The Death of Ivan Ilyich | Leo Tolstoy | Fiction, Death | 1886 (reissued 2004)
In 2009, I took a class on ‘existential literature’ in order to satisfy an English credit requirement. The course had a pretty cool reading list with titles such as Grendel and Waiting for Godot, but at the time I just wasn’t interested and sparknotes’d my way through the lot of them. It’s quite a shame, really, as I missed out on the opportunity to analyse and discuss the literature in a group.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich was another book I was assigned to read in that class, but didn’t because I thought it was the most boring thing in the world. Fortunately, I tend to keep all my books (even the ones I don’t read!) and returned to it in earnest about a week ago.
This book is quite short (less than 100 pages), quite old (written sometime in the 1800’s), and very well translated from Russian. The first chapter begins with Ivan Ilyich’s funeral, the point of perspective being one of Ilyich’s previous colleagues, whilst the rest of the book describes Ilyich’s life and the events, thoughts, and feelings that lead up to his death.
Ivan Ilyich has what appears to be a wonderful life. Born into the upper-middle class, Ilyich does all the things that one is ‘supposed’ to do; work up the career ladder, marry, start a family, have a lot of nice stuff–and life smoothly transpires by for him. It wasn’t until Ilyich’s health started to deteriorate when he realised there was an end in sight and started to question his way of life. Ilyich struggles to cope with his impending death, reflecting on his past experiences and teetering between acceptance and denial until, true to the title, he dies.
For being such a short read, this book was a very thought-provoking piece of literature on human nature, life and death, and what really matters during our time ‘alive’.
Ilyich’s dance with death is quite sad. He’s in a lot of pain, knows he’s bitter and angry, hates that people lie to him about getting better (which was probably said with the intention of comfort but ultimately gives him false hope about his condition), and clings to any attention, pity, or slight understanding that people show him. Death is a journey one takes alone, and Ilyich was afraid of this.
Although every living thing must die, the journeys are different. Some may overlap, others not at all, but time and life itself goes on. In The Death of Ivan Ilyich most of the characters don’t contemplate their own death, even with Ilyich’s right in front of them. At Ilyich’s funeral, the whole ordeal is quite strange; some don’t know how to act, and it’s implied that many don’t necessarily grieve for Ilyich, but wonder how this occurrence will affect their own lives (the widow worries about money, the colleagues worry about how their positions will change at work, etc.). The idea of their own death, its meaning and implications, doesn’t seem to cross anyone’s mind.
Is it for you?
I love books that make me think, and as this one’s an especially short one, I’d encourage everyone to give it a go. Death is not necessarily a morbid subject, but can help you think about life. Today, we talk about death all the time, for example creating a bucket list or asking the question ‘what would you do if you knew today was your last day?’. Thinking about death can help us take steps to improve the quality of our lives, search for what makes us happy, and value the people and things most important to us.