The abiding concern of the most controversial and often the most fascinating instances of Leo Tolstoy’s later fiction was the struggle for meaning in the midst of the author’s own existential crisis. Among that later fiction, there is arguably nowhere that struggle attains more pathos nor more honesty than in his novella, The Death of Ivan Ilyich.
Unlike other works by Tolstoy, the novella does not seem to contain an easily discernible, specific answer to the question of how one’s life should be lived. Perhaps a reflection of the author’s own inability to see a definite meaning in life or a definite reason for his own impending demise, or perhaps an expression of the very personal anxiety of reflection at such proximity to death, the physical decline of Ivan Ilyich is characterized by a parallel rising search for reason and meaning.
Though one is not given the particulars of Ivan Ilyich’s final realization, one is provided with the context and effect of that most joyous ultimate epiphany, as well as the particulars of the series of smaller revelatory modes of thinking which lead to it. As Ivan Ilyich passes through phases of thought, he gains more and more insight into his past, his life, and the nature of existence, ultimately concluding that what he has lacked and sorely desires is authenticity.
Society and Family:
The first phases of realization constitute Ivan Ilyich’s move from purely inauthentic, superficial living to an awareness of his context and his self. Directly after leaving the doctor’s office, wherein Ivan Ilyich saw the doctor, almost a parody of himself at work, going through the motions of diagnosing, Ivan Ilyich looks out at the world: “Everything seemed sad to Ivan Ilyich in the streets. The cabbies were sad, the houses were sad, the passersby and the shops were sad. And that pain [. . .] seemed to have acquired [. . .] a different, more serious meaning” (Tolstoy 62). Here, in a moment of possible projection, Ivan Ilyich gains empathy; where before he dealt in unemotional, businesslike terms, Ivan Ilyich now discerns a supreme sadness to his surroundings.
The excess of emotion in this passage comes in stark contrast to the doctor’s script on the preceding page, a reflection of Ivan Ilyich’s prior state of being. In relation to that worldly empathy, his own pain gains new meaning. It is as though the perception of grief in the external world allows the grief-filled portent of his own suffering to be felt.
The next part of this awareness stems from a consciousness of the superficial lives of Ivan Ilyich’s close contacts: “He saw that his household—mainly his wife and daughter, who were in the heat of social life—did not understand anything, were vexed that he was so cheerless and demanding, as if he was to blame for it” (Tolstoy 64-65). The willful blindness of Praskovya Fyodorovna and their daughter to Ivan Ilyich serves as an integral part of his eventual recognition that such blindness is dishonest and that he practiced a similar dishonesty for much of his life. Indeed, it is something as superficial as “social life,” namely the decoration of his household, which causes the injury which begins Ivan Ilyich’s decline.
The next phases of realization come when Ivan Ilyich becomes certain that he will die and begins to wonder where or if meaning can be found. In at last exiting his own denial of impending death, Ivan Ilyich opens the discourse which will consume many of his thoughts in the remaining pages: “Isn’t it obvious to everybody except me that I’m dying [. . .] Once I was here, and now I’ll be there! Where? [. . .] There will be nothing. So where will I be, when there’s no me?” (Tolstoy 68). A concern which seemed almost peripheral to Ivan Ilyich’s existence now becomes his most pressing worry: what will become of him after death?
In some sense, this is the moment of Ivan Ilyich’s own existential crisis: mortality forces him into a consideration of a future time when Ivan Ilyich no longer exists, which in turn forces him into a consideration of his contingent present existence. Later, just after recognizing that no reasons, answers, or meanings would come from above to ease his plight or justify his impending demise, Ivan Ilyich considers what he wants:
‘[. . .] Not to suffer. To live,’ [. . .] And he started to go over in his imagination the best moments of his pleasant life. But—strange thing—all those best moments of his pleasant life seemed now not at all as they had seemed then. All—except for his first memories of childhood. [. . .] And the further from childhood, the closer to the present, the more worthless and dubious were those joys. (Tolstoy 84)
This thorough dissatisfaction with his past, with his life, is the recognition of superficiality and inauthenticity in his chosen life. The closer his recollections get to the pure experiencing of childhood, the less his life appalls him, for at that time there were fewer expectations of him to fulfill social roles, or at least he had less knowledge thereof.
The persistence of his distaste and cognizance of past superficiality leads him to the conclusion that living as “one ought to” (Tolstoy 85) and living correctly are not synonymous. Ivan Ilyich turns, then, to the ostensibly unanswerable question of how one may truly live correctly. The closest answer to this question that the work provides seems to come in the form of the character Gerasim, who lives with sympathy despite health and youth. Yet Tolstoy is careful to show that even Gerasim is not fully conscious of his own eventual nonexistence by having him present—at the close of the first chapter—a clichéd sentiment concerning death as a result of providence. Even Gerasim’s providential assumption is surpassed in Ivan Ilyich’s final thoughts.
Beliefs and Concealment:
The last phases of realization for Ivan Ilyich come when he applies the same thinking he has developed in relation to his family and past to his personal beliefs, and then when he enters his death throes. Just before the three-day ending to Ivan Ilyich’s narrative, a priest is brought in to give him his final rites: “When they laid him down after communion, he felt eased for a moment, and hopes of life appeared again. [. . .] [His wife’s look and sound] told him one thing: ‘Not right. All that you’ve lived and live by is a lie, a deception, concealing life and death from you'” (Tolstoy 89). Here breaks his last bastion of hope for a persistence of consciousness.
Ivan Ilyich realizes that the entire narrative of spiritual immortality has perpetrated, on a much more devious scale, the same dishonest work as his earlier superficial pleasantness; the true nature of human existence has been systematically hidden from him for his entire life, and would have been hidden until his death perhaps, if not for the direct juxtaposition of the still superficial presence of Praskovya Fyodorovna with the last communion.
And finally, the realization of the alternate path comes at the last moment of life, in observing the pain he is causing his family: “There was no more fear because there was no more death. [. . .] He drew in air, stopped at mid-breath, stretched out, and died” (Tolstoy 91). Ivan Ilyich at last gains in epiphany a perspective which allows him to overcome his fear of death. Though Tolstoy conceals the exact details of that perspective, its effects are depicted: it allows Ivan Ilyich to view himself vicariously, and so to transcend, at least in imagining, the established (and so inauthentic) narrative of life, and it allows him to accept death as the last integral part of the experience of life.
In this way, Ivan Ilyich’s final realization can be interpreted as a move toward authenticity. Now, whether even Ivan Ilyich’s final epiphany is philosophically authentic is debatable, as it is clearly informed in some way by the external suffering of his family and as it provides outright respite from the fear of one’s own nonexistence. But the direction of the move, toward an authentic life—one more concerned with living than with playing a role—is clear.
Over the long agony of Ivan Ilyich’s wasting away, he, possibly due only to his proximity to nonexistence, slowly realizes that he has led a largely inauthentic life, and in the last moments of his life, at least in his own perception, rectifies it. This realization comes on slowly from a series of smaller realizations, first of his context, then of his life, and at last of his beliefs.
Whether or not Ivan Ilyich’s final conclusion—that attempting to lead an authentic life true to one’s will and aware of one’s existence will eradicate the fear of death—can be accepted as realistic, it can at least be hoped to hold true for the anguishing Tolstoy as he aged. Likewise, it can be hoped that all who live in that authentic mode, as they seek to reconcile the act of existing with the temporary nature of that existing, are able to attain Ivan Ilyich’s joyous “mid-breath” end.
Proximity to Death: