The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy

The Death of Ivan Ilych, Leo Tolstoy’s 1886 novella, has some scenes that are first-rate: well-constructed and affecting. Anthony points to the Kafkaesque qualities of scenes like the one at the sick bed before the family goes to the opera; this is certainly one of them. Ivan Ilych is consumed by his illness and full of hate for all the well people around him, and they are full of discomfort at having to deal with illness like his. It’s enough to make you ill watching it all.

The beginning of the novella, where a few of Ivan Ilych’s colleagues attend his funeral, is also very good. Pyotr Ivanovich, all the while reminding himself that though such a painful death “could happen to me at any moment,” for now at least, it’s happened to Ivan Ilych and it’s best not to have such important thoughts, speaks with the widow Praskovya Fedorovna. But what she says isn’t what she means, and what he says isn’t what he means, and Tolstoy lays out the exchanges between the two in terms of what each understands, what each is after, and how they go about it.

Her questions cenetered on how she might refer to the death of her husband in requesting a grant from the government. She couched her questions in terms of seeking his advice regarding her pension, but it was immediately apparent that she knew everything there was to know on the subject—certainly far more than he did—and what she actually wanted was to find a way of getting more money. Pyotr Ivanovich tried to think something up but couldn’t, and after—as a courtesy—condemning the stinginess of the government, he concluded that getting more was impossible. She sighed loudly and began obviously working to get rid of him. He understood, put out his cigarette, stood up, pressed her hand, and headed out to the front room.

The whole scene of the funeral is extremely artificial: the members of an artificial society coming together for a ceremony that must be even more artificial than usual if they are to continue their artificial lives without bursting at the thought of such a death. It’s a fitting preparation for hearing of Ivan Ilych’s artificial life and the only real thing in it, his illness and death.

The narrator here isn’t intrusive like Gogol’s, outright talking about himself and what he likes or doesn’t like and does or doesn’t want to spend time on. But Tolstoy still intrudes, at least for a reader like me who is a bit familiar with his life and some of his work. Ivan Ilych’s marriage begins to go downhill when his wife is pregnant, when “something new emerged, something so unanticipated and nasty, so heavy and indecent, that it could never have been stopped, and there was no way out of it.” There are even, “[w]ith the birth of the child, various attempts at feeding her, many of which failed, and…illness real and imagined of child and mother alike,” which I have read almost word-for-word before.

And toward the end, when we are closely focused on the last days, last hours even, of Ivan Ilych, the narrator’s morality becomes categorical. Ivan Ilych wonders if he could be suffering so because he did not live as he should have, “before promptly dismissing this only solution to the riddle of life and death as something absolutely impossible.” There seems to be little for the reader to do here; Tolstoy is heavy-handed and manipulative, and if you think there is some other solution to the riddle of life you can be sure it won’t enter in here. Most of the novella is unrelentingly grim, and while the end should be—and for many will be—otherwise, if you are not running along with this strong-willed narrator and the artist who engineered the whole thing it may be even more depressing.

5 comments to The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy

  • I’m not sure what a non-intrusive narrator looks like if this one is intrusive. But I think there is a legitimate question here of how universal the death, and the thoughts of Ivan Ilych, can or should be. It sounds like your problems with the ending are as much ethical as aesthetic, which is fair. Tolstoy can throw some Ya-gotta-be-kidding doozies at you.

  • Yeah, well, for most of it I don’t think he’s intrusive at all. But coming out and saying, this is the meaning of life, is pretty in-your-face I think. But yeah, I think aesthetically, I don’t have any real complaints. I am just ruined for Tolstoy at this point, though I still very much want to read War and Peace (I have only fond memories of Anna Karenina). Everything I know about him points to “nasty bastard,” and his work doesn’t exactly belie that knowledge.

  • I would argue that the nasty Tolstoy is 1) a late development, so War and Peace and particularly Anna Karenina are untouched, written under an earlier, more humanist ideological regime, so to speak – Ivan Ilych, though, was written under the new management, and 2) once in a while the writer crushed the polemicist, the greatest evidence of that being the very late Hadji Murad, which was apparently as great a surprise to Tolstoy as to anyone else.

    I guess within Ivan Ilych, I am not convinced that he really say “This is the meaning of life.” A single character, under extreme duress, jerks from conclusion to conclusion. Is the end, the very end, the light and joy and “Death is finished” a move to spiritual truth or a physiological response to the end of life? Tolstoy stops at exactly the point where he might be tempted to answer that question.

    Perhaps I am asking how universal Ivan Ilych is. Tolstoy may well have meant him to be universal – this is Man and Death, but I am not convinced that is the book he wrote.

  • Yes, all signs do point to the nasty Tolstoy being a late development, and I’ll have to definitely make Hadji Murad next on the list if it’s different as you say. Not that War and Peace isn’t on the list, but, you know, it’s kinda long.

    You make good points in your second and third paragraphs. I will respond to them quite lamely in the morning, sort of, but a preview: when the polemicist has made his ideas so well-heard, if not necessarily clear, how is the reader of fiction to ignore those points and really treat a story like this as the particular story of a particular man? Indeed, even without that, it would be difficult—we generalize from fiction, where possible, and Ivan Ilych is a fairly generalizeable fellow.

  • You did a great job of interpreting my weird hash of commas and dashes. I am sure I was quite sober when I wrote that. I must have been in a great hurry – but to do what?

    You’re not deploying The Devil against my position, are you? Unfair! I surrender, I surrender!