Every few years, but especially when things are, at least by society’s standards, humming along nicely for me, I reread Tolstoy’s novella, “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” (1886), to ensure I have not misrepresented to myself where “success” in life really lies. You see, Ivan Ilyich, a prosperous judge, a man who “got up at nine, had coffee, read the newspaper, then put on his uniform and went to court,” was, as he discovers while dying, an unhappy man. And it is the nature of this unhappiness, hidden at first from this unreflective being—hidden, at times, from all of us with “clean hands, in clean shirts”—that the magic of Tolstoy’s story lays bare.

Early in life, Ivan “was already what he would be throughout his later life…a capable man, cheerfully good-natured and gregarious, but strict in fulfilling what he considered his duty; and he considered his duty all that was so considered by highly placed people.” On this principle—doubtless correct, he thought, if only because the best society’s estimation seldom errs—he lived his life. He took a wife, had children, “sometimes read a book which was being much talked about,” and played the Russian card game Vint after hours. His real pleasure, we learn, was in hosting dinner parties “to which he invited ladies and gentlemen of important social position and passed the time with them similarly to the way such people usually pass the time, just as his drawing room was similar to all drawing rooms.” And, of course, he worked, morning and night, to build what turned into a prosperous legal career. “And it all went on like this without change, and it was all very well.”

But one day, Ivan begins to taste something strange in his mouth. He falls increasingly ill. So ill, in fact, that his wife—who now turns out to have been a poor match from the start—“began to wish for his death, yet she could not wish for it, because then there would be no salary.” Ivan’s family, and later, his friends, find his company unpleasant (it’s tiresome after all, to play Vint with a sickly, complaining companion). Expensive doctors are brought in, each with conflicting analysis of the malady, compounding Ivan’s suffering—and, consequently, his anger.

‘Death. Yes, death. And none of them knows, or wants to know, or feels pity. They’re playing.’ (He heard through the door the distant roll of a voice and ritornello.) ‘It makes no difference to them, but they’ll also die. Fools.’

This anger, perhaps not uncommon for anyone who experiences such a reversal of fortune, in Ivan, is all-consuming. It is all-consuming because the hitherto unreflective Ivan, bedridden and largely ignored except for the peasant-boy who assists with his physical needs, is forced to review his life. But unpracticed in these kinds of soul-assessments, Ivan is seemingly unable to discover the root of his torment.

‘Maybe I did not live as I should have?’ would suddenly come into his head. ‘But how not, if I did everything one ought to?’ he would say to himself and at once drive this sole solution to the whole riddle of life and death away from him as something completely impossible.

Happily, so to speak, a sort of insight does come to Ivan in the days preceding his death. It comes to him in the half-articulated feeling that “all that he had lived by…was all a terrible, vast deception concealing both life and death.” The final scene of the story, both horrifying and touching, depicts Ivan’s final revelation, a revelation that though his life “had not been what it ought…it could still be rectified.” What Tolstoy means by this scene, of course, shows whether or not men like Ivan have, in their final hour, an ability to find peace before the draw their final breath.

Like Plato’s “Phaedo” or Montaigne’s “Essais,” “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” is a text that, properly understood, prepares you for death. Read it, over and again, before it’s too late.

Image by Olga Popova

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