Editors’ note: For an introduction to our Commending the Classics series in The Death of Ivan Ilych, you can the first and second installments from Leland Ryken. This week, Ryken suggests reading chapters 5-12.
While chapter 4 has already portrayed the onset of Ivan’s serious illness, the new development that enters with chapter 5 (and that will persist to the end of the story) is the premise that Ivan is a dying man. The main action is twofold: (1) the indifference and deceptiveness of Ivan’s family and acquaintances regarding his illness, and (2) the thoughts and feelings that run through Ivan’s mind as he suffers physical and mental anguish and seeks to understand the meaning of his past and future. The exception to the prevailing indifference of the world is Ivan’s butler, Gerasim, who shares Ivan’s suffering, who “alone did not lie,” and who holds Ivan’s legs on his shoulders to ease the pain.
As Ivan ponders the meaning of his life and approaching death, he comes to the shocking conclusion that his life of conformity had been a sham and that “there was nothing to defend” in regard to it. On his deathbed Ivan moves beyond this conviction of his lost condition to a state of salvation. This is handled with literary indirectness and subtlety, and by means of symbolism, but it is unmistakable. Ivan falls through the black sack that had impeded his progress and enters into light and joy, finally declaring “death is finished. It is no more.”
The main interest of the second half of the story is the moral and spiritual progress of the protagonist, ending with his physical death and spiritual regeneration. But before we chart that progress, we need to register something that remains constant. The falsity, deceptiveness, and insensitivity of Ivan’s family and acquaintances are a background chorus to everything Ivan experiences. Tolstoy keeps coming back to the way in which Ivan’s society does not “get it” in regard to human suffering, illness, and dying.
The story accomplishes several things with this technique. One thrust is satiric, as Tolstoy makes a scathing indictment of modern society. The object of satiric attack is the way in which people deny the reality of death, both in regard to themselves and also to the dying. As always with satire, as readers we see the folly of what is portrayed, and we are invited to avoid the same folly in our own lives.
Additionally, the deceptiveness of people in their interactions with Ivan is a leading ingredient in his suffering. We read, for example, that “this deception tortured him.” And again, “This falsity around him . . . did more than anything else to poison his last days.” Ivan comes to hate his family members because they ignore him and even pretend that he is not dying.
The servant Gerasim stands as a foil to the other characters. He does not pretend that Ivan is not dying. He does not avoid contact with Ivan. In fact, he holds Ivan’s legs up on his shoulders “easily, willingly, simply, and with a good nature that touched Ivan Ilych.” It is in the nature of storytelling that the writer puts examples before us—positive examples to emulate and negative examples to avoid.
For reflection or discussion: We can profitably ask three questions regarding the deceptiveness of the death-dying culture portrayed in this story: (1) how do we see the same thing in our own culture, (2) how do we see the impulse within ourselves, and (3) what do we resolve to do about the situation?
Psychology of Facing Death
Truthfulness to human experience is one of the great contributions of literature. The classical tradition spoke of literature as an imitation of life. Other eras (as well as Shakespeare in a famous speech by Hamlet) called it “holding the mirror up to nature.”
One of the things that makes The Death of Ivan Ilych so riveting is that it takes us through the thoughts and feelings that surge through all of us when we have a physical ailment. We can credit Tolstoy with “getting it right.” One strand is the fluctuations that tyrannize Ivan’s thought life. For example, “Now a spark of hope flashes up, then a sea of despair rages.” When the doctor says in reply to a question from Ivan that there was a possibility of recovery, Ivan experiences a “gleam of hope” that “did not last long.” We also read that since the onset of Ivan’s illness his life “had been divided between two contrary and alternating moods”—despair and intense “observation of the functioning of his organs.”
Tolstoy also does a masterful job of capturing the psychology of living with anguish (in this case awareness of dying) that becomes a constant mental preoccupation. At one point death becomes a personified “It” that stands before Ivan incessantly. In another memorable image, death becomes a “narrow, black sack” into which Ivan is being pushed. There are moments when Ivan “wept like a child.” This is what it is like to live with a tyrannizing problem.
Part of the psychology that the story portrays consists of the voices that arise within Ivan. We read that “it was as though he were listening . . . to the voice of his soul, to the current of thoughts arising within him.” The voice asks, for example, “What do you want?” Ivan replies, “To live and not to suffer.” And so forth.
A further dimension of the psychology of suffering that Tolstoy portrays is the impulse to blame God. At one point we read that Ivan “wept on account of his helplessness, his terrible loneliness, the cruelty of man, the cruelty of God, and the absence of God.” He also asks of God, “Why dost Thou torment me so terribly?”
For reflection or discussion: What strikes you as skillful about Tolstoy’s portrayal of the psychology of suffering and dying? How does that portrayal correspond to some of your own experiences?
Conviction of Sin
The theme of wisdom through suffering has held an esteemed place in serious imaginative literature from the Book of Job and ancient Greek tragedy through King Lear to a modern work like The Death of Ivan Ilych. Additionally, no matter how moved we are by Tolstoy’s handling of social critique and psychological analysis (as discussed above), the central aspect of this story is the spiritual journey of the protagonist. That journey falls into two distinct phases, and these correspond to what theologians call the order of salvation.
