“What if I really have been wrong in the way I’ve lived my whole life?”
Ivan Ilyich in The Death of Ivan Ilyich
In the last post we saw how disruptive we, as individuals, can be to the possibility of ethics arising. If we follow a course of action throughout life, or even just for a few seconds, that can’t see past our own agenda then we effectively place ourselves behind a mirror where no one can affect us. Sometimes, it could be argued, this might be necessary to protect ourselves from threats. However, what we can all agree on is that such locking ourselves away is certainly not ethical and that we take the road of the solitary individual who cannot or will not take other people’s needs or lives into account, let alone their hopes, dreams or aspirations. An exemplary display of such isolating behaviour is found in Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich.
Written in 1882 when Tolstoy was fifty-four, and had literary success firmly in his grasp with such works as War and Peace and Anna Karenina, The Death of Ivan Ilyich is striking in its plot construction and concision. As Anthony Briggs comments “The title of the tale announces its ending”, which means that we are not going to be treated to a thriller that keeps us on the edge of our seats waiting to see if the protagonist can survive. We know that Ivan Ilyich Golovin is going to die no matter what and this sharply puts the authorial energy and readers’ focus onto how rather than if that death will come. The denouement declaration is matched by a shift in gears from the epic novelist to the writer of “relentless compression” according to Briggs, as Tolstoys pares down his prose to present a tight and urgent parable of the mis-spent life and inevitable death of a member of the Russian bourgeoisie.
The tale is also a literary masterpiece in the uncomfortably close observation of someone facing death. Tolstoy doesn’t spare the reader as he delves into the torment of Ivan Ilyich, who realises before the halfway point of the seventy page story that he is going to die. As Briggs states “there is no doubt about the devastating power of this harrowing narrative. Its literary quality, founded on grim descriptive realism and remarkable psychological insight, stands beyond dispute.” Ours, though, is a different focus.
From the outset we are met with ‘solitary’ characters who each pursue life solely with their own ends in mind and everyone else is a means to those ends. Ivan Ilyich’s friends and colleagues at the law court building, where he was a “Member of the Court of Justice” read of his passing in the local Gazette and we are told instantly who will succeed Ivan Ilyich’s position and the subsequent chain reaction that will shuffle the colleagues into new roles. As Tolstoy wrote:
“So, the first thought that occurred to each of the assembled gentleman on hearing the news of his death was how this death might affect his own prospects, and those of their acquaintances, for transfer or promotion.”
Plus, if we think about it, the supposed friends/colleagues found about about Ivan Ilyich’s death not through each other or from the Ivan Ilyich’s family but from the faceless organ of an impersonal newspaper. This is not the way most of us hear news of someone we cherish. Tolstoy mines the vein of self-interest further:
“’I must apply to have my brother-in-law transferred from Kaluga’, thought Pyotr Ivanovich. ‘My wife will be delighted. She wont be able to tell me I never do anything for her people.’”
Ivan Ilyich’s demise can therefore be put to good use for Pyotr Ivanovich and his equally self-invested wife. Well, isn’t that just dandy for them. Nothing like having one’s first thought being how might I profit for someone else’s misery, suffering or death.
To ensure that we don’t feel that these are somehow minor characters, in their own little universe looking in at the main events from a detached perspective, Tolstoy announces that Pyotr Ivanovich was one of Ivan Ilyich’s closest and oldest friends; law school buddies no less. Tolstoy then gives Pyotr Ivanovich centre stage by delivering him to Ivan Ilyich’s house and widow, after he filled his belly with dinner, to give his condolences.
When approaching the room where the body was laid for people to pay their last respects, Pyotr Ivanovich was at a loss as to what to do or what was expected of him in this situation. He had an ace up his sleeve though: “The only thing he was certain of was that in this situation you couldn’t go wrong if you made the sign of the cross.”
His respectability intact Pyotr Ivanovich continued into the room but was startled by the face of his friend and colleague because it seemed that “the expression contained a reproach, or at least a reminder, to the living.” Tolstoy draws this incident out to show both the humanity of Pyotr Ivanovich and also the swift determination to cover it up nervously:
“The reminder seemed out of place to Pyotr Ivanovich, or at least he felt it didn’t apply to him personally. But an unpleasant feeling came over him, and he crossed himself again, hurriedly – too hurriedly, he thought, the haste was almost indecent – before turning and heading for the door.”
