The Death of Ivan Ilyich
Leo Tolstoy
Hugh Aplin

(Hesperus Classics)
Ivan Ilyich lives one of those boring lives that you and I wish we could have. He goes to law school and ends up as a Public Prosecutor in one of the larger cities in Russia. He marries well, has two children, is considered wise and just by his fellow barristers.

And then one day he bonks his side on a table, and within weeks, is suffering with what the doctors identify as "a floating kidney." In a short time, he is so sick that even morphine and opium do not help.

We thought that the now commonplace concept of "blaming the victim" was an invention of the twentieth century, yet, "Praskovya Fyodorovna's outward attitude to her husband's illness, expressed to others and to him himself,"

    was that Ivan Ilyich was to blame for this illness, and the illness as a whole was a new unpleasantness he was creating for his wife.

And though we thought that Kubler-Ross invented the stages of death, it turns out from this short novel that Tolstoy was there well ahead of her:

Lying on the couch, Ivan Ilyich sees his wife come to help him. "The whole of her ... her whiteness and her plumpness, and the cleanliness of her hands, her neck, the sheen on her hair and the sparkle in her eyes, so full of life."

    He hates her with all the strength of his soul. And her touch makes him suffer from a wave of hatred towards her.

Then, towards the end, he asks himself repeatedly if his life was "right," "correct," "decent." He decides, first, that of course it was. Then, "All you lived and live by --- it's a lie, a deception concealing life and death from you."

It is at this moment that Ivan Ilych becomes, perhaps, the man he should have been, knowing, as we all must come to know, that the common deception we all share not only hides death, but, most probably, life.

In the end, comes the ultimate wisdom, what Tolstoy calls a "shining:"

    "No, none of it was right," he said to himself, and then, in the last moments, with his son at his side, he lost his anger, he started to feel sorry for his wife and children.

"He wanted to say 'forgive me' but he said 'forgo me,' and no longer having the strength to correct himself, he waved his hand, knowing that whoever needed to understand would understand."

    He sought for his former customary fear of death and could not find it. Where is it? What death? There was no fear, because there was no death either.

§     §     §

Once, at a large conference of shrinks, R. D. Laing spoke about Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, Shakespeare and Tolstoy and their penetrating view of character. "I don't think I needed to read the theory of the double bind to know that people are confused by contradictory messages," he said. "Tolstoy describes some of that with exquisite clarity and precision in Anna Karenina. She is meeting her husband after being with her soon-to-be lover Vronsky.

    She can see his forehead, his eyes, his cheeks and his lips all beginning to say different things. And she knows the game is going to be up very soon. He couldn't have said it better.

"I can't think of anything that I've learned from professional writing," he concluded, "that I haven't found in these writers."

§     §     §

Tolstoy may be a visionary, but he does have his quirks. Besides his very young son, the one person who speaks honestly (without words) to dying Ivan Ilych is the young peasant Gerasim, "wearing thick boots, spreading about him the pleasant smell of tar from the boots and the freshness of the wintry air, in a clean hempen apron and a clean cotton shirt with the sleeves rolled up on bare, strong young arms." This is Tolstoy and the simple, powerful peasants, on whom he was to pin so many of his hopes for the future of Mother Russia.

The Death of Ivan Ilych is unremitting. When it ends,

    "It's over," said someone above him.

    He heard these words and repeated them in his soul. "Death is over," he said to himself. "It is no more."

Tolstoy named it The Death of Ivan Ilych. He could just as well have entitled it The Death of Death.

--- Igor Masarek
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