The Pequod Review:
Because of its short length and simple plot structure, The Death of Ivan Ilyich has generally been regarded as one of Leo Tolstoy’s lesser novels. But in fact it is one of his richest and most complex, as it considers some of the most essential questions about human existence.
The book’s title character is a successful council judge who goes through life as we all do — preoccupied with his career, social standing, and other day-to-day concerns. He lives a mostly unexamined life, without meaning or spirituality, and endures an unhappy marriage. It is only when he learns he has a fatal illness that he realizes what he has previously valued is no longer of significance: “Ivan Ilyich's life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible. The closer he came to the present, the more uncertain and empty seemed the joys he had known…Perhaps I have not lived as I should have lived, he thought.”
This is a powerful message, but Tolstoy’s book is about much more than just the importance of living an authentic life. Throughout the novel, he is an outstanding observer of human nature and human psychology more generally. As a result, his characters are specific, vivid and true. Witness for example the interaction between Ilyich’s widow (Praskovya Fedorovna) and his longtime friend and colleague (Peter Ivanovich), as Tolstoy describes all that remains unsaid:
Praskovya Fedorovna recognizing Peter Ivanovich, sighed, went close up to him, took his hand, and said: “I know you were a true friend to Ivan Ilyich . . .” and looked at him awaiting some suitable response. And Peter Ivanovich knew that, just as it had been the right thing to cross himself in that room, so what he had to do here was to press her hand, sigh, and say, “Believe me.. . .” So he did all this and as he did it felt that the desired result had been achieved: that both he and she were touched.
“Come with me. I want to speak to you before it begins,” said the widow. “Give me your arm.”
Peter Ivanovich gave her his arm and they went to the inner rooms, passing Schwartz who winked at Peter Ivanovich compassionately.
“That does for our bridge! Don't object if we find another player. Perhaps you can cut in when you do escape,” said his playful look.
Peter Ivanovich sighed still more deeply and despondently, and Praskovya Fedorovna pressed his arm gratefully. When they reached the drawing-room, upholstered in pink cretonne and lighted by a dim lamp, they sat down at the table – she on a sofa and Peter Ivanovich on a low pouffe, the springs of which yielded spasmodically under his weight. Praskovya Fedorovna had been on the point of warning him to take another seat, but felt that such a warning was out of keeping with her present condition and so changed her mind. As he sat down on the pouffe Peter Ivanovich recalled how Ivan Ilyich had arranged this room and had consulted him regarding this pink cretonne with green leaves… She stopped weeping and, looking at Peter Ivanovich with the air of a victim, remarked in French that it was very hard for her. Peter Ivanovich made a silent gesture signifying his full conviction that it must indeed be so.
“Please smoke,” she said in a magnanimous yet crushed voice, and turned to discuss with Sokolov the price of the plot for the grave.
Peter Ivanovich while lighting his cigarette heard her inquiring very circumstantially into the prices of different plots in the cemetery and finally decide which she would take. When that was done she gave instructions about engaging the choir. Sokolov then left the room.
“I look after everything myself,” she told Peter Ivanovich, shifting the albums that lay on the table; and noticing that the table was endangered by his cigarette-ash, she immediately passed him an ash-tray, saying as she did so: “I consider it an affectation to say that my grief prevents my attending to practical affairs. On the contrary, if anything can – I won't say console me, but – distract me, it is seeing to everything concerning him.” She again took out her handkerchief as if preparing to cry, but suddenly, as if mastering her feeling, she shook herself and began to speak calmly. “But there is something I want to talk to you about.”
Peter Ivanovich bowed, keeping control of the springs of the pouffe, which immediately began quivering under him.
“He suffered terribly the last few days.”
“Did he?” said Peter Ivanovich.
“Oh, terribly! He screamed unceasingly, not for minutes but for hours. for the last three days he screamed incessantly. It was unendurable. I cannot understand how I bore it; you could hear him three rooms off. Oh, what I have suffered!”
“Is it possible that he was conscious all that time?” asked Peter Ivanovich.
“Yes,” she whispered. “To the last moment. He took leave of us a quarter of an hour before he died, and asked us to take Volodya away.”
The thought of the suffering of this man he had known so intimately, first as a merry little boy, then as a schoolmate, and later as a grown-up colleague, suddenly struck Peter Ivanovich with horror, despite an unpleasant consciousness of his own and this woman's dissimulation. He again saw that brow, and that nose pressing down on the lip, and felt afraid for himself.
“Three days of frightful suffering and then death! Why, that might suddenly, at any time, happen to me,” he thought, and for a moment felt terrified. But – he did not himself know how – the customary reflection at once occurred to him that this had happened to Ivan Ilyich and not to him, and that it should not and could not happen to him, and that to think that it could would be yielding to depression which he ought not to do, as Schwartz's expression plainly showed. After which reflection Peter Ivanovich felt reassured, and began to ask with interest about the details of Ivan Ilyich's death, as though death was an accident natural to Ivan Ilyich but certainly not to himself.
After many details of the really dreadful physical sufferings Ivan Ilyich had endured (which details he learnt only from the effect those sufferings had produced on Praskovya Fedorovna's nerves) the widow apparently found it necessary to get to business.
“Oh, Peter Ivanovich, how hard it is! How terribly, terribly hard!” and she again began to weep.
