Chris's Reviews > The Death of Ivan Ilych

The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy
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's review
Aug 24, 2011

really liked it
Read from August 24 to September 17, 2011

My friend and I started reading this book together to get caught up with some of those books that ‘everybody’ reads in high school. It was our first taste of Tolstoy. Mmmm good. (He tastes like chicken.)

The story is about Ivan, a worlding through and through. Characterized by an ‘comme il faut’ mentality, he always follows the rules of proper etiquette and is an example of the predictable life-pattern of most people: attempting to climb the career ladder, filling the house with lots of pretty things, and hoping others say nice things about you. Ivan is content not interrupting his easy gait with any deeper questions on the meaning of life. In an ironic accident (and, for me, comic), Ivan falls while straightening the curtains, lightly bumps his side against a knob the window, and knocks a kidney loose. The rest of the book is about how Ivan copes with realizing that he is dying.

One of Ivan epiphanies is that life is wasted when trying to blend in with customs. “It occurred to him that those scarcely perceptible impulses of his to protest what people of high rank considered good, vague impulses which he had always suppressed, might have been precisely what mattered, and all the rest not been the real thing.” This phrasing of truth as ‘the real thing’ is Tolstoy’s way of emphasizing how many people live a lie when they stoop to a moral or materialistic standard that is less than their potential as a human being. This lower standard often happens to be the convention of the masses because it is the easy way, even if ultimately a less satisfying way. Henry David Thoreau felt the same about society’s prevailing mediocrity: “The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?” Ivan Ilyich came to the same conclusion.

This story had very strong meta overtones. We’re reading about a man who subconsciously relegates death to something awful and abnormal that happens to people in general—‘that poor chap in the paper’—and not to one’s self. Yet, even while witnessing Ivan come to the realization that death is an ineluctable terminus to his life, not just to a comfortably vague ‘someone’, we the reader still haven’t grasped that Ivan is us. Actually, the gist aims beyond the collective ‘us’ (or it would be another dissociation from the utter personal nature of death). Rather, Ivan is me. Martin Heidegger, a 20th century existentialist and one of Tolstoy’s admirers, used Tolstoy’s ‘one’ as a description of the inauthentic self trying to blend in with society and thereby evade conscientious, or authentic, existence. “The self tries to hide from itself by making itself indistinguishable from others” (Heinz Moenkemeyer). Thus the ancient syllogism, “Caus is mortal, Caius is a man, Caius is mortal” fails to spark a spiritual awakening and comprehension of death’s absoluteness because of its impersonal nature. If I can’t believe, truly believe, that I am going to die, I can live with no sense of the eternal significance of every moment.

The story bravely isolated and scrutinized of our greatest fear: Thanatos (death). It put our fear of death under a hot light, and poked it to make it squirm so we could define its nature. To do this systematically, Tolstoy moved Ivan Ilyich through four phases: unconscious living, unconscious dying, conscious dying, and finally conscious living. In Unconscious Living, Ivan doesn’t seek his true purpose in life, and he merely drifts with his environmental/ sociological current. In Unconscious Dying, he is not fully aware that death is looming, and he continues to treat his malady as innocuous, and misinterprets death as an abstraction. In Conscious Dying, he fearfully acknowledges his helplessness, but does not yet understand that his fear is founded upon his guilt of a wasted life. The story reaches its apex when Ivan is engulfed in his helplessness, “struggling desperately in that black sack into which an unseen, invisible force was thrusting him.” Finally, in Conscious Living Ivan becomes reconciled to his death by admitting he had followed after the falseness of superficial existence, and in being liberated from this onus by his acceptance of the truth, he is enabled to experience satisfaction and joy in his final hour. What little life he had left was right and real, and consequently “instead of death there was light…What bliss!” In this way Tolstoy correlates the dying of an “awesome and solemn death” with the living of a meaningful life, however brief the time may be.

The Death Of Ivan Ilych is Tolstoy brooding on the meaning of death, and more specifically, a meaningful death which discovers its full value in extending a meaningful life all the way to the very end. If you read this book right, then you had a little sit-down with yourself to reflect on whether or not your life is ‘the real thing’. If you’ve never thought of your life in the categories of ‘real’ and ‘unreal’, right and wrong, then Tolstoy’s challenge is to you. Not me of course. One mustn’t become too paranoid.

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