Despite years of reading, rereading, and teaching great works, I continue to marvel at the inevitable timeliness of timeless literature. And so, as I prepare to teach “The Death of Ivan Ilych” once again, on the cusp of the month the Church has dedicated to All Holy Souls, I am struck by how Leo Tolstoy’s novella speaks to our present cultural and spiritual crises and man’s perpetual wrestling with suffering and death.
Tolstoy’s title and opening suggest that instead of giving us a biography—a writing about a life—he will give us a thanotography—a writing about a death. Tolstoy immediately upends our narrative expectations with this title: we know, even before reading a word of the story, that our protagonist is dead. What the reader learns through the title, Ivan Ilych’s two “closest acquaintances” (for he has no friends) learn through a newspaper notice “surrounded by a black border.”
After learning of his death, the reader is given a chronicle of Ivan Ilych’s life, which “had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.” As a young, worldly lawyer, Ivan Ilych acquires a pocket-watch medallion inscribed with the words respice finem (think of the end). This medallion, instead of acting as a memento mori, inspires rather something of the insouciance of which Charles Ryder’s dormroom skull, inscribed with et in arcadia ego, inspires in him in Brideshead Revisited. The invitation to consider one’s end is thus suppressed by Ivan Ilych, as he moves through a life of social pretension, professional dissimulation, and moral indifference:
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[H]e had done things which had formerly seemed to him very horrid and made him feel disgusted with himself when he did them; but when later on he saw that such actions were done by people of good position and that they did not regard them as wrong, he was able not exactly to regard them as right, but to forget about them entirely or not be at all troubled at remembering them.
It should come as no surprise to the reader, then, that Ivan Ilych’s “death blow” comes through something as pathetic as a fall from a ladder while hanging curtains for his vain, socially affected wife. We sense his oppressive loneliness as he confronts death without any human compassion or consolation: “[H]e had to live thus all alone on the brink of an abyss, with no one who understood or pitied him.”
Without an acceptance of the Incarnation, Ivan Ilych is unable to bridge the abstraction of death and his personal reality. He understands the logic of the syllogism he had learned in school: “Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal.” But “he was not Caius, not an abstract man, but a creature quite, quite separate from all the others. He had been little Vanya, with a mamma and a papa…. What did Caius know of the smell of that striped leather ball Vanya had been so fond of? Had Caius kissed his mother’s hand like that, and did the silk of her dress rustle so for Caius?”
Ivan Ilych also cannot reconcile the ordinariness of his life with the intensity of the pain and suffering he now must endure. He begins with a refusal to acknowledge his coming death, then moves closer to despair. In his final agony he spends three whole days screaming:
“Oh! Oh! Oh!” he cried in various intonations. He had begun by screaming “I won’t!” and continued screaming on the letter O.”
Reading these words, I was reminded of Robert Frost’s observations on that most emotionally resonant of human sounds: “I ask no machine to tell me the length of a syllable. Its length with me is entirely expressional. ‘Oh’ may be as long as prolonged agony or as short as slight surprise.”
Ivan Ilych’s “Oh” is definitely one of “prolonged agony,” yet it is through this protracted suffering that he finally comes to see the profound misdirection of his life. He is full of regret for his past actions and overcome with pity for those surviving souls (his wife and son) who will continue to live without the benefit of the moral clarity he now has been granted.
These final moments of the story reveal that, in fact, the entirety of Ivan Ilych’s shallow, “terrible” life had been a kind of death. When Ivan Ilych confronts this awful truth, he can prepare for eternity and finally begin to live. “And suddenly it grew clear to him that what had been oppressing him and would not leave him was all dropping away at once from two sides, from ten sides, and from all sides.”
In a paradoxical way, then, Tolstoy’s “thanatography” ultimately turns out to be the only true “biography.” And in witnessing Ivan Ilych’s final moments of clarity and grace, we as readers catch a fleeting glimpse of that true life which commences beyond the grave.
In a world that attempts to ignore the reality of death and to deny the possibility of meaningful suffering, “The Death of Ivan Ilych” stands as a reminder that suffering can be a tremendous gift, a vehicle of self-knowledge and grace. Flannery O’Connor, who battled illness throughout her brief life and has likewise given us fictional protagonists who endure great suffering, tells us in The Habit of Being: “I have never been anywhere but sick. In a sense sickness is a place, more instructive than a long trip to Europe, and it’s always a place where there’s no company, where nobody can follow. Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing and I think those who don’t have it miss one of God’s mercies.”
Dostoevsky once suggested that “the most principal and basic need of the Russian people is the need for suffering, incessant and unslakable suffering.” In “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” this suffering is not without purpose, and certainly not without God’s mercy.
In addition to reminding us of the need for redemptive suffering, Tolstoy’s novella also reminds us of the value and dignity of even the “most simple and most ordinary” lives. In this respect, “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” like the best of modern short fiction from Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” to Melville’s “Bartleby, The Scrivener,” and Flannery O’Connor’s “The Enduring Chill,” is inherently Christian, in inviting us to see the worth of even the most dull and unremarkable lives.
The best of modern fiction compels us to be interested in these outwardly unremarkable lives not as abstractions but as living realities, as individuals with names and identities. The classic passage articulating the crushing apathy of modern society toward such lives occurs in Nikolai Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” as the narrator speaks of the death of the non-entity “main” character: “They carried Akakii Akakievich out, and buried him. And Petersburg was left without Akakii Akakievich, as though he had never lived there. A being disappeared, and was hidden, who was protected by none, dear to none, interesting to none, who never even attracted to himself the attention of an observer of nature, who omits no opportunity of thrusting a pin through a common fly, and examining it under the microscope—a being who bore meekly the jibes of the department, and went to his grave without having done one unusual deed….”
The consoling irony here, of course, is that Akakii Akakievich, like Ivan Ilych, is not “interesting to none,” but is intensely interesting to at least two individuals: the author and the reader. Gogol’s 1842 short story thus championed the ordinary individual who had become a casualty of social alienation, and Tolstoy’s 1886 novella draws upon and enriches this theme. As Dostoevsky famously said of subsequent generations of nineteenth-century Russian writers like Tolstoy, “We all came out from under Gogol’s ‘Overcoat.’”
“The Death of Ivan Ilych,” then, reminds us that some of the most gripping and redemptive dramas occur not in the corridors of power, privilege, and prestige, but in the hearts and minds of individuals whom the world has declared insignificant.
Several years ago in his homily for All Saints’ Day, Pope Francis urged a similar respice finem to that confronted by the fictional Ivan Ilych: “Let us think about the passing away of so many of our brothers and sisters who have preceded us, let us think about the evening of our life, when it will come. And let us think about our hearts and ask ourselves: ‘Where is my heart anchored?’”
Each of us—our entire Church, and all of humanity—needs to confront this question with urgency, and Tolstoy’s powerful novella helps us do so.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is Leo Tolstoy on his death bed in 1910.