On The Death of Ivan Ilych

by cheri block

My class this semester is entitled The Meaning of Life: Moral and Spiritual Inquiry Through Literature.

Part of the requirements is to submit a one page reflection after reading the short story, play, or novel assigned each week.

Last week, we read Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych and then spent 2.5 hours in class discussing its modern moral and spiritual relevance.

I’m not sure the professor will return these papers with comments, so I will publish some of my reflections here and wait for your comments.

On The Death of Ivan Ilych

     It is tempting to judge Ivan Ilych as a man so driven by power and position and so devoid of spiritual reflection that during the last three days of his life, his excruciating pain was inevitable. It is also possible to view Ilych’s graphically depicted death as one of Tolstoy’s doctors might do so:  clinically and methodically, like a corpse ready for dissection. But in the end, do we really care about Ivan Ilych as a person? Tolstoy draws Ilych’s character—one like so many other men in literature who forsake the spiritual for the temporal—rather predictably, surrounded by stock characters: insensitive wives, average children, and greedy colleagues. So why does this story stick? Why does it trouble us so?

It weighs heavy because it is, perhaps, one of the best descriptions of a slow death ever written. What is most disconcerting about Ivan Ilych’s life is that despite his dutiful and ambitious drive to achieve all accouterments of success (at his insensitive wife’s behest, I might add), he misses the spiritual life, as represented by the peasant Gersasim. We, too, might wonder Have I lost my way, tangled in a pile of wires and gadgets, purses and shoes?  In the months from Ilych’s accident to his death, we can’t help but see ourselves and wonder what our death will be like. We calibrate our spirituality. We take yoga. We volunteer. I visit my brave mother in assisted living, look deeply into her eyes, hoping to understand her suffering and see something meaningful about it.

Death is surely a mystery. So is life. By painting Judge Ilych as the accused, the defendant, the prosecutor, the jury and ironically, as the judge in his own earthly trial, Tolstoy’s own gavel comes down hard.

About Cheri

Writer, artist, cable television host, grandmother to four!
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19 Responses to On The Death of Ivan Ilych

  1. Cyberquill says:

    What mystery? The universe rests on the back of a giant turtle, and it’s turtles all the way down.

    • Cheri says:

      Thank you CQ for inserting this beautiful Native American myth (Thanks Dafna…I did not know about this and appreciate your digging around for its origin) into my mystery. The mystery thickens (and hopefully not in turtle soup).

  2. What nice depiction of how we all walk toward the tail of Virtual Feather’s Giant Turtle not really knowing what lies past the tail end of the Turtle but somewhat being relieved at the knowledge that we will, at last, know.

  3. This is why I love to study literature!
    It’s interesting contrast Ivan Ilych with Macbeth–I think there is a continuum there. Both Macbeth and Ivan Illych had issues with ambition, pushy wives and focusing on the temporal as opposed to the spiritual. At the end of his life, Ivan Illych “gets” it while Macbeth dies awash in self pity and what ifs (and his spiritual awakening–via the witches–is very different). When you couple this with your question of “why does the story stick?” it makes me think that we have a deep desire to answer the question of what contitutes a meaningful, well-lived life and that’s why we like to explore different examples.

    • Cheri says:

      You should be sitting around the table with me on Thursday nights, Thomas. That is exactly why all who enrolled in this class did so…to figure out what constitutes a well-lived life. How do morality and spirituality contribute to a well-lived life, or do they?

      • But of course first we have to define morality and spirituality 🙂
        Which of course is another interesting aspect of literature to see how those “definitions” change over time and with different cultures.
        That sounds like a fantastic class, but it would be a huge challenge to trim the reading list to something managable. I’d want to add Dr. Faustus and Heart of Darkness.

        • Cheri says:

          How did you know? We spent the first class trying to define morality. Ugghhhh.
          Then we hashed over death and how we might face it. I distracted myself by drinking a powerful indigenous drink they make at Stanford called the Maya Mocha with Cayenne Pepper.
          This week: Lear
          Next week: Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day

  4. dafna says:

    Hi Cheri,

    excuse my off topic comment. that is an incredible photograph! it has complete control of my eye movement. like one of andreas maps my goes in at the water, tracing a path through the trees and across the red hill and i can’t help wondering what’s beyond.

    • Cheri says:

      Hi dafna,
      I love your off the topic comment because I love photography more than Tolstoy (and certainly more than the conversation in the class I’m taking). This shot…did you see the ducks in reservoir?…I adore and have it as my screen saver.
      Thanks for noticing!

  5. Christopher says:

    This comment isn’t about Tolstoy, but, rather, about T Coraghessan Boyle (aka TC Boyle) – a novelist and short story writer, whose latest novel, “The Harder They Come”, I’ve just finished reading.

    Since TC Boyle hails from your neck of the woods (so to speak) you may know of him, or have read some of his stuff. If you haven’t, I urge you to, for his prose crackles with wit and intelligence, as Raymond Chandler’s prose did (Boyle’s style reminds me much of Chandler’s), so that I find myself reading Boyle for his prose style, as much as for anything else.

    “The Harder They Come” is a piercing look at aging Boomers, and contemporary American culture and the American psyche. So I recommend “The Harder They Come” in the way I recommend any of Boyle’s other stuff, based on the relatively little, so far, that I’ve read of him.

    I think he’s brilliant.

  6. Cheri says:

    Thank you for this comment, Christopher. I will definitely check out “The Harder They Come.” As an aging baby-boomer, a critic of contemporary American culture, and a twisted American psyche, he may be just what the doctor ordered. How do you find time to read all you do?

    • Christopher says:

      “……How do you find time to read all you do?……..

      Well, I’m retired. And I don’t have a television – having thrown mine out several years ago on account all of the IQ-lowering, and not to speak of the EQ-lowering, junk that I, as a television-watcher, was a target of.

      In the matter of books, I read today less than a third of the numbers of books I read when still in the workforce. This is because my brain has become fried from being on the internet so much.

      This makes me think I should go back to television………..

  7. Cheri says:

    Both the internet and television can be mind-numbing as you well know. I, too, watch almost no TV and my internet usage is moderate. I’m looking forward to your starting a new blog. 🙂

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