Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Monday, January 13, 2014

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

Ivan Ilych is dying.  He keeps hoping beyond hope that his pain will go away and somehow he’ll get better.  Why is he caught so unprepared to die?  Students of the Great Books may want to inquire about Ivan’s reading habits.  The story goes that “After dinner, if they had no visitors, Ivan Ilych sometimes read a book that was being much discussed at the time…”  Maybe if he had read more Great Books he would have been better prepared to face death.  In the Great Books Program only Shakespeare and the Bible have readings in all five series.  Let’s look at these five Shakespeare plays to see if they could have helped Ivan.

Series 1.  Othello. On the surface there doesn’t seem to be much Ivan can learn from Othello about pain and dying.  Othello had a different problem, jealousy.  But Othello and Ivan have this much in common.  They will never have peace and contentment again.  Once Othello gets it into his head that his wife (Desdemona) has been unfaithful to him, he says: “I had been happy if the general camp, Pioneers and all, had tasted her sweet body, So I had nothing known. Oh, now forever Farewell the tranquil mind! Farewell content!”  Once Ivan finds out he has an incurable disease he can also say “farewell tranquil mind” forever.

Series 2.  Antony and Cleopatra.  Again there doesn’t seem much in common.  What does Ivan have to do with ancient Roman and Egyptian/Greek lovers?  Near the end of the play Cleopatra says “My desolation does begin to make a better life. 'Tis paltry to be Caesar; not being Fortune, he's but Fortune's knave, a minister of her will: and it is great to do that thing that ends all other deeds…”  To be Caesar and rule the whole world is a very great thing.  But even Caesars die.  This Caesar is just a “minister” of Fate and Fate has been unkind to Cleopatra at the end.  Now she has firmly decided she will not submit to Caesar.  How can she avoid it?  When she says “it is great to do that thing that ends all other deeds” she has already decided to take Fate into her own hands.  “That thing” is suicide.  Suicide is the only noble option available to her.  Ivan has the same option.  Or does he? 

Series 3.  Hamlet.  One of the most famous lines in all of English literature is “to be, or not to be.”  Ivan is horrified by the idea of dying.  Hamlet was also worried about what happens to us after we die; but for a very different reason.  For Hamlet it’s not so bad if death is just an eternal “sleep” because we will be totally obliterated.  But to sleep, perchance to dream; aye, there’s the rub.  What if (as we read in Dante’s Inferno) there really is divine punishment for suicides?  Ivan faces the darkness and thinks “There was light and now there is darkness.  I was here and now I’m going there!  Where?”  Ivan doesn’t know.

Series 4.  The Tempest.  It’s hard not to be self-centered when you’re dying.  What else matters then?  But Ivan may have used his time to reflect on what Miranda said toward the close of The Tempest: “How many goodly creatures are there here!  How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, that has such people in't!”  What a world this is.  Ivan might have taken time to figure out just what it all meant and where he was going next. 

Series 5.  King Lear.   Lear says “I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness… then, let fall your horrible pleasure…”  Nature is stronger than we are.  You can’t reason with storms or argue with cancer.  We’re frail human beings.  Accept it.  Ivan could have learned all this wisdom from reading Shakespeare.  Or maybe in the face of pain even Shakespeare fails.                                    -- Ron Perry 


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