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.