The Death of Ivan Ilych

Another short, interesting work by a Russian author is “The Death of Ivan Ilych” by Leo Tolstoy. Although it’s about a guy dying, some of it is actually pretty funny. And it’s a very powerful story that illuminates some profound truths about life and death.

The story begins with Ivan Ilych’s funeral. All of Ivan Ilych’s colleagues are gossiping about who’s going to get his post and who will get their post and so on. The man he supposed was his best friend, Peter Ivanovich, is trying to figure out a way to sneak out and play bridge but Ivan Ilych’s wife takes him aside.

“‘Oh Peter Ivanovich, how hard it is! How terribly, terribly hard,’ and she 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.”

Then we go back and get the story of Ivan Ilych’s life which Tolstoy suggests was dedicated entirely to impressing others and “doing the right thing” socially. Then, as he is hanging a curtain in his new parlor, he falls and gets poked in the side with a curtain rod. Then he gets a pain in his side and it gets worse and worse and he gets treated by lots of quacks who all prescribe all kinds of ghastly medicines and so on and so forth.

At one point he tries to conjure up some happy memories to console him in his dying agony:

“In imagination he began to recall the best moments of his pleasant life. But strange to say none of those best moments of his pleasant life now seemed at all what they had then seemed — none of them except the first recollections of childhood. There, in childhood, there had been something really pleasant with which it would be possible to live if it could return. But the child who had experienced that happiness existed no longer, it was like the reminiscence of somebody else.

“As soon as the period began which had produced the present Ivan Ilych, all that had seemed joys now melted before his sight and turned into something trivial and often nasty.

“And the futher he departed from childhood and the nearer he came to the present the more worthless and doubtful were the joys. This began with the School of Law. A little that was really good was still found there — there was light-heartedness, friendship, and hope. But in the upper classes there had already been fewer and fewer of such good moments.

“Then during the first years of his official career, some pleasant moments again occurred: they were the memories of love for a woman. Then all became confused and there was still less of what was good; later on again there was still less of what was good, and the further he went the less there was.”

There’s a real testimonial for the legal profession.

I love the ending of this story and since there’s little chance you will actually read it, I will tell you the ending because it’s going to be your ending and mine as well. It turns out that even if you waste your life on social silliness, you still find eternal joy:

“And suddenly it grew clear to him that what had been oppressing him and would not leave him was all dropping away at once from two sides, from ten sides, and from all sides. ‘How good and how simple,’ he thought. ‘And the pain?’ he asked himself. ‘What has become of it? Where are you, pain?’

“He turned his attention to it.

“‘Yes, here it is. Well what of it? Let the pain be.’

“‘And death… where is it?’

“He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. ‘Where is it? What death? There was no fear because there was no death.

“In place of death there was light.

“‘So that’s what it is!’ he suddenly exclaimed aloud. ‘What joy!'”