice repeated. all that had then seemed joys now melted before his sight and turned into something trivial and often nasty. "It is as if I had been going downhill while I imagined I was going up. And that is really what it was. I was going up in public opinion, but to the same extent life was ebbing away from me. And now it is all done and there is only death. It can't be that life is so senseless and horrible. But if it really has been so horrible and senseless, why must I die and die in agony? There is something wrong! "Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done," it suddenly occurred to him. "But how could that be, when I did everything properly?" Why, and for what purpose, is there all this horror? But however much he pondered he found no answer. And whenever the thought occurred to him, as it often did, that it all resulted from his not having lived as he ought to have done,
Then he reaches the stage of acceptance.
"What is this? Can it be that it is Death?" And the inner voice answered: "Yes, it is Death." "Why these sufferings?" And the voice answered, "For no reason—they just are so." "Resistance is impossible!" he said to himself. "If I could only understand what it is all for! But that too is impossible. An explanation would be possible if it could be said that I have not lived as I ought to. But it is impossible to say that,"
There is then the section where the rest of the family carries on with their life. His daughter even asks “Is it our fault?” Lisa said to her mother. “It’s as if we were to blame! I am sorry for papa, but why should we be tortured?”. They go on with their dances and theaters. Ivan Illyich comes to the sad realization: “Yes, I am making them wretched,” he thought. “They are sorry, but it will be better for them when I die.”
With that he is ready to go. He has realized that there is no more question to ask, no more reason why. He looks for his pain. He cannot find it. And the story finishes thus.
"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!" "It is finished!" said someone near him. He heard these words and repeated them in his soul. "Death is finished," he said to himself. "It is no more!" He drew in a breath, stopped in the midst of a sigh, stretched out, and died.
A moving story with so much wisdom and thoughts to ponder about. I personally was putting off this book just because of its title. Thank goodness that I would read another book (a course on “Meaning of Life”) and listen to the Professor going full blast on Ivan Illyich and I couldn’t stop myself. All of Tolstoy’s books are free. Yes, they are all in Russian but there are enough translations. This book is not as popular as “War and Peace” or “Anna Karenina”. Your best bet is to get a curated kindle version for less than a dollar. It’s worth it and it comes with the entire collection of Tolstoy.
This has been a very rewarding book and reading.
Meaning of life - to be continued.