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.