Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, January 06, 2014

TOLSTOY: The Death of Ivan Ilych (Ivan and Aristotle)

Life has a beginning, a middle and an end. Common sense tells us that every good story also has a beginning, a middle and an end. Aristotle agreed. But that doesn’t mean every good story has to actually start at the beginning of the tale. Homer began his story of the Iliad right in the middle of the Trojan War. And Tolstoy begins his story about The Death of Ivan Ilych after Ivan has already died. In other words, Tolstoy begins his story at the end. Can he do that? Well, he did it. It’s his story. Was it a success? Aristotle believes the ingredients for a successful story is this: “Plot is the first essential; the very soul, as it were, of tragedy. Character comes second.” Aristotle says a good plot and well-defined characters make for good literature. The plot of Tolstoy’s story could well be the plot of everyone: we’re born into this world, struggle to find our place among other people in society, and then we leave this world behind. End of story. Tolstoy got the plot right. How well did he do defining the life of this character named Ivan Ilych?
Chapter 1. “Ivan Ilych has died!” Well that takes care of that. Ivan Ilych is dead. What’s left to tell? By starting at the end of Ivan’s life Tolstoy gives the reader an invitation to ponder a basic question: What is the proper human response to suffering and death? The reason the question is so important is because this is what, one day, we all face. Then why, just like Ivan’s family and friends, do we have such a hard time dealing with suffering and death? Tolstoy gets to the heart of the issue by picturing Ivan in his casket: “…as is always the case with the dead, his face was handsomer and above all more dignified than when he was alive. The expression on the face said that what was necessary had been accomplished, and accomplished rightly. Besides this there was in that expression a reproach and a warning to the living.” What is this reproach and warning to the living? Now we’re ready to go back and start the story at its proper place, in the beginning.
Chapter 2. Tolstoy gives the reader a hint about the response we should have toward suffering and death: “Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.” Make no mistake: suffering and death are terrible things. But they will come anyway, regardless of how we try to avoid them. Ivan spent his whole life pursuing a pleasant life. He wasn’t a bad guy. Nevertheless, at the end he still suffered terribly. Aristotle had this to say about that: “Happiness requires completeness in virtue as well as a complete lifetime. Many changes and all kinds of contingencies befall a man in the course of his life, and it is possible that the most prosperous man will encounter great misfortune in his old age…” Ivan Ilych died in great pain at the age of forty-five. Would anyone looking at Ivan in his coffin really think: here lies a happy man? No.
Chapter 3. Dead people are neither happy nor sad. They’re just dead. But there were times in life when Ivan had been happy: “Ivan Ilych had unexpectedly obtained an appointment… giving him five thousand rubles salary… Ivan Ilych was completely happy… after a stumble, his life was regaining its due and natural character of pleasant lightheartedness and decorum.” And that may be a clue to the reproach and warning to the living. There’s nothing wrong with pleasant lightheartedness and decorum. Aristotle says when we talk about the good life “we do not mean a man who lives his life in isolation, but a man who also lives with parents, children, a wife, and friends and fellow citizens generally…” Ivan had all of these. But life was just beginning; the middle was yet to come. And the end too.


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