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.