Life and Death of Ivan Ilych: A Study of Leo Tolstoy’s “Death of Ivan Ilych
Death strikes at the time when the human is at his weakest. The same happened with Ivan Ilych, who appears in Tolstoy’s short story “The Death of Ivan Ilych”. Leo Tolstoy released this short story after his religious conversations. The novella, which is believed to be the finest of his work, divulges the story of Ivan Ilych as he injures himself and is on the brink of death. Through a poignant piece of work, Tolstoy explores the theme of inevitability of death and the impermanence of morality and life. This essay will examine Ivan Ilych’s story as a reflection of his life.
The temporariness of life only comes out with the inevitability of death. Like everyone else, Ivan is also living a life unconsciously ignoring death and its arrival. However, one incident changes Ivan’s life – his fall from the ladder. He becomes aware of the life that he leads is fickle and artificial. And although, it takes time for him to grasp the reality, he eventually feels that “now it is all done and there is only death” (Tolstoy 2021, 36). The career, wealth, power, and status that he achieved during his lifetime could not save him from his eventual death. He has no option but to suffer through the rest of his life and ponder and rethink his actions. “It occurred to him that he had not spent his life as he should have done.” While leading a life of false beliefs and actions, he has not spent meaningfully and this realisation only comes with death. Though Ivan is not depicted as a religious person, his existential questions are now directed towards God, who Ivan believes to be closely linked to Death (Tolstoy 2021, 23; Donnelly 2013, 86). Therefore, his realisation and epiphanies about the importance of his life and actions come to surface only when he realises that his death is imminent.
Ivan’s life that is marked with wealth and social engagements is revealed as artificial and selfish when Ivan’s on the deathbed. The aspects of his life, which is values to be important, such as his house, his career, his wife and family make him more reputable in the society are not even by his bedside as he waits for death. “What tormented Ivan Ilych most was the deception, the lie, which for some reason they all accepted, that he was not dying but was simply ill” (Tolstoy 2021, 28). His family’s (except his son’s) disregard for his condition while he becomes immovable and closer to death makes him angry and he comes to hate the notion on which his family and people stand on. Therefore, Ivan gets a glimpse of the pretention of people in his life and motivates himself to do better with Gerasim’s influence. The real life, as Ivan observes in his last days, is filled with compassion and pity for others, much like the life of Gerasim. Gerasim, through his compassion for Ivan, lessens Ivan’s pain (Urban 2015, 46). On the other hand, Ivan, after being motivated from his servants’ actions, becomes unafraid of death. Therefore, Ivan realises the artificiality of his life, which is replaced by a need for authentic life.
Ivan’s pain is a part of life and is, thus, indicative that his story is about life. In the last few months of his life, Ivan’s life is filled with intense pain and agony which is characterised by both because of internal factors as well as external situations (Rosenshield 2014, 460). Because of his realisation about the fickleness of morality and the superficiality of his family members, his pain becomes stronger, and thus, it affects him more (Neimneh, Obeidat, Bani-Hani 2015, 66). His pain and illness unveiled the thin line between life and death. “There was no deceiving himself; something terrible, new and significant, more significant than anything that had ever happened in his life, was taking place within him of which he alone was aware” (Tolstoy 2021, 19). He is the sole carrier of his pain and neither ‘opium’ nor “injections of morphine” could lessen his suffering (Bakhtiari 2021, 568). This is a true reflection of his impending death, which is filled with pain, which can’t be shared with anyone. Moreover, his pain is psychological as well as spiritual and can’t be manifested into anything else. This pain is Ivan’s realisation of the life he led. Thus, pain, the central part of everyone’s life, also indicates the significance of morality.
However much does Ivan’s later years revolve around the life he led, his relation with death can’t also be ignored. The major incidence for Ivan’s realisation of his oncoming death comes through the dream he has of the long, dark sack. The sack seems to be a vortex and is controlled by a man who can only be described as the grim reaper (Ramin 2019, 389). “He [Ivan] struggled as a man condemned to death struggles in the hands of the executioner, knowing that he cannot save himself” (Tolstoy 2021, 41). This dream appears two times during his illness, representing the dooming death in the end which he is scared for in the first time. However, the second time he sees the sack, the black, dooming presence is replaced by a bright light which corelates with the positive realisation in his life. Moreover, his attitude with death which becomes all-embracing in the end is quite similar to Dickinson’s attitude for death. She also realises the importance for death as she “couldn’t stop for Death/ He kindly stopped for me” (Dickinson 2016). Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych” revolves around the protagonist’s life.
“The Death of Ivan Ilych” is one of Tolstoy’s masterpieces. The novella revolves around the life or rather the dooming death of Ivan Ilych, an upstanding magistrate. His wealth, social relations or the family could not save him from his terminal illness and as he lies on the deathbed, he realises the superficiality of his family except his son and servant, Gerasim. After contemplating his reality, he finally realises that his life and actions were taken upon to distract himself from the inevitability. In his final moments, he comes to accept the oncoming death while embracing his actions and cultivating sympathy for everyone around him.
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