The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy: A Story for All Souls

A man lies on his deathbed—screaming; screaming for three days without cessation. Even behind closed doors, the sound horrifies all who hear even its muffled suggestion. The death of Ivan Ilych was no peaceful affair. It was a fight literally to the death; and it is a struggle we all must undergo, for we all must die.

We all must die.

No matter how common this truth, it is still brutal in brevity—more like a grim sentence than a grammatical sentence. How one confronts it makes all the difference. Some confront it with John Donne’s sonnet, “Death Be Not Proud.” Others share St. John’s vision: “And behold a pale horse, and he that sat upon him, his name was Death, and hell followed him.” Whether serene or screaming, we all play Hamlet:

…To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to dream; aye, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.

At this dying time of year, human thoughts and liturgies turn toward the departed; and hence, the human obligation to die:

What is the purpose of life?

What occurs after death?

Such existential meditations are central in Leo Tolstoy’s writings; and perhaps never presented with such emotional, fearful force as in his short work, The Death of Ivan Ilych. A source of this novella’s power lies in the fact that its conflicts and revelations reflect Tolstoy’s own in many ways.

One night, at a country inn in Arzamas, Tolstoy had a life-changing experience. He felt assured that Death was present within the house. The incident actually drove the writer to mental prostration, spurring him to the study of religion and doctrines of death to overcome his dread of mortality. Ultimately, he rejected Boethian consolations of philosophy and Biblical fortifications of faith in favor of the simple worldview of the Russian rustic, whose honest acceptance of death bore the wisdom of ages.

Tolstoy Death MaskTolstoy upheld that the uneducated, underestimated poor were the preservers of Christianity. He struggled against the forms of orthodox civilization and the Orthodox Church, following instead the serf’s faith and fellowship. Towards the end of his life, he wore only peasant garb and refused all royalties for his writings. Despite this shift into simplicity, Tolstoy’s passionate radicalism had already driven a wedge between him and his wife, Sofya. Mutual resentments led to such strife that Tolstoy, aged eighty-two, left her. He boarded a train for a monastery where he might live out his remaining days, but fell ill in transit and died in a railroad station.

Leo Tolstoy was an artist attracted to extremes, and his work scrutinizes extreme situations—situations of life and death. The Death of Ivan Ilych is a perfect example. Ivan Ilych: a man engulfed in the habits of a class bred by hypocrisy—a sine qua non of cosmopolitan courtesy. He is as disingenuous as anyone in his social circle: nurturing shallow yet fashionable friendships, forcing a bad marriage that looked good, and utilizing career to define his worth. He labors on the judge’s bench, claws for seniority, navigates marital altercations, and plays bridge. It is only when his life unexpectedly dwindles to death (sustaining an injury hanging curtains) that he tries to comfort himself with a life well lived; and realizes the lie that his life is.

Faced with his end, Ivan Ilych learned the unbearable truth that he was dead long before he was called to die. He had participated in a vast vanity. Every detail of his life mocked him with hollow insincerity; from his wife’s disdainful assurances that he would recover, to his watch-chain medallion engraved with Respice finem, “be mindful of the end.” Too late, the unmindful Ivan Ilych saw his life as artificial rather than authentic.

Ivan Ilych placed all his chips on the modern, material, rational world and lost his bet. There was a time when he had no concern for lowly, backward folk like his butler’s assistant, Gerasim—until he discovered that Gerasim was the only person who actually treated him like a dying man. This hearty, healthy country youth admitted that all that live must die—and so administered to his master with patience and sympathy. For some time, Ivan Ilych found no comfort save for the human touch that Gerasim provided as he good-naturedly and tirelessly held the dying man’s legs up to relieve his pain—the pain of malady and the pain of knowledge that he had not lived as he ought to have.

Despite these periods of relief, Ivan Ilych fought to rationalize his way out of the “black sack” that death was thrusting him into with indomitable force. But there was no way out. The Judge was coming for the judge. Ivan Ilych dragged rationality to its limit—and then began screaming like an animal. He would have screamed all the way into his grave had it not been for a second touch—a touch more intimate than his selfless servant’s: a touch from his son. A peace that Ivan Ilych had never known was imparted by this touch because he had never known love. The black sack suddenly became a life-giving womb. At last, Ivan Ilych was able to surrender to death without screaming.

Ivan Ilych’s physical life had been spiritual death.

His physical death was spiritual life.

Tolstoy believed that crisis was necessary to comprehend the essential. Ivan Ilych is a testament to this belief. He was by all accounts a successful man—who found that his life was a failure when he had to lose it. Everything he thought solid and profitable was a sham and a lie when he weighed it as the substance of a good life. It was only through direct and genuine human contact that Ivan Ilych was saved and grasped that, though death eclipses the concerns of life, love endures.

The irony of Ivan Ilych’s death is devastating in itself and as a condemnation of the facades of sophisticated society. This devastation does not, however, extend to the recognition of the reality of death—only to one poor soul’s struggle for compromise. Ivan Ilych’s attitude toward life changed through dying, his psyche running the gambit from terror to triumph. Ignoring or denying death embodied Ivan Ilych’s environment, a delusion devised to ward off unpleasantries; which only breeds superficiality, fear, and frustration. Acceptance of death and the irregular patterns of life allows for confidence, concord, and content. As Gerasim put it, “We shall all of us die, so why should I grudge a little trouble?”

The Death of Ivan Ilych is Tolstoy’s parable representing the mystery that living well is the best way to die well—and that is a mystery that all souls should grapple with.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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