There is no explanation. Art such as this is timeless.
This is my first exposure to Tolstoy. Though he is most famous for his extended and lengthy War and Peace and Anna Karenina, I’m happy to have stepped into Tolstoy’s world through the succinct and powerful novella, The Death of Ivan Ilych. My reading of this short work sparked a multitude of reflections on life, death, existentialism, and purpose, all through the elusive power of the written art form.
The novel began were I didn’t expect it, with Ivan Ilych already being dead. The scene begins from the judicial office of the colleagues of the recently expired Ivan Ilych. Having learned of their judicial colleague and friend’s recent demise, the novel explores the dead man’s friends’ thoughts focused on selfish realizations that Ivan’s death presents an opportunity for promotions in their careers. At Ivan’s funeral his wife reveals her primary concern towards money and his friends are distracted and only focused on their nightly card game. There is a bitter tone to the novel’s narration, presenting a world populated by people concerned with secular affairs, hardly fazed by a sense of loss for the man that was formerly an integral part of their social circle. Even Ivan’s longest friend, Pyotry Ivanovich, is distant and aloof, filled with cathartic relief that the dead man is not himself: he is capable of “having reasoned his way through all this, Pyotry Ivanovich was reassured enough to ask in detail about the death of Ivan Ilych, as though death were a kind of unusual, adventurous process, peculiar to Ivan Ilych, with no bearing on Pyotry Ivanovich himself” (10).
Since Ivan Ilych was already dead at the start of the novel’s first chapter and having witnessed the book begin with a portrayal of several characters’ selfish response to their friend’s death, I expected to be reading a novel critical of high society with a story that would detail the impact of the title character’s death upon his surviving family and colleagues. The second chapter curbed my expectations by taking a step back to explore the life of Ivan Ilych and reveal that he was no better a man than the aloof and self-centered characters that attended his funeral out of social obligation. The title character was a selfish and secular man just as focused on career promotions and the pleasures of playing cards while revolving in social circles as were his funeral observers. In many ways, he is the common man, for “in its details the life of Ivan Ilych was the most simple and the most ordinary and the most horrible” (15). He was the middle son of a prominent judge and followed in his father’s footsteps, suffered some tribulations in his career to come out on top. He was married out of a mix of both love and convenience and although his marriage began as a happy one, it suffered through the disappointment of a critical wife causing him to to become focused and removed from her through the solace of escape he found in his work and his social endeavors.
The life of Ivan Ilych was normal and benign until it was forever changed by an unnamed disease that slowly consumed him. This disease, little understood at the time of Tolstoy’s writing, was likely a cancer of some type that sapped Ivan Ilych of his energy and focus as the ceaseless pain disabled his ability to participate in his familial, professional, and social endeavors. As his hope for a cure is eventually lost in the realization that he is dying Ivan becomes critical of the many doctors that see him, realizing that they practice with a false aura of professional expertise that he once recognized in himself as judge of the law. He falls into a critical judgement of those who surround him who deny the truth that he is dying, causing him to question the purpose of the relationships he has developed and the life he has lived. The only solace that Ivan Ilych can find amid his existential crisis is a release into the realm of happy memories of times past and gone, yet “all these glad moments seemed quite different now from how they registered at the time” (87). He becomes a man separated from the world around him and “and now again, with this train of memories, another made its path through his heart – of how his illness had taken hold and developed. Just as before, the further back he looked, the more life there had been in him; both the more sweetness to life, and the more of life itself” (93).
The novel ends with release of Ivan Ilych from the pains of his life, yet upon reflection the novel does not offer that same release to the reader, for the reader continues to live. The existential worry regarding the purpose of a well lived life remains with the reader that realizes that Ivan Ilych was no different than the aloof men and women that attended his funeral at the novel’s beginning. The only difference is that Ivan is dead and the others live. In this realization the novel presents an offering of hope for the reader, that a life lived every day as though it were the last is a life worth living. A life lived only in denial that death will come is a life plagued with the threat of crisis when death eventually comes, as it inevitably will.
In my reading I could not help but reflect on the death that surrounds me. My profession as a registered nurse exposes me to individuals afflicted with diseases that usurp the freedom of their lives. Many leave the hospital only to return, and some make the hospital their final resting place. Though there has been much medical advancement in the one hundred thirty years since Tolstoy wrote his book about Ivan Ilych, no advancement will ever prevent the inevitable fact that we all meet a common end in our time on this planet. Despite the common end shared by all, how we approach that end is not a common fate. In my witnessing of the end of life I have seen the peace of acceptance and the suffering of denial. These are emotional states shared by both the patient and the loved ones that surround them. There are family members that cannot accept that death is a possibility and in observing their interactions with their ill loved one I cannot but wonder if for them, they may carry a cathartic and selfish satisfaction that the suffering of disease is not on their shoulders. There are those family members that stay with their dying loved one to the end, sharing memories of good times with a peaceful acceptance that death is an inevitability. I cannot help but wonder if for them, they have lived a life released from regret, accepting that each day is a day meant to be cherished, for any day unknown could be the last.