Human feelings in the face of death are suppressed with the respectable tropes of orthodox religion that prevent any undignified behaviour. A friend, waiting in the next room, who exuded self-control and a marked air of being unperturbed by the whole affair, further assists Pyotr Ivanovich:
“One glance at his mischievous, immaculately elegant figure and Pyotr Ivanovich felt restored. He could see that Schwartz was above all this, and would be impervious to anything that might have been depressing.”
Lucky old Pyotr Ivanovich, eh? We wouldn’t want him to let his guard down and actually allow a real emotion to overwhelm him would we? Fortunately, for Pyotr Ivanovich, Schwartz further supports him as they very briefly arrange to play whist at Ivan Ilyich’s other ‘close’ friend’s house later that night. Whist is the group’s collective and respectable entertainment that befits their position in society as they see it.
At this point, Ivan Ilyich’s widow, Praskoya Fyodorovna, makes her first appearance to converse in private with Pyotr Ivanovich. She and he make a play of grieving under Tolstoy’s deft and precise hand that shows the hypocrisy of each through their words, actions and Pyotr Ivanovich’s thoughts. She relates, “He screamed for three solid days without stopping for breathe. It was unbearable. I don’t know how I got through it.” To which we see his self-involved response which appears to ignore any possible sympathy for his friend and colleague:
“’… Just think, it could happen to me any time, now,’ he thought, and he felt that momentary pang of fear. But immediately he was saved, without knowing how, by the old familiar idea that this had happened to Ivan Ilyich, not him, and it could not and would not happen to him, and that kind of thinking would not happen to him, and that kind of thinking would put him in a gloomy mood, for which there was no need, as Schwartz’s face had clearly demonstrated.”
Praskoya Fyodorovna then proceeds to the real business of grilling Pyotr Ivanovich for his knowledge of how to use the death of her husband to get money out of the Treasury. His lack of knowledge, however, allows her to dispense with him and for him to escape her company. He has finished being useful to her and he desires the front door and his game of whist.
But what of Ivan Ilyich himself? Was he any better than this coven of respectable parasites?
The middle son of a Privy Councillor in Petersberg after working in various ministries, Ivan Ilyich emulated his father, but not as successfully as his older brother. Magistrates’ courts in a few towns found themselves occupied by his presence for a time until his early death at forty-five following a fall from a step-ladder and injuring his side on a window-frame knob. Throughout his mature years he became fixated on demonstrating that he had achieved the trappings of success and lived with Praskoya Fyodorovna and their two children in their perfect homes that were actually devoid of any warmth, affection or love save from their son Vladimir Ivanich – Vasya – who still retained his childish innocence.
The slow decline of Ivan Ilyich’s health over a period of months is duly catalogued by Tolstoy, with the interactions of family members becoming more and more distant, grating and painful to all as they all try to ignore Ivan Ilyich’s terminal status. Bleakly, though, Ivan Ilyich has started staring into the abyss and morosely feeling sorry for himself: “Ivan Ilyich could see that he was dying, and he was in constant despair.” A parade of doctors attends to monitor, assess, discuss ‘blind-gut’ and ‘floating kidney’ symptoms whilst Praskoya Fyodorovna steadfastly sticks to her developed mantra “He just won’t do as he’s told!”
By the mid-point of doctors’ visits, though, Ivan Ilyich has changed. His annoyance with his wife has turned to hatred, but most of all he settled upon a single focus for his frustration, pain and distress:
“Ivan Ilyich’s worst torment was the lying – the lie, which was somehow maintained by them all, that he wasn’t dying, he was only ill, and all he had to do was keep calm and follow doctor’s orders and then something good would emerge. Whereas he knew that, whatever was done to him, nothing would emerge but more agony, suffering and death.”
Finally, Ivan Ilyich begins to gain a humane perspective on his situation. He is dying, but the others around him, and even he himself at times, are acting in denial of this unpleasant truth.
“He could see that the awful, terrible act of his dying had been reduced by those around him to the level of an unpleasant incident, something rather indecent (as if they were dealing with someone who had come into the drawing-room and let off a bad smell), and this was done by exploiting the very sense of ‘decency’ that he had been observing all his life.”
