Does Ivan Ilych live a “real” life?

The Mohave Desert

by cheri block

Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych is worth the read. In my paper, How to Live a Real Life, I evaluate Judge Ilych’s life (which is really a death)  and his death (which is really a life).

Here is a piece of the paper. Note, I have removed page references for smoother reading.

The Short Happy Life of Ivan Ilych*

The cluster of Russian lawyers possibly afflicted with the same maladies as Ivan Ilych, living self-centered and distracted lives directed toward social position and its accouterments, learns without surprise that Ivan Ilych has died. “What was really was the matter with him?”  one of them inquires. It is this question and the answer to it that reveal the meaning of the story. What was the matter with Ivan Ilych?  What killed him? Was it a floating kidney? His vermiform appendix? He seemed like a regular guy:  busy and productive, engaged in work, home improvement, and bridge games. Middle son in a family of disappointment, he rose above his station, albeit securing his fortune by social connection. He marries, father children, dances, and entertains. He is leading a life, but is it real?

The last three days of Ilych’s life, from his self-crucifixion of screaming pain to the light of his resurrection, may explain the expression on his coffin face characterized as “…a reproach and a warning to the living”. The warning concerns we who may also find ourselves wrestling with the specter of death, looking for that light that may never shine. As time grows short for Ivan Ilych, his insistence that he control the circumstances of his own death stalls the possibility for a last-minute reprieve. This stance he justifies “…by his conviction that his life had been a good one”.  And then it happens.  A suffocating “force” hits Ilych in the chest—we can guess in his heart—at the same time his son approaches his father’s deathbed. Ilych actualizes with his son’s kiss, his legacy who now may change from one who had “…the look in the eyes …of boys who are not pure minded” to one who will embrace a real life. With that kiss, Ilych pops through “the black sack of death”  into the light of the spiritual realm.

We can overlay my criteria on the rest of the story.  In the radiance of this light, Tolstoy beams new life into Ilych’s dis-eased body: he becomes reflective in this light, asking himself, “ What is the right thing?” He stops screaming to listen. The reflection continues. He asks for forgiveness although the words jumble. The meaningless complexity of his life, symbolized by the pink cretonnes and squeaky pouffes in his home, by the depth of his spiritual chasm, and by the sterility of his passionless marriage, is “…reduced to its simplest form [sic]”, ironically the exact method he used as a judge, by “…eliminating all considerations irrelevant to the legal aspect of the case…” . This complexity is simplified at his death. “ How good and how simple!”  he observes and dies two hours later. Based on my criteria, Ivan Ilych managed at death to become real. He reflects, he listens, he simplifies, he allows intimacy, and in doing so, he may have set his son free. Death forces him to let go and fully accept his own mortality.

Was Ilych’s actualization complete? Not quite. He died a vain man. What ultimately killed him physically—the internal damage done by his falling into a window knob while hanging curtains in his house designed and furnished to impress—is not nearly as poisonous as the toxicity of his vacuous spiritual life, his recognition of his “real” life, one through which “…the poison did not weaken but penetrated more and more into his whole being”.

The peasant Gerasim, symbol of simplicity and spirituality, is the antidote to the poison, the mensch who presided at Judge Ilych’s death.

  • With thanks to Ernest Hemingway, for his amazing story, The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.

About Cheri

Writer, artist, cable television host, grandmother to four!
This entry was posted in Education, On fiction, Writing and Teaching and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Does Ivan Ilych live a “real” life?

  1. Christopher says:

    Ivan Ilych had all his life lived a lie. In the few days before he died, he lived the truth. He realised he had changed.

    Consider those words of Jung’s, that Mary Jane Hurley Brant quoted in a recent comment:

    “……we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning, for what was great in the morning will be little at evening and what in the morning was true, at evening will have become a lie……..”

    These words infer that, because inwardly we are changing all the time, to continue to live as if we are not, is to live a lie.

    However, the price paid for living the changes can include the break-up of marriages and like relationships, break-up of friendships, ostracism from family and from society, the loss of one’s livelihood, and even early death.

    It’s safer to ignore change, than not to.