Like Job, Ivan seeks to understand the meaning of his suffering. At one point he asks, “Why, and for what purpose, is there all this horror?” And later, “Why these sufferings?” And again, “If I could only understand what it is all for.” Ivan becomes a latter-day Socrates in his belief that the unexamined life is not worth living.
The first step toward answering the “why” question is Ivan’s decision to cast a retrospective look at his life. Early in that thought process, having told his inner voice that he wants “to live and not to suffer,” the inner voice asks, “To live? How?” Ivan replies, “Why, to live as I used to—well and pleasantly.” This provides the impetus for him to look back on his “pleasant” life.
Ivan quickly comes to the conclusion that his shallow life was “worthless.” In fact, “the longer it lasted the more deadly it became.” Of course the complacency of his social setting makes it hard for Ivan to admit this: “‘Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done,’ it suddenly occurred to him. ‘But how could that be, when I did everything properly?'”
The conviction keeps growing that “what had appeared perfectly impossible before, namely that he had not spent his life as he should have done, might after all be true.” This prompts Ivan to “pass his life in review in quite a new way.” His conclusion: the life he had lived “was not real at all, but a terrible and huge deception which had hidden both life and death.”
This conviction of sin remains with Ivan right up to the moment of his conversion on the verge of his death. Ivan “realized that he was lost” [a theology-laden word]. In this awareness, he experiences the sensation of being forced into a black sack, struggling “as a man condemned to death struggles in the hands of the executioner, knowing that he cannot save himself” [and we should note the theological nuance of the word save]. Ivan feels unable “to get right into it [i.e., the black sack],” and the double meaning of the word right should not escape us: Ivan cannot go into the afterlife “right.”
For reflection or discussion: The foregoing quick trip through Ivan’s growing awareness that he is a lost soul does not do justice to the detail with which Tolstoy chronicles Ivan’s coming to an awareness of the failure of the life he has lived. As you peruse the text, what for you are the important landmarks in Ivan’s growing conviction of sin? The biggest obstacle to Ivan’s achieving salvation is “his conviction that his life had been a good one. That very justification of his life . . . prevented his moving forward.” How have you observed the same phenomenon in your own life or in the lives of acquaintances?
Ivan’s moment of conversion is handled in a thoroughly literary way, that is, by indirection, symbolism, allusion, and metaphor. It is certainly not preachy or overly explicit. This is to Tolstoy’s credit, and the fact that some (not all) secular readers do not see the Christian nature of the experience should not deter us in the least from celebrating the Christian conclusion to the story.
To begin, the image of being forced into the black sack of death and of not able to get into it “right” has by now taken on a life of its own in the story. That is all the preparation we need in order to understand the moment of transformation when Ivan “fell through the hole and there at the bottom was a light.” Key biblical verses provide a good context for this symbolic use of light (e.g., Matthew 4:16; John 3:21 and 8:12; 1 John 1: 5, 7).
The very next sentence compares what has just happened to the experience of someone on a train who thinks he is going backward when he really going forward “and becomes aware of the real direction.” Ivan has changed spiritual direction. We might imagine Jesus saying parabolically, “The kingdom of heaven in like a man riding in a railway carriage. . . .” There is also the symbolism of Ivan’s screaming in pain for three days, “during which time did not exist for him.” Falling through the sack occurs “at the end of the third day, two hours before his death.”
The conversion motifs keep tumbling out. At the very moment that Ivan “fell through and caught sight of the light, . . . it was revealed to him [note the theological overtones] that though his life had not been what it should have been, this could still be rectified.” Earlier he had hated his family, but now he “felt sorry for both his son and his wife.” He tries to say “forgive me” but instead says “forgo, but he is not troubled by this because he knows “that He [capitalized] whose understanding mattered would understand.”
Ivan experiences the sensation of losing a burden, “dropping away at once from two sides, from ten sides, from all sides.” He “sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. ‘Where is it? What death?’ There was no fear because there was no death.” “In place of death there was light. ‘So that’s what it is!’ he suddenly explained aloud. ‘What joy!'” The rebirth is instantaneous (“all this happened in a single instant”) and its effect permanent (“and the meaning of that instant did not change”). Someone near Ivan says, “It is finished,” and Ivan repeats the words “in his soul.” “Death is finished,” Ivan says; “it is no more,” in obvious reference to Revelation 21:4 (see also 2 Timothy 1:10 and John 5:24).
For reflection or discussion: The foregoing commentary says enough to make the case for the Christian meaning of the story’s conclusion, but it does not exhaust the nuances Tolstoy packed into the last three pages; what do you see in addition? Chapter 1 says regarding the look on the deceased Ivan’s face conveys that “what was necessary had been accomplished, and accomplished rightly”; how does the last chapter explain that statement? It is the task of Christian storytellers and poets to “sing a new song”—to express the timeless truths of the Christian faith with fresh vision or new effect; how does Tolstoy’s story do this for you?