Introduction: The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy
According to Wikipedia,
“Tolstoy is equally known for his complicated and paradoxical persona and for his extreme moralistic and ascetic views, which he adopted after a moral crisis and spiritual awakening in the 1870s, after which he also became noted as a moral thinker and social reformer.”
What is The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy About?
Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych deals with the inevitability of death. Beowulf and Gilgamesh are two other classic literature books that deal with death and dying. The novella, The Death of Ivan Ilych starts off with Peter Ivanovich who is reading the Gazettee, a newspaper, announcing to Ivan Egorovich Shebek and Fedor Vasilievich, that their colleague Ivan Ilych, a member of the Court of Justice has died. Ivan Ilych suffered briefly with a terminal illness, and it was rumored that Alexeev would succeed him, and that that either Vinnikov or Shtabel would succeed Alexeev. So each of the men are thinking about how the death may impact them and their acquaintances in terms of promotions.
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The three are also thinking that they are obligated to attend the funeral and visit the Ilych’s wife. And each one is grateful to be alive. Of the three, Ivanovich was closest to Ilych – they attended law school together. After having dinner with his wife later that evening, Ivanovich visits Mrs. Ilych and views the body. When he arrives, he sees his colleague Schwartz.
Ivanovich enters the room where friends and family can view the body and isn’t quite sure how to behave. He does the sign of the cross and makes a small bow. After a short while, he cannot take it any longer – the invasive smell of death – and rushes out the room forgetting about propriety. Schwartz, who has a very playful nature is waiting for him in an adjoining room, and his presence immediately lifts Ivanovich’s mood. While he is passing, Schwartz whispers in his ears that they should play a game of cards later at Fedor Vasilievich’s.
But that was not to be the case because they were having a service that evening for Ivan Ilych. The widow, Praskovya Fedorovna, tells Ivanovich that she wishes to speak to him before the service, and she takes his arm and leads him into the living room. She is crying when Sokolov, the butler enters the room to tell her cost of the burial plot. While she is talking to the butler she tells Ivanovich that he can smoke.
When the butler exits the room, she tells him how much her husband suffered in the end, in that last three days, that he screamed constantly. Ivanovich enquires about Ivan Ilych’s death and happy that it isn’t him. She breaks down and starts to weep, when she gets under control, she launches into why she wants to talk to him. She wants a grant from the government and wants to learn how to get it. She already knows in great detail about how much of her husband’s pension she’ll get but wants to know how she can get more money. He thinks about it then tells her that she isn’t entitled to any more money.
In the dining room he meets more acquaintances. Ilych’s children are somewhat antagonistic toward him, as if he is the reason for their father’s death. They move into the death chamber and the service begins. Ivanovich is the first to leave to escape the scent of death, incense and carbolic acid. He heads over to Fedor Vasilievich, hoping that it isn’t too late to play a hand of cards.
In the Death of Ivan Ilych, Leo Tolstoy uses flashback to tell the story of Ilych’s life. Ivan Illych’s father uses his influence to get his son attached to the governor as an official for special service. Illych makes use of the opportunity and creates other opportunities for himself. He conducts his work in an exemplary manner. Ivan Ilych receives many promotions and moves when required. As he risse in ranks in the legal system, he never abuses his power.
“In his work itself, especially in his examinations, he very soon acquired a method of eliminating all considerations irrelevant to the legal aspect of the case, and reducing even the most complicated case to a form in which it would be presented on paper only in its externals, completely excluding his personal opinion of the matter, while above all observing every prescribed formality. The work was new and Ivan Ilych was one of the first men to apply the new Code of 1864.”
He met his future wife, Praskovya Fedorovna Mikhel, and when she falls in love with him, he decides to marry her and he also falls in love with her. She is very well connected, sweet, and pretty and owns some property, and is sympathetic to his views. Things are splendid until she becomes pregnant, then she expects him to devote his whole attention to her. He ignores her unpleasant moods and continues to enjoy himself, but the eventually submits to her constant nagging.
To gain independence he absorbs himself in his work and is rewarded with the position of Assistant Public Prosecutor. They have more children and his wife becomes more ill-tempered. After seven years he is promoted to Public Prosecutor. They move but Praskovya Fedorovna is unhappy and blames him for every inconvenience in her life. He starts to spend less and less time at home, and when he has to be there he makes sure that outsiders are there as well.