Peter Ivanovich sighed and waited for her to finish blowing her nose. When she had done so he said, “Believe me . . .” and she again began talking and brought out what was evidently her chief concern with him – namely, to question him as to how she could obtain a grant of money from the government on the occasion of her husband's death. She made it appear that she was asking Peter Ivanovich's advice about her pension, but he soon saw that she already knew about that to the minutest detail, more even than he did himself. She knew how much could be got out of the government in consequence of her husband's death, but wanted to find out whether she could not possibly extract something more. Peter Ivanovich tried to think of some means of doing so, but after reflecting for a while and, out of propriety, condemning the government for its niggardliness, he said he thought that nothing more could be got. Then she sighed and evidently began to devise means of getting rid of her visitor. Noticing this, he put out his cigarette, rose, pressed her hand, and went out into the anteroom.
Tolstoy also portrays in extraordinary detail the range of symptoms and emotions that afflict the ill. His scenes of suffering are astonishingly realistic, to the point that the observations of later psychological researchers like Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (the five stages of grief) and Ernest Becker (the denial of death) are already apparent in Ilyich’s account:
It was morning. He knew it was morning because Gerasim had gone, and Peter the footman had come and put out the candles, drawn back one of the curtains, and begun quietly to tidy up. Whether it was morning or evening, Friday or Sunday, made no difference, it was all just the same: the gnawing, unmitigated, agonizing pain, never ceasing for an instant, the consciousness of life inexorably waning but not yet extinguished, the approach of that ever dreaded and hateful Death which was the only reality, and always the same falsity. What were days, weeks, hours, in such a case?
Peter went to the door, but Ivan Ilyich dreaded being left alone. “How can I keep him here? Oh yes, my medicine.” “Peter, give me my medicine.” “Why not? Perhaps it may still do some good.” He took a spoonful and swallowed it. “No, it won't help. It's all tomfoolery, all deception,” he decided as soon as he became aware of the familiar, sickly, hopeless taste. “No, I can't believe in it any longer. But the pain, why this pain? If it would only cease just for a moment!” And he moaned. Peter turned towards him. “It's all right. Go and fetch me some tea.”
Peter went out. Left alone Ivan Ilyich groaned not so much with pain, terrible thought that was, as from mental anguish. Always and forever the same, always these endless days and nights. If only it would come quicker! If only what would come quicker? Death, darkness? . . . No, no! anything rather than death!
When Peter returned with the tea on a tray, Ivan Ilyich stared at him for a time in perplexity, not realizing who and what he was. Peter was disconcerted by that look and his embarrassment brought Ivan Ilyich to himself.
“Oh, tea! All right, put it down. Only help me to wash and put on a clean shirt.”
And Ivan Ilyich began to wash. With pauses for rest, he washed his hands and then his face, cleaned his teeth, brushed his hair, looked in the glass. He was terrified by what he saw, especially by the limp way in which his hair clung to his pallid forehead.
While his shirt was being changed he knew that he would be still more frightened at the sight of his body, so he avoided looking at it. Finally he was ready. He drew on a dressing-gown, wrapped himself in a plaid, and sat down in the armchair to take his tea. For a moment he felt refreshed, but as soon as he began to drink the tea he was again aware of the same taste, and the pain also returned. He finished it with an effort, and then lay down stretching out his legs, and dismissed Peter.
Always the same. Now a spark of hope flashes up, then a sea of despair rages, and always pain; always pain, always despair, and always the same. When alone he had a dreadful and distressing desire to call someone, but he knew beforehand that with others present it would be still worse. “Another dose of morphine – to lose consciousness. I will tell him, the doctor, that he must think of something else. It's impossible, impossible, to go on like this.”
Conversely, Tolstoy illustrates the mixture of pity, relief and disdain that passes through the minds of the healthy in the presence of the sick. Here he describes the conversations among Ilyich’s colleagues when they hear of his death:
Besides considerations as to the possible transfers and promotions likely to result from Ivan Ilyich's death, the mere fact of the death of a near acquaintance aroused, as usual, in all who heard of it the complacent feeling that, “it is he who is dead and not I.”
Each one thought or felt, “Well, he's dead but I'm alive!” But the more intimate of Ivan Ilyich's acquaintances, his so-called friends, could not help thinking also that they would now have to fulfil the very tiresome demands of propriety by attending the funeral service and paying a visit of condolence to the widow.
Fedor Vasilievich and Peter Ivanovich had been his nearest acquaintances. Peter Ivanovich had studied law with Ivan Ilyich and had considered himself to be under obligations to him.
Having told his wife at dinner-time of Ivan Ilyich's death, and of his conjecture that it might be possible to get her brother transferred to their circuit, Peter Ivanovich sacrificed his usual nap, put on his evening clothes and drove to Ivan Ilyich's house.
At the entrance stood a carriage and two cabs. Leaning against the wall in the hall downstairs near the cloakstand was a coffin-lid covered with cloth of gold, ornamented with gold cord and tassels, that had been polished up with metal powder. Two ladies in black were taking off their fur cloaks. Peter Ivanovich recognized one of them as Ivan Ilyich's sister, but the other was a stranger to him. His colleague Schwartz was just coming downstairs, but on seeing Peter Ivanovich enter he stopped and winked at him, as if to say: “Ivan Ilyich has made a mess of things – not like you and me.”
Few writers are able to so effectively capture the difference between our true thoughts and the way we mask them in social settings. (The sociologist Erving Goffman would receive considerable acclaim for similar insights in the 1960s, but once again Tolstoy was ahead of his time.)
In its own way, The Death of Ivan Ilyich is among the most radical works of literature. It is not dogmatic, it does not preach for a particular religious or political perspective, and its central character is not even a very likable person. But in Ivan Ilyich’s flaws we see our own, and Tolstoy’s skill is to make us want to rise above them — before it’s too late.