Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy
To many, death is but an afterthought to the conversation of life. And even then, such a thought is fleeting all the same. Because why think about dying when one is busy living life? Why think about something so alien to one when one is trying to achieve success and material wealth and happiness? Why think about death when it is hard enough trying to live life? Why think about death when it only happens to others and could not possibly happen to oneself?
The consequence of such an attitude is the death of one's spiritual, moral and emotional life, even without one's knowledge (Kamm, 2003, 209). One chooses may neglect the spiritual, moral and emotional aspects of one's life because the things that one cannot explain, one leaves upon the shelf for another day. One gets wrapped up in the physical and mechanical world because one cannot control death but one can always control how one lives one's life (Verno, 2009). And it is easier to grasp only what is tangible and to attain what is material (Verno, 2009).
The irony of man's brilliance is that he prioritizes the superficial and takes for granted what is more important. Thus, happiness is shallow and self-centered (Verno, 2009). 'Happiness' is defined by one's own wealth and status and not what should really matter, such as building and cultivating relationships with others. One pushes such relationships aside because as fast as time flies, one may always feel that one will always have the time- later- to be compassionate and to show one's love to others (Verno, 2009). However, time runs out when death- most unwelcome- knocks at one's door, death then becomes not only a harsh reality but a most unfriendly reminder of how one has chosen to live one's life.
Such is Leo Tolstoy's (1886) story of the Death of Ivan Ilych. Ivan Ilych is a man of great stature who is forced to deal with death with the news that he is dying. As a successful judge in public office, Ivan rises in rank not by any special traits but by 'a knack of being at the right place at the right time' (Valente, 1991, 128). He is a stereotypical selfish, materialistic rich man whose life has no significant meaning or purpose (Valente, 128). In short, the life of Ivan Ilych was "most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible" (Tolstoy, 1886, 6).
Confronted with the reality of his death, Ivan suffers immense physical pain because of his sins and struggles to accept his fate (Tolstoy, 1886). However, he also learns the truth about the value of his life, the triviality of things he once deemed important, and tries to rectify his situation by dying in the right way (Kamm, 2003, 209). As such, it is only in dying that Ivan learns how to live.
Fittingly, Tolstoy introduces the reader to Ivan and the characters of the people in his world through the news of Ivan's death. His supposedly close friend, Peter Ivanovich, announces Ivan's death to his peers in a private room: "Gentlemen," he said, "Ivan Ilych has died!" (Tolstoy, 1886, 1). To this, his companions exclaim, "You don't say so!" (Tolstoy, 1886, 1). However, each man was selfishly thinking of how Ivan's death could even benefit their own advancement in their careers. "So on receiving the news of Ivan Ilych's death, the first thought of each of the gentlemen in that private room was of the changes and promotions it might occasion among themselves of their acquaintances" (Tolstoy, 1886, 2).
Other than these already shameless thoughts, Tolstoy also describes the men's shallow attempts to grieve "And I haven't been to see him since the holidays. I always meant to go" and what a burden Ivan's funeral would be on them, "We shall have to go see her (they are referring to Ivan's widow, Praskovya Fedorovna Golovina) but they live to far away" (Tolstoy, 1886, 2). More so, Tolstoy illustrates the men's detachment to Ivan's death and their detachment to death, in general.
Besides the considerations to the possible transfers and promotions likely to result from Ivan Ilych's death, the mere fact 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" (Tolstoy, 1886, 2).
At the funeral, Praskovya Fedorovna thinks only of herself when she speaks to Peter Ivanovich of Ivan's suffering and most importantly, how it caused her own suffering (Hustis, 2000).
"He suffered terribly the last few days."
"Did he?" said Peter Ivanovich.
"Oh, terribly! He screamed unceasingly, not for minutes but for hours. For the last three days he screamed incessantly. It was unendurable. I cannot understand how I bore it; you could hear him three rooms off. Oh, what I have suffered!" (Tolstoy, 1886, 5).
Still while in conversation with Peter, Praskovya seems more concerned with how to get her personal finances from the government than on her husband's death (Tolstoy, 1886,). Thus, at the early stages of the story, Tolstoy depicts Ivan's world as a shallow, materialistic, and self-centered one, which may lead one to the conclusion that the people around him contributed largely to his 'demise' as a human (Kamm, 2003).
In stark contrast to the selfishness of these characters is Ivan's servant, Gerasim. Gerasim, a man of low social status but who willingly accepts the universal truth that death is inevitable and that it will come to all- whether rich or poor (Hustis, 2000). In the application of death to himself and not just to another, the character of Gerasim was a fresh change to Ivan's life. More so, Gerasim had the patience to bear Ivan's ill-temper and outbursts as well as the capacity to assist and console Ivan during his pain and suffering (Hustis, 2000, 268).
Gerasim was a clean, fresh peasant lad… always cheerful and bright.
"Oh why, sir" and Gerasim's eye's beamed and he showed his glistening white teeth showed, "what's a little trouble? it's a case of illness with you, sir." (Tolstoy, 1886, 22)
Further, Ivan felt more comfortable and at ease in Gerasim's presence as it was only Gerasim who not only acknowledged the truth that Ivan was, in fact, dying and not just ill but he told him so. "If you weren't sick, it would be another matter, but as it is, why should I grudge a little trouble?...He even said straight out: "We shall all of us die, so why should I grudge a little trouble?" (Tolstoy, 1886, 23- 24).
Ivan was grateful for this honesty, especially since he felt that his wife, his daughter and his doctors were not only lying to him about his condition but trivializing his current condition and not showing him the pity that he wanted, as they were going about their daily routines as if nothing was wrong. "Many times as they were going through their antics over him he been within a hairbreadth of calling out to them: "Stop lying! You know that I am dying. Then at least stop lying about it!" (Tolstoy, 1886, 23).
Ultimately, Ivan realizes that he is no different from the people that he is most angry at. As a judge, he himself sentenced men to prison not thinking twice about the impact it had on their lives. Tolstoy describes Ivan's detachment as the need to "exclude everything fresh and vital" in order to maintain "official relations" with those he had business with and as soon as the business was over, or the official relations, so was everything else (Tolstoy, 1886, 13). No compassion, no sympathy, no nothing- it makes life much easier.
Ivan's pain, then, stems not only from his physical condition but also his spiritual awakening. All his life, he believed that he was living it correctly. He was successful and ambitious man with more than enough material wealth and social connections. Yet, Ivan soon admits to himself that it this materialism that he lived for was the very thing that killed him, i.e., his fall while hanging his drapes in his newly decorated home. Further, though he was connected to a very many wealthy individuals, none of them came to him in his time of need. On the contrary, Gerasim, a man considered to be of low social status was the only one compassionate enough to be endure him and keep him company in his times of loneliness.
Thus, Ivan's struggle was not with death per se but with the life that he once lived and if his fear of not being able to redeem himself in time for his death. He blames such unfairness on God but knows that he is the only one to blame. With this acknowledgement, he wishes to live as he once did- well and pleasantly but his memories of what is well and pleasant have also changed. They have veered away from the material comforts or…