The Death of Ivan Ilych, by Leo Tolstoy
While I was completely bowled over by Anna Karenina when I read it a few years ago, I was pleased to be able to visit Tolstoy again without having to make such a long-term commitment to him. I will get to War and Peace eventually, but for now I crave nothing more than this short tale was able to provide.
Ivan Ilyich is an ordinary man with average ambitions and realistic expectations who aspires only to live pleasurably and with propriety. As a respected judge, husband, and father, he does his duty and does it well. He bows graciously to the authority of his superiors and enjoys the position of power he maintains in respect to others. He is pleased with himself and with his achievements, until he falls ill as an older man.
Just as there is nothing remarkable about Ivan Ilyich’s life, there is nothing remarkable about his slow struggle toward death. His physical and spiritual decay is monstrous only because it is so banal. Ivan Ilyich considers himself perfectly satisfied in health, but in sickness he questions all the big life choices that have led to the present moment of his dying. He is angry and resentful that he must be a burden to his family, and that, like him, they are unable to fully understand what is happening to him. He sees nothing special in life, yet cannot surrender to leaving it. His last hours are spent producing a terrible scream, an insufferable howling “O” sound that haunts his family for an entirety of three days.
There is nothing interesting about this story, which is what makes it so stunning. An ordinary death is a predictable end to an ordinary life, and yet that ordinariness is itself what is so frightening. What the accused are to the judge, we all eventually become to death (ahem, are you totally bummed out yet?). This is an important reminder for all who can to live extraordinarily; for Ivan Ilyich’s battle is not only against death, but the ways in which it both cloaks and exposes mediocrity in life.
This is an unsettling and articulate investigation of mortality which I’m sure only becomes more disturbing and poignant with time. Recommended, then, with the caveat that this is Heavy Stuff.