The ‘decencies’ of social parties with their close circle of friends, once they had “shrugged off and discarded all the shabby friends and relatives who flocked around”, the routine of work where “the trick was to eliminate the element of crude everyday life that always disrupts the smooth flow of official business”, the success of life that enabled him to buy an apartment with “spacious, high-ceilinged reception rooms with their old-fashioned décor, the gracefully appointed and comfortable study, the rooms for his wife and daughter, the classroom for his son”, all of it had become cast into shadow. The realisation that his life had been spent in a mind-set of superficial and self-serving activities, that he positively encouraged and instilled in those around him, was becoming apparent as the others continued to uphold these ‘virtues’ of decency and respectability. Tolstoy has brought Ivan Ilyich’s life to the point of tragic realisation as the dying man realises the full extent of what he has brought upon himself in his hour of need, the cultivation of denial, disinterest and detachment in the behaviour of others towards him combined with the hammer-blow thought that “Maybe I didn’t live as I should have done?”
The hammer, however, only managed a glancing blow. When “wanting to weep, wanting to be cuddled and have tears shed over him”, a colleague, Shebek, appears in his room:
“And, instead of weeping and getting some tenderness, Ivan Ilyich puts on a solemn and serious face, looks thoughtful and from sheer habit not only comments on the significance of a decision handed down by the Court of Cassation, but goes on to defend it strongly.”
The lack of ethical behaviour in all the characters in the Death of Ivan Ilyich is palpable throughout, save for Vasya and Gerasim. Also, the bulk of the family and friends exhibit none of the manifestations to allow for otherness, which Silvia Benso ascribes such as touch, attention, tenderness or a sense of festival. They are all caught up in their selves too much to allow anyone else to impact in the slightest. Even loved ones, let alone friends are held at arms length at all times. To let down one’s guard and genuinely open up to meet with another person in the world of Ivan Ilyich is to run the gauntlet of social disgrace and risk being banished from sight just as Ivan Ilyich has banished so many in his working life when all he believed he was making judgement upon were “petitions” or “enquiries” of “official business”, not actually people’s lives. The scope for human interaction beyond “official business” is squashed harder than a persistent fly buzzing around a champion fly-swat Louisiana grandmother rocking gently on her porch with over a thousand ‘kills to her name.
Ethics and otherness do not fit into the tightly wound ‘decent’ society of Ivan Ilyich. A situation that only becomes apparent to Ivan Ilyich when he is sliding down death’s skewer to oblivion. The only person to ease his pain in the last few days of his life is the “peasant servant” Gerasim who has made it clear to Ivan Ilyich that he knows he is gravely ill and that he wants to try and make Ivan Ilyich as comfortable as he can: “It’d be different if you weren’t ill, but with things the way they are why shouldn’t I help you out?” And it is whilst looking at Gerasim’s sleeping face at the foot of his bed, in the middle of the night, that the hammer-blow thought comes again this time though to an Ivan Ilyich who can accept it rather than running from it:
“’What if I really have been wrong in the way I’ve lived my whole life, my conscious life?’
It occurred to him that what had once seemed a total impossibility – that he had not lived his life as he should have done – might actually be true… His career, the ordering of his life, his family, the things that preoccupied people in society and at work – all of this might have been wrong. He made an attempt at defending these things for himself. And suddenly he sensed the feebleness of what he was defending. There was nothing to defend.”
Possibly Gerasim’s innocence acted as a catalyst to Ivan Ilyich’s acceptance although this, of course and as it should be, is unverifiable. However, from this epiphany the descent into death proper came rapidly. Communion, at the instance of Praskoya Fyodorovna, was followed by a terse embittered “Yes” to her question “You really do feel better, don’t you?” Then came three unbroken days and nights of screaming torment, which only came to a halt when Vasya caught his flailing father’s arm, kissed his hand and burst into tears. Ivan Ilyich managed to express brokenly that he was sorry to Vasya and Praskoya Fyodorovna, although “Forgive me” came out as “For goodness…” Clarity then gripped him in its light and he realised that he must “set them free, and free himself from all this suffering”. The last gasps came and then death.
Ivan Ilyich the perfect example of the ‘solitary’ individual who at every turn blocked the Levinasian face of the other and all but nearly died by the hand he thrust into the world without touch, tenderness or attention. Only at the brink of death, once death is absolutely certain, did Tolstoy allow his tragically blighted eponymous anti-hero some compassion, and to realise it was compassion, from those two saving graces, Gerasim and Vasya, in this tale of torment and example of how not to live.