He lives for 17 years after his marriage and refuses several other transfers, waiting for the perfect position for him. He is expecting a position of presiding judge in a University town but is passed over for promotion. He doesn’t take the slight very well and is very vocal about it, which results in him being passed over for other appointments. The year 1880 is the hardest in his life. He needs more money because he has been living beyond his means.
After taking a leave of absence, he and his wife go to her brother’s place. He is very unhappy and decides to take matters into his hands and settles on going to Petersburg to find a position, any position that would pay him 5,000 rubles. This turns out to be a wise move on Ilych’s part because he unexpectedly obtains an appointment in his former ministry which places him two levels above his former colleagues besides giving him five thousand rubles salary and three thousand five hundred rubles for expenses connected with his removal.
His wife is delighted and they call a truce and get along much better. He buys a house and starts decorating it before the family arrives and he is so much in love with the house that he does much of the decorating himself. He falls off a ladder and badly bruises his side. He presents an air of being better off than he really is. However, his family is delighted when they see the new home.
Ilych’s personality changes and he has two very distinct personas. He becomes shallow and develops relationships based on what he is able to get out of them. He has parties and they invite anyone who is anyone and they drop friends and relations who are not in a certain class. Life goes on but the pain in his side continues to bother him, and he grows more irritable and the disagreements between he and his wife escalates. He visits the doctor, but the diagnosis is inconclusive. He goes home and is discussing what his doctor said when his daughter comes in, and shortly after they go out because they aren’t very interested in what he is saying.
The drugs don’t work and the pain becomes more severe. He visits other doctors and none of the diagnoses are the same and the pain continues to grow worse and he has this strange taste in his mouth. His appetite and strength wanes and his breath has a strong odor. Those around him seem oblivious to how ill he is, which angers and torments him. His wife thinks that his illness is his own fault. Playing bridge a game he loves, which once gave him pleasure, no longer does it for him. And he is thinking that something is poisoning him and he is poisoning those around him.
One month passes from the next, and when his brother-in-law visits he is shocked at the change in Ilych’s appearance. He visits Ivanovich who accompanies him to see another doctor. Once again he receives a different diagnosis. He realizes that he is dying and goes back in his mind to when he fell and hit his side over something as trivial as making sure the place is decorated just right. He becomes weaker and has a hard time working.
He is placed on medication which doesn’t help and he needs a lot of assistance. Gerasim, a peasant boy is very good in taking care of him.
He keeps on getting worse and his family is in denial about the seriousness of his illness. One night he calls out to God in his misery and suffering. In his despondency he looks back at moments in his life and realizes that they were not what they seemed at the time. He sees his preoccupation with money and as he examines his life, he realizes that it wasn’t a life well-lived. He continues reviewing his life and is not happy about what he sees.
The family is still in denial, and Ivan Ilych wants to suffer in silence and alone. His wife and daughter do not have a clue about what is important in life. The last three days of his life, time doesn’t exist for him. Two hours before dying, his son sneaks into his room and the son presses his father’s hand to his lips. At that moment, Ilych sees the light, and in that moment he realizes that even though he didn’t live a life worth living he can make a change right now. He embraces death with joy in his heart.
Final Thoughts: The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy
When The Death of Ivan Ilych starts, before the funeral services, Praskovya Fedorovna is concerned about how to get more money, and makes inquiries then. Most people would wait until their loved one is buried. We realize that she still doesn’t understand what is important in life. To her, life is about money. I recommend The Death of Ivan Ilych.
Great Ideas from The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy
- Keeping up with appearances: Do things because you want to, not because of how you will appear to others.
- Materialism: Ivan’s wife and daughter have misplaced priorities. They visit him out of obligation before going to the opera.
- Death and dying: Death is inevitable.
- How shall we live: Don’t squander the live you have been given.
- Living with anguish: Gain wisdom through suffering.
- Reflecting on life: Look at the choice you have made and how they impact your life.
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The Death of Ivan Ilyich (Bantam Classics)War and Peace (Vintage Classics)The Kingdom of God is Within YouAnna KareninaGreat Short Works of Leo Tolstoy (Perennial Classics)A Confession (Dover Books on Western Philosophy)Family Happiness and Other Stories (Dover Thrift Editions)Leo Tolstoy: The Complete Novels and Novellas (The Greatest Writers of All Time)Leo Tolstoy: Spiritual Writings (Modern Spiritual Masters)