A man dies slowly and in great agony. He ponders the meaning of life, and this increases his anguish: even worse than the physical pain of a slow, lingering death is the spiritual anguish of realising he has wasted his life.
Tolstoy’s main target here is dishonesty and hypocrisy. This is established from the opening scene, when Ivan Ilyich’s death is announced, and the reaction of his colleagues is to think about how this will affect their promotion chances, while speaking the usual lines about it being a “sad business” and so on. Even his widow, Praskovya Fiodorovna, is more concerned about herself than her dead husband: after telling a mourner about his three days and nights of incessant screaming, she says “Oh, what I have gone through!” Then she tries to find out how she can increase the government pension money due to her from her husband’s death.
Then Tolstoy takes us on a quick tour back through Ivan Ilyich’s life, showing us that he also participated fully in this dishonesty, concerning himself with appearances and advancement. In every decision, even marriage, he is heavily influenced by what other people will think. With each promotion in his career as a judge, he attains more power and money, but it’s never enough. At each stage he simply spends more money imitating people higher in the social scale than he is, and wanting to attain that next level. It’s not coincidental that he sustains his fatal injury while climbing a ladder to show a workman exactly how he wants a new curtain to be hung. The novel is saturated with vanity, pettiness and materialism, and they cause Ivan Ilyich’s spiritual and physical death.
Long before Kubler-Ross, Tolstoy hit on the stages of grief in the character Ivan Ilyich. He goes through denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, although not always in that order. He often swings violently between the different emotions, depending on his own state of mind and on outside events like a doctor getting his hopes up.
The only examples of honesty in the book are in children (both Ivan Ilyich’s own childhood and his young son Vassya) and in the character of Gerassim, the butler’s assistant. Vassya and Gerassim don’t lie to him or see him as an inconvenience – they display simple human affection and love for him.
Indeed, love seems to be what Tolstoy is saying life is all about – not romantic love necessarily, but a broader kind of love for your fellow human beings and for God. This is what was missing from Ivan Ilyich’s life as he immersed himself in petty advancement and the acquisition of meaningless accoutrements. This deathbed revelation at first causes him great agony as he rages against all the lost time, but in the end it’s what allows him to find peace.
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In his book Soul Survivor (awful title, but fantastic book) The American writer Philip Yancey has a wonderful essay on Tolstoy and shows what a complex man he was. He says, “Up to the moment of his death the diaries and letters kept circling back to the rueful theme of failure, exposing the gap between gospel ideals and the contradictions of his own life. Too honest for self-deception, he could not silence the conscience that convicted him.” Yet Yancey concludes that he found in Tolstoy’s stories “a source of moral power”.
Soul Survivor sounds like a 1970s disco song. But the book sounds interesting – “too honest for self-deception” is a great description for Tolstoy. In so much of his work, and particularly The Death of Ivan Ilyich, it seems to be dishonesty that he finds absolutely intolerable. Makes for a difficult life, though – most of us use a little self-deception to be able to participate in this bizarre world we have created.