The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy is the fourth book of our Literary Lenten Book Club. In this process of exploring literature during Lent, we’ll ask ourselves first, how did Ivan Illyich encounter transcendence? and second, how did he respond?
The Death of Ivan Ilyich is the story of a high-court judge in 19th-century Russia and his sufferings and death from a terminal illness. It was published in 1886 by Leo Tolstoy, written shortly after his religious conversion in the late 1870s.
There is no question what this story is about. Tolstoy gives us the full portrait of the life Ivan Illych led and the world he left behind, connecting the dots of how he arrived at that point.
Those he left behind feel entirely superficial feelings about the thing.
Tolstoy shows us the trajectory of his life, spelling out the increasing superficiality in Ivan Illych’s relations with those around him, the superficial nature of all that he takes pleasure in. In fact, Ivan Illych’s goal in life before this point was a pleasant life, free from disruption or disquietude.
Literary commentary links his illness to this lifestyle and a symbolic demise. It is a reality he sees himself in his final weeks. “It’s as though I had been going steadily downhill while I imagined I was going up,” he thinks.
Three Revelations Before Death
The first revelation
The first revelation is the realization that he is mortal and will die. This illness, though linked in Ivan Illyich’s mind to his fall, was most likely pancreatic cancer, and at the time, incurable and most often uncommunicated to patients by their doctors.
The second revelation
The second is that human connection alone brings some relief. Those in his life will not look at his suffering in the face. They look away. Gerasim, the butler’s assistant, “was the only one who understood and pitied him. And for that reason, Ivan Illyich felt comfortable only with Gerasim.”
The third revelation
The third revelation is about his life, whether or not he lived well. “Perhaps I did not live as I should have, it suddenly occurred to him. But how could that be when I did everything one is supposed to do? He replied and immediately dismissed the one solution to the whole enigma of life and death, considering it utterly impossible.”
This question continues to present itself to him. Ivan Illyich defends himself against the accusation. “And there was nothing left to defend. But if that is the case, he asked himself, and I am taking leave of life with the awareness that I squandered all I was given and have no possibility of rectifying matters, what then?”
It acts as revelation, it comes to him as he wrestles with it. He approaches but does not grasp it.
He receives the Sacrament.
Ivan Illyich pities those he leaves behind, finding peace and a willingness to accept death in the love of his son and sympathy for his family.
And he dies.
Much of the reflection on death itself, the superficiality of a life spent doing what one thought was expected of him socially, Tolstoy lays out for the reader.
It’s clear that Ivan Illyich encounters something transcendent because he is facing the end of life as he has lived it.
But does it change him?
Does he respond to it? I do not know. I find the ending unsatisfying, but probably quite realistic.
Ivan Illyich can never answer this question, “what then?”
The issue is one of facing reality. He could never go back to being the person he was, never enjoy the things he enjoyed as freely as he enjoyed them. He is now too aware of what is real.
But alas, as Ivan Illyich discovers the truth he does not discover Him who is Truth. He does not begin to think about God. The Sacrament is just what one does. Rather than encounter the one presenting in the Sacrament, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, he hopes again for physical recovery and falls back into the same despair.
The only plane then that God can reach him is through the natural, paternal love of the child who loves him, too, whose childlike honesty does not hide from suffering but instead would examine it dwell over it and remain so entirely present to it. Ivan Illyich’s last act is to feel a little love and a little pity for perhaps the first time since he was the age of the son before him.
In this brief glimpse, he sees that he squandered what he had, including those chances at love, so he desires to say “forgive.”
Perhaps this is the moment of power, to look at another’s suffering and not look away. To experience one’s gaze, when one is suffering, and to feel seen.
The novella remains a personal and social commentary. Instead of “forgive,” Ivan Illyich says “forget.” Inwardly, he knows, and he knows that God knows. This is is what matters most now. In this he can rest.
Someone knows him and sees him. Someone understands.
Ivan Illyich dies with little more understanding of that Someone then he set out with, but he knows something, and with this knowledge, he can stop fighting.
Outwardly, his wife will forget, his children will forget. They may not dwell long enough on his life or actions to even consider the need to forgive.
It was just what’s done.
Do you agree? Disagree? Have another thought to add? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
Check back next week for our discussion on the poem, “Death Be Not Proud” by John Donne.
For more information about our Literary Lenten Book Club and the schedule of readings click here.
To explore reflections from the first and second week, click the links below:
- “The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway
- “The Enduring Chill” by Flannery O’Connor
- “The Gifts of the Christ Child” by George MacDonald