  2. Form our birth to our death, change is the essence of life. Immobilism is death, motion is life and change is motion. Ignoring motion is more dangerous than going along with it. Some changes are for the best, others not so but we can, if we acknowledge the facts, manage that and come out on top…most times. Qui n’avance pas, recule” says an old French proverb.

    • Cheri says:

      You are a living example of your words. On the move, staying in the mix.
      I agree with Christopher that living the change can upset the applecart, but sometimes the people in our lives become more authentic too…and so do we, as they change. I know this to be true in my relationships.

  3. Cyberquill says:

    Kidneys aren’t supposed to float, but all healthy appendices are vermiform. I’m just pointing this out lest the non-physicians among your readers may erroneously assume that “vermiform appendix,” following so closely upon the heels of “floating kidney,” is a medical condition as well.

    So you’re saying that life and death, like success and failure, are impostors?

    • Cheri says:

      Hmmm….you last sentence has a familiar ring to it.

      The floating kidney and vermiform appendix were some of the ailments that Ilych’s doctors suspected were making him sick. I had never heard of either.

      If only Ilych had hired a curtain-hanger to do the work, he wouldn’t have banged his belly.

      • Cyberquill says:

        Yeah, but “vermiform appendix”—unlike “floating kidney”—is not an ailment. Only diseased kidneys float, but all healthy appendices are vermiform.

        If Ilych had hired a curtain-hanger, the curtain-hanger would have killed him in a duel following a dispute over his fee. You know Tolstoy.

  4. Believe it or not, I haven’t read this one. Clearly, I must.

    According to you, as he approaches death he undergoes a radical simplification of a needlessly complex life. That seems to be the lesson, right? Why didn’t he simplify earlier? Why don’t we.

    • Cheri says:

      It is a difficult story to read, I think. Anxiety producing, for sure.

      The analysis above is indeed my own take on the story. He is forced by excruciating pain (psychic and physical) to pass from life to death. The complexity of life simply cannot hold under this pain and all is reduced to a bed, pain, a peasant who comforts Ilych, and the light beyond the pain.

      That simplicity and its rewards make for a more meaningful life may be one of the lessons.
      He didn’t simplify earlier because he was caught up with social climbing and all that goes with it. He married a woman because it was time to get married and she could dance. That type of thing.

      Can you think of a era that rewards complexity more than our current one?

  5. Richard says:

    Tell me, please, Cheri, why does Tolstoy project this archetype as a lawyer? Why not, say, a writer?
    Is everybody Dick the Butcher? Feed my paranoia!

  6. Cheri says:

    I do not know, Richard.
    Who is Dick the Butcher? 🙂

    • Richard says:

      What was it Dick the Butcher said? First kill all the …. surveyors? ….. dentists? …. actuaries?… teachers? … midwives? …. astrologers? … head gardeners … herbalists?

      I must get Shakespeare’s great joke right. Oh! I know. It was lawyers. Hilarious isn’t it!

      And who else would struggle to join a secret society and discover only after a lifetime of membership that it was a circle of Pythagorean backstabbers? The fact he did a bit of DIY proves it. Tolstoy wrote a parable, after all, not a myth.

  7. Christopher says:

    Ivan Ilych arrived where he started, and knew the place for the first time…………

  8. I like what you say in your comment Cheri about it all being reduced to the bed, the pain, the peasant who comforts him. As you would know, Tolstoy’s story is considered to be the perfect short story, even the finest ever written.

    To digress a little and extend your discussion of “the real” and Tolstoy, readers might care to watch this short film of the “real Tolstoy”. Here it’s all reduced to the children, Sophia, the snow, a railway siding. Forgive the digression but I’ll use any occasion to encourage people to watch it …

  9. Cheri says:

    I like your digression. Thank you. I will go to your link…

    • Cheri says:

      One problem. My ISP is Hughes Net and it has a conflict with all WordPress blogs that have taken a custom blog domain. So, I cannot log on to anymore or to Andreas’s or to Thomas’s. I can read them downtown or in my Google Reader, but if I click to the blog, a error message comes up. I have complained but Hughes Net refuses to fix the bug.I live rurally so really have no choice but HughesNet. Boo!

      I will follow you link when I am downtown.

  10. Hello Cheri, I’ve just awarded you The Liebster Blog award. Check it out on my blog x

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