Tolstoy: The Death of Ivan Ilyich

October 12, 2014

9780099541066A change from what I usually think of when I think of Tolstoy: not the door-stopper tomes of Anna Kerenina or War & Peace, but a novella: sixty scant pages, but a very powerful story. I wonder what the Russian literature group will make of this…

In a modernist way, Tolstoy begins at the end, with the awkward, elusive and rather bored reactions of Ivan Ilyich’s work colleagues to news of his demise. From this point, I think we know we are in for a challenging read: a nineteenth century writer not presenting the standard, respectful clichés and responses to death. Furthermore, Tolstoy takes us in close, inside the unspoken thoughts of his characters, revealing the more unpleasant sides to their souls.

Having established death, Tolstoy backtracks to Ivan Ilyich’s rather dull, routine and unsatisfactory life, his lack of continued success in his profession and his empty marriage. It takes a while before we realise just how cleverly Tolstoy is manipulating his readers: he has deliberately chosen to have his hero nondescript, ultimately a sad failure in our , and eventually his own, eyes: the movement towards death of a more contented, well-balanced and likeable person would have perhaps had an altogether different effect. I also realised that calling his hero Ivan Ilyich has an immediate significance for Russian readers which might escape us: the name is the equivalent of John Smith in England, and thus Tolstoy invests him with the potential to be almost an Everyman figure: this is what it will be like for all of us, this suffering and emptiness is a much more widespread lot that we may care to think.

Medically, the premise behind the ‘accident’ which causes Ivan Ilyich’s fatal illness is nonsensical, but that’s hardly the point: his death is a consequence of his striving for material success and conspicuous consumption; the illness is drawn out over enough time for the effects on the hero and his family to be clear.

Again we are manipulated by the nature of the narrative, which focuses solely on the death through the hero’s point of view, thoughts and consciousness: we are given hardly any response from the perspective of his wife, daughter and son, which underlines his isolation and suggests their total lack of love for him.

So he must come to terms with his unsatisfactory life, and his inevitable death, all on his own; yes, the family are there, on the periphery of things, but he seems to feel they resent him, and he has the picture of them getting on with living whilst he must get on with dying: this is true, and what else can one do? But Tolstoy makes us realise the pain and torment this can add to the physical process of death. And Ivan Ilyich comes to hate his family for it…

‘Tout le monde est le premier à mourir’ says the king in Ionesco’s Le Roi Se Meurt. ‘Jeder stirbt für sich allein’ as Hans Fallada called his powerful novel. And this is something that we all must come to realise one day. Sorry if I’ve depressed you; it is a very good read.

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