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The Death of Ivan Ilyich ( , Smert' Ivana Ilyicha), first published in 1886, is a novella by Leo Tolstoy, one of the masterpieces of his late fiction, written shortly after his conversion to Christianity.

The novel tells the story of the life and death, at the age of 45, of a high court judge in 19th-century Russia — a miserable husband, proud father, and upwardly-mobile member of Russia's professional class, the object of Tolstoy's unremitting satire. Living what seems to be a good life, his dreadful relationship with his wife notwithstanding, Ivan Ilyich Golovin bangs his side while putting up curtains in a new apartment intended to reflect his family's superior status in society. Within weeks, he has developed a strange taste in his mouth and a pain that will not go away. Numerous expensive doctors, friends of friends of friends, are visited in their surgeries, or called to the judge's bedside, but beyond muttering about blind gut and floating kidneys, they can neither explain nor treat his condition, and it soon becomes clear that Ivan Ilyich is dying.

The second half of the novel records his terror as he battles with the idea of his own death. "I have been here. Now I am going there. Where? ... No, I won't have it!" Oppressed by the length of the process, his wife, daughter, and colleagues—even the physicians—decide not to speak of it, but advise him to stay calm and follow doctor's orders, leaving him to wrestle with how this terrible thing could befall a man who has lived so well.

He spends his last three days screaming. He realizes he is "done for, there was no way back, the end was here, the absolute end ..." One hour before his death, in a moment of clarity, he sees that, far from having lived a good life, he has lived only for himself. After months of dwelling on his own anguish, he suddenly feels pity for the people he's leaving behind, and hopes his death will set them free. With that thought, his pain disappears. He hears someone say, "He's gone." He whispers to himself, "Death has gone," and draws his last breath.

Plot summary

Ivan Ilyich Golovin, a high court judge in St. Petersburgmarker with a wife and family, lives a carefree life that is "most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible." Like everyone he is aware of, he lives a life spent almost entirely in climbing the social ladder, and his life begins to amass more hypocrisy as it goes on. Enduring life with a wife whom he often finds too demanding, he works his way up to be a magistrate owing to the influence he has over a friend who has just been promoted, focusing more and more on his work as family life becomes more miserable.

While hanging curtains for his new home one day, Ivan Ilyich fell awkwardly and hurt his side. Though he did not think much of it at first, he begins to suffer from a pain in his side. As Ilyich's discomfort increases, his behavior towards his family becomes more irritable. His wife finally insists that he visit a physician. The physician cannot pinpoint the source of his malady, but soon it becomes clear that his condition is terminal. He is brought face to face with his mortality, and realizes that although he knows of it, he does not truly grasp it.

During the long and painful process of death, Ivan dwells on the idea that he does not deserve his suffering because he has lived rightly. If he had not lived a good life, there could be reason for his pain; but he has, so pain and death must be arbitrary and senseless. As he begins to hate his family for avoiding the subject of his death, for pretending he is only sick and not dying, he finds his only comfort in his peasant boy servant Gerasim--the only person in Ivan’s life who does not fear death, and also the only one--apart from his son--who shows compassion for Ivan. Ivan begins to question whether he has, in fact, lived rightly.

In the final days of Ivan’s life, he makes a clear split between artificial life, the life of himself and his family that masks the true meaning of life and makes one fear death, and authentic life, the life of Gerasim. Authentic life is marked by compassion and empathy, artificial by self-interest. Then “some force” strikes Ivan in the chest and side, and he is brought into the presence of a bright light. His hand falls onto his nearby son’s head, and he pities him. He no longer hates his son or wife, but rather feels sorry for them, because he has found at last a joy in authentic life and they will continue their artificial lives, fearing death. In the middle of a sigh, Ivan dies.

Interpretation

Many people have different interpretations for the end of the novella. One such interpretation is that Ivan Ilyich's whole struggle and agony ends with the great gift of a cessation of suffering. Another interpretation is that Ivan Ilyich's breakthrough is the freedom that comes with truth--in his case, seeing the falsity of his life, which enables him to have a brief moment of unselfish love or at least compassion for his wife and son. It can also be interpreted that Ivan did not feel compassion towards his wife, but pity, and saw the truth of humanity in his son, that is, what it meant to be truly human.

In his lectures on Russian Literature Russian-born novelist and critic Vladimir Nabokov argues that, for Tolstoy, a sinful life (such as Ivan's) is moral death. Therefore death, the return of the soul to God is, for Tolstoy, moral life. To quote Nabokov: "The Tolstoyan formula is: Ivan lived a bad life and since the bad life is nothing but the death of the soul, then Ivan lived a living death; and since beyond death is God's living light, then Ivan died into a new life- Life with a capital L." .

Perhaps another interpretation of the end of the novella is a more modern version of what Nabakov called God's living light: true consciousness. Ivan has been but a drone, living a lie perpetuated by society at large. In many ways he is analogous to Babbit in his pursuit of social ideals. Yet perhaps through his interactions with Gerasim, the dedicated and empathetic servant boy, Ivan begins to feel genuine human affection. Gerasim exiting the room thus begins the path of the snowball of Ivan's consciousness. He knocks on the door of self reflection, but tries his hardest to resist the truth. However, the momentum cannot be stopped. The kiss from his son's fingers acts as a catalyst for final acceptance and clarity. He can finally see his life through the lens of the truth, the emptiness of his history, and the fullness of what little future he has. As he breaks into the realm of consciousness he connects with his family. The clarity with which he now sees allows him to fall to death peacefully and with acceptance.

References

  1. Jahn, Gary R. Tolstoy's the Death of Ivan Ilʹich: A Critical Companion. Northwestern University Press, 1999, p. 3.
  2. Tolstoy, Leo. The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Penguin Red Classic edition, 2006, p. 57.
  3. The Death of Ivan Ilyich, p. 61.
  4. The Death of Ivan Ilyich, p. 103.
  5. The Death of Ivan Ilyich, p. 106.
  6. Nabokov, Vladimir Vladimirovich: Lectures On Russian Literature pg.237: Harcourt Edition


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