“The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” a novella by Leo Tolstoy, is an exploration of mortality and the search for meaning in life. Tolstoy, born into Russian aristocracy during the reign of Tsar Nicholas II, is renowned for his works “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina.”
This story, however, delves deep into the psyche of an ordinary man confronting his impending death.
The narrative begins unconventionally at the end, in a courthouse where judges, including Ivan’s friend Peter Ivanovich, learn of Ivan’s death.
The news stirs a mix of relief and opportunistic thoughts among them.
Peter visits Ivan’s house for the funeral, where he is unsettled by the disapproving expression on Ivan’s corpse and the widow’s concern over pension benefits. Peter’s brief interaction with Gerasim, Ivan’s nurse, introduces a theme of universal mortality.
Rewinding over thirty years, the story unfolds Ivan Ilyich’s life. An average man in every respect, Ivan’s life trajectory is ordinary yet comfortably prestigious. He becomes an examining magistrate and marries Praskovya, whose pregnancy disrupts their decorous lifestyle.
Ivan immerses himself in work, distancing from family life. After a setback in his career, he moves to St. Petersburg and secures a higher-paying job. While decorating his new home, he suffers a minor injury that marks the beginning of his decline.
Ivan’s health deteriorates, leading to irritable and quarrelsome behavior. Visits to doctors provide no clarity on his condition, plunging him into depression. His physical state worsens, and he is haunted by the reality of death.
This realization brings a profound terror and hatred for his oblivious wife.
Gerasim, the peasant servant, becomes a central figure in Ivan’s final days.
He offers genuine compassion, a stark contrast to the artificiality surrounding Ivan. Ivan’s routine becomes a torturous cycle, with only Gerasim and his son Vasya understanding his plight. Ivan grapples with the meaningless of his suffering, trying to justify his life’s propriety.
In a climactic moment, Ivan confronts the falsehood of his existence. He sees his life as a march towards a black sack, representing death.
A sudden epiphany strikes him as he realizes the artificiality of his social and family relations. In his final moments, a wave of joy overcomes him as he accepts the truth and dies, reconciling with his family.
1. The Illusion of a Proper Life
Tolstoy masterfully dissects the idea of living a socially acceptable and ‘proper’ life. Ivan Ilyich, the protagonist, embodies the societal ideal of success: a good education, a respectable job, a proper marriage, and a semblance of familial harmony.
Yet, as his life draws to a close, Ivan confronts the hollowness of these achievements. Tolstoy uses Ivan’s introspection to critique society’s shallow values and the facade of propriety.
This theme is a poignant reminder of the often superficial criteria by which we measure success and happiness, prompting readers to question the true essence of a fulfilling life.
2. The Inevitability of Death and the Fear of Mortality
Tolstoy doesn’t merely present death as an inevitable end but delves into the psychological turmoil it brings.
Ivan’s gradual and painful journey towards death exposes his deep-seated fears and denial of mortality. This theme is a stark portrayal of how individuals, much like Ivan, often live in denial of death, considering it a distant, abstract concept.
Tolstoy’s exploration of this theme is profound, offering a raw and unsettling view of the human struggle with the recognition of mortality and the existential dread that it can invoke.
3. The Search for Authentic Human Connection
In Ivan’s final days, the genuine compassion shown by Gerasim, his servant, stands in stark contrast to the superficial relationships he has with others, including his family. This theme reveals the yearning for sincere human connection and understanding, something Ivan realizes only as he nears death.
Tolstoy uses this contrast to highlight the scarcity of authentic relationships in a world dominated by social conventions and self-interest.
The theme resonates deeply, as it reflects a universal human desire for connections that transcend societal pretenses and reach into the realm of genuine empathy and understanding.
“The Death of Ivan Ilyich” is not just a tale of a man dying; it’s a journey through societal facades, the delusions of self-importance, and the quest for genuine human connection. Tolstoy masterfully portrays the internal struggle of a man facing the ultimate truth, making it a timeless piece that resonates with the existential questions of life and death.