Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, March 29, 2010

TOLSTOY: The Death of Ivan Ilych

There’s no instruction book about how to die properly. It’s one of those things you just have to learn by doing it yourself. And there doesn’t seem to be much agreement about how it should be done. Dylan Thomas says Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should...rage, rage against the dying of the light. On the other hand Emily Dickinson tells us that Because I could not stop for Death, he kindly stopped for me. In the end should we rage or go gently? Ivan Ilych did a little of both. Is death cruel or kind? For Ivan Ilych it was a little of both.

We learn the basic facts of Ivan’s life early in the story: Ivan Ilych's life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible. He had been a member of the Court of Justice, and died at the age of forty-five. This in itself is something to think about. Are the “most ordinary” lives really the “most terrible” ones? If that’s true then it might include folks like me and you. The very definition of ordinary takes in the majority of people. And we may even be more ordinary than Ivan. He at least achieved the high social position of judge and married an attractive woman from a good family: Praskovya Fedorovna came of a good family, was not bad looking, and had some little property. Ivan Ilych might have aspired to a more brilliant match, but even this was good. Like many people who start life out with high hopes and dreams, Ivan became disillusioned with reality. Very soon, within a year of his wedding, Ivan Ilych had realized that marriage, though it may add some comforts to life, is in fact a very intricate and difficult affair. Sometimes being grown up isn’t as much fun as it seems to be to children. And like many men, Ivan learned how to adjust to this new reality: he looked for lighthearted pleasure and propriety, and was very thankful when he found them, but if he met with antagonism and querulousness he at once retired into his separate fenced-off world of official duties, where he found satisfaction. Lots of men find peace at work, at a local bar, a golf course, fishing at the lake; whatever gets you through life, as long as you show up for work on Monday morning. Years can drift by like that. A whole lifetime can pass. Then what?

It wasn’t until Ivan was aware that he might be dying that the question suddenly occurred to him: "What if my whole life has been wrong?” Up until then he was content to just drift through life working at the office, fixing up his house, playing cards and avoiding unpleasant encounters, even encounters with his own wife and daughter. Then he one day got sick and went to see a doctor. The report wasn’t good: From the doctor's summing up Ivan Ilych concluded that things were bad, but that for the doctor, and perhaps for everybody else, it was a matter of indifference, though for him it was bad. It’s bad enough to find out you’re sick and may not ever get better again. To add insult to injury, no one except you seems particularly disturbed by this terrible news. And it gets even worse because you start thinking about it too much: His condition was rendered worse by the fact that he read medical books and consulted doctors. So there you have it. Ivan’s dying and the whole world seems to go on with business as usual. How can this be?

Ivan’s last days are spent in pain. He suffers terribly and there isn’t any easy way out. Ivan just has to go through the whole grim process alone. No one can suffer for him. No one can die for him. It’s something he has to do for himself. At first he rages: He wept on account of his helplessness, his terrible loneliness, the cruelty of man, the cruelty of God, and the absence of God. "Why hast Thou done all this? Why hast Thou brought me here?" He did not expect an answer and yet wept because there was no answer and could be none. But in the end death is a kindness and Ivan goes the way of all flesh. There’s no guidebook. We just have to do it.


Blogger Dee said...

thanks for this useful content... :))

3/22/2011 8:09 AM  

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