Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Book Review: The Death of Ivan Ilych, by Leo Tolstoy (1886)

The anger and frustration and confusion and pain of a dying man, surrounded by people who have little or no concern for him at all.  His entire life has boiled down to a few friends who are nothing more than coworkers interested in his position, and a family that does not love him but thinks of him as a burden.  That's this book in a nutshell.  It's famous as one of Leo Tolstoy's great achievements, a mastery of the mind.

Depending on which version you have, his name might be Ilych or Ilyich or even Ilyitch.  The first chapter is interesting, the next few chapters are pretty dull.  Then you find yourself drawn back in as Ivan Ilych slowly becomes aware of his illness, is then stymied by it, then the slow downfall as it controls him, and then as it ultimately consumes him.

To be honest, there isn't a whole lot to this book.  It's short, a novella, and you can read it in a couple of hours.  It's my first Tolstoy book, and the only Russian book I've ever read.  It was published in 1886, but surprised me by showing that same stoicism and lack of compassion illustrated in the stereotypical Russians portrayed in movies.  This book was 20-30 years before the Bolshevik revolution, but already we see that foundation of thought - uncaring attitude towards fellow man and a disbelief in...actually make that a distrust of God.

All cultures are different.  In English literature of the same period we saw that ridiculous concern for etiquette and genteel manners.  That stuffy English attitude was portrayed in book after book of the period.  So this makes me wonder, is this unconcern for others, this lack of emotion, is this something common in the Russian culture of that time?  Once again we turn to literature of the period.  What this means is I have to read more Tolstoy, as well as Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Anton Chekov.

But back to Ivan Ilych.  As he is dying, again and again his hope for a cure resurfaces, but each time it's followed by a realization of the truth.  He begins to question his entire life, everything he's done, everything he's believed.  It's interesting to contrast one of the earlier, more boring chapters, when he's obsessed with fixing up a house, buying antiques, arranging the curtains, getting everything just right.  That whole idea of materialism and how little it's worth to him in the end is omnipresent.  Plus there is a strange symbolism in the fact that it was rearranging those curtains that brought on the fall which injured him.  From one extreme to the other.  The lesson to be learned from this book is don't hang curtains.

Here's a snippet that sums things up.  He feels his wife represents his entire life, one big lie.  She would rather lie and say he will feel better than to say he is dying.  She would rather blame him because he's laying on his side or not taking his medicine or some other reason than to just admit that the man is severely ill and is going to die.  In this scene, she has just convinced him to take communion.
When the priest came and heard his confession, Ivan Ilych was softened and seemed to feel a relief from his doubts and consequently from his sufferings, and for a moment there came a ray of hope. He again began to think of the vermiform appendix and the possibility of correcting it. He received the sacrament with tears in his eyes. 
When they laid him down again afterwards he felt a moment's ease, and the hope that he might live awoke in him again. He began to think of the operation that had been suggested to him. "To live! I want to live!" he said to himself. 
His wife came in to congratulate him after his communion, and when uttering the usual conventional words she added: 
"You feel better, don't you?" 
Without looking at her he said "Yes." 
Her dress, her figure, the expression of her face, the tone of her voice, all revealed the same thing. "This is wrong, it is not as it should be. All you have lived for and still live for is falsehood and deception, hiding life and death from you." And as soon as he admitted that thought, his hatred and his agonizing physical suffering again sprang up, and with that suffering a consciousness of the unavoidable, approaching end. And to this was added a new sensation of grinding shooting pain and a feeling of suffocation. 
The expression of his face when he uttered that "Yes" was dreadful. Having uttered it, he looked her straight in the eyes, turned on his face with a rapidity extraordinary in his weak state and shouted: 
"Go away! Go away and leave me alone!"
The final death scene is slightly horrific, but only slightly.  Mainly it's sad with a touch of religious significance.  The one person you feel sorry for is his son, who held his hand and cried as he lay dying.

Not a bad book, I think it's important because of it's inner look into the thoughts of a dying man.  It holds up over time.  I've heard of death scenes in real life that could be similar, with some good people nearby, and some bad people as well.  In the end, life around him went on.  It was interesting to show that first, in the opening chapter, and then go back and finish it up.


  1. I enjoyed your review and invite you to read mine as well.

    The marvel of Tolstoy is his instinctive grasp of the desperate choices humans face in life.

    He has an uncanny skill in both portraying our ability to love and hate, as well as our motivations and fears. When reading his stories, I often feel myself completely succumbing to his world, as if I’ve known the characters my whole life. The deep emotional and intellectual resonance of his works stay with me long after I close the pages.

    Such a work is The Death of Ivan Ilych, a short story published in 1886.

    In it, the reader can see the roots of the moral questions that Tolstoy himself will wrestle with his whole life. The primary question being: what is a good life?

    For Ivan Ilych, he had answered this question by leading a life that was, “the most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible”. A dutiful Russian bureaucrat, his navigated life by relying on the good sense of society to decide what was proper. His chief pleasure came from a sense of his own power over inferiors, and secondary pleasures from playing bridge and indulging in bourgeoisie tastes at home.

    Yet throughout this innocent ascendance in social position, there were cracks that betrayed a denial of the truth underneath the life of “legality, correctitude, and propriety”. The truth at last manifested itself in the form of physical and psychological pain, plaguing him endlessly and making life more miserable than death. Faced with this curse and sensing death’s close presence, Ivan Ilych began to wonder, “What if my whole life had been wrong?”.

    Ilych looked backed at his life, and realized suddenly, “all that for which he had lived- and saw clearly that it was not real at all, but a terrible and huge deception which had hidden both life and death. This consciousness intensified his physical suffering tenfold.”

    The book ends without answering the question of what is the right life, and the only clue the reader is left with is the fresh and sunny image of Gerásim, a peasant in Ilych’s household. Gerásim alone sympathized with his master’s pain. Yet, his simple nature was unperturbed by the thought of death, and presumably his close relationship with nature allowed him to view it as a natural cycle.

    In Gerásim’s character, one can see Tolstoy’s admiration for the life-affirming powers of the countryside, which is echoed in Anna Karenina and other works.

    Tolstoy peeled back the layers of ordinary life to remonstrate against its lack of meaning, but because he was just as human as his characters, he could not show the path to a correct life. He leaves us with the image of Ivan Ilych screaming during his last days in anguish, encapsulating a hidden existential malaise that Tolstoy would struggle with his whole life.

  2. Excellent review, LB Song. Your mention of how he "navigated life by relying on the good sense of society to decide what was proper" reminds me of Notes from Underground, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The main character from Underground contains a similar exploration of the pointlessness of life as he explores similar confusing thoughts, but while he is alive instead of dying.