Thursday, October 23, 2014

Tolstoy’s - The Death of Ivan Ilyich: Profound Insights on Death and Dying



            I can remember the first time I ever thought about death. I was very young, six or seven maybe, but my thoughts were fixed on the fact that I would be lying in a grave unable to breathe or exist or… anything… so dark and claustrophobic. I can remember that it seriously messed with my head—that whole being dead thing.
We all think about it, we wonder how we’re going to die and what it’s like afterward, but we don’t dwell on it for long because it gives us a dark and uncomfortable feeling. It feels like forbidden territory to us. I felt the same way while immersed in Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich—until I reached the end. It was as if I was reading a description from someone who had passed and was relaying truths from the other side about his moments leading up to the ultimate tipping point. All that anxiety over making things right before we pass. Inside each of us are truths waiting to be tapped, sins wanting to be repented of, and love desiring to be exchanged. Many never get the chance. Ivan Ilyich gets his chance in an instant that will convert anxiety to peace. “In place of death, there was light” (Tolstoy 1459).
The story begins with a scene which takes part after Ivan Ilyich’s death; the characters reminiscent of T.S. Eliot’s “Hollow Men.” They are in attendance at the funeral and the only thing anyone seems concerned about is money, promotion and status—all things in which our main character had worked all his life to attain. While the funeral guests make their way up to the coffin, we are told by Tolstoy that “The dead man lay, as dead men always lie, in a specially heavy way, his rigid limbs sunk in the soft cushions of the coffin, with the head forever bowed on the pillow” (1424). As with all open casket funerals, we understand the attendees are uncomfortable with the sight of the body, particularly with the expression on the face of the deceased. Although it is not enough to keep them from carrying on with their private conversations about how they plan to benefit from the death of Ivan Ilyich.
During Ivan’s earlier years, he felt dissatisfaction with his ordinary life. After graduating from law school, he made his way up through ranks and salaries and strove to do everything in the proper manner. Life was about position, wearing the right clothes, being seen with the right people and work. He eventually married a woman by the name of Praskovya Fedorovna Mikhel—not because he was in love with her, but because it appeared to be the practical thing to do. He soon found that married life—especially under these circumstances—was more challenging than he had originally imagined.
Ivan meandered through life’s ups and downs creating a family, working to acquire more things and avoiding confrontation with his wife. At one point he received an unexpected promotion which rewarded him with far more income and a truce with his spouse. During this time of harmony and peace a new house was purchased and in the process of redecorating, Ivan was injured as he nearly slipped off a ladder. He fell into the knob of the window frame knocking his side. Although he was bruised, he made nothing of it and in fact wrote: “I feel fifteen years younger” (1435).
After some time Ivan began to have a strange taste in his mouth and increased pain in his left side. The discomfort began to affect his mood. Ivan eventually got to the point where he became bitter and quarrelsome, which in turn aggravated relations with his wife. Praskovya Fedorovna found herself “dreadfully unhappy” (1438). As time went on Ivan’s health got progressively worse until finally he had to quit work and remain in bed. Doctors came and went each with a different diagnosis and each prescribing drugs to make him feel better, but the pain was unbearable. Realizing that something was seriously wrong; fearful thoughts consumed him. His wife was of the mind that he was annoying her with his illness out of spite.
Ivan felt he was pathetic in the eyes of those around him and he was resentful. He knew he was dying and he did not want to be surrounded by the people who irritated him—namely his wife and daughter. He was consumed with thoughts of death and couldn’t believe it all started with a knock on his side which seemed harmless. Just when Ivan felt he could not take anymore, he received comfort from a new friend by the name of Gerasim. Gerasim was the butler’s young assistant and was a very compassionate man undaunted by Ivan’s condition. He genuinely cared for Ivan, but when Gerasim wasn’t there, Ivan had to deal with the others. He saw through them all; they just wanted to be rid of him and he felt it.
As Ivan lie in agony he had much time to think and argue with himself. He thought about his life and what it had meant; soon realizing he had been preoccupied with all of the wrong things during his lifetime. His mental torment began to outweigh his physical one and the wheels were constantly turning in his mind. While he tried to make sense of things he posed many questions: “What if my whole life has really been wrong?” and then, “But if that is so … and I am leaving this life with the consciousness that I have lost all that was given me and it is impossible to rectify it—what then?” (1457). Pondering these questions got him to think in a new way. The next time his wife and the others who had been irritating him came into his room, he had a clearer understanding about how he had been projecting himself onto them. His whole life had been a deception and we are told that “this consciousness increased his physical suffering tenfold” (1457).
As the priest performed last rights, Ivan’s tears confirmed the fact that it was a comfort to him in some way. But the comfort soon changed to anger and denial. He began to scream and it continued for three days.
 Tolstoy writes,
For three whole days, during which time did not exist for him, he struggled in that black sack into which he was being thrust by an invisible, resistless force. He struggled as a man condemned to death struggles in the hands of the executioner, knowing that he cannot save himself. And every moment he felt that despite all his efforts he was drawing nearer and nearer to what terrified him. He felt that his agony was due to his being thrust into that black hole and still more to his not being able to get right into it. He was hindered from getting into it by his conviction that his life had been a good one. That very justification of his life held him fast and prevented his moving forward, and it caused him most torment of all … Suddenly some force struck him in the chest and side, making it still harder to breathe, and he fell through the hole and there at the bottom was a light (1458-59).
This is a very profound image of the moments leading up to his blessed enlightenment. His life could still be rectified.
            As Ivan felt his oppression dropping away from him, he felt sorry for those around him and desired a release for them and for him. He was able to find joy in the simplicity of it all. He experienced a different perception of the pain and no longer was there any fear of death. Time was less a factor for him as he was no longer a part of it. It seemed that it was all happening in an instant. Finally, he heard someone say “it is finished!” and his soul repeated “Death is finished … it is no more!” (1460).
            This story gets to the root of what life and humanity is about. It shows us that in all of our striving for material wealth, it’s what will torture us in the end if we don’t take the time to acknowledge and savor the love in our lives. This is not your typical moral to the story though. This one is done in such a way that it gets under our skin and pulls us in because of our morbid interest. We are all interested in death. The Death of Ivan Ilyich takes us through death and into the light.

Work Cited
Tolstoy, Leo. “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Second Edition Volume E. Ed. Peter Simon. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2009. 1422-1460. Print.