The only thing that is certain about life is that it will end. Therefore, many people look back on their lives when they know they’re going to die soon. Have they lived a good life? What constitutes a good life? Should death be feared? Lev Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich, about a man on the brink of death and desperate to hold on to life, tries to answer all of these questions. It’s considered one of the best novellas ever written, and is a classic of Russian literature. Want to find out what it’s about? Read on!
There is no better summary of Lev Tolstoy’s Russian novella than its title: The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Instead of focusing on the plot (for there’s nothing more to it than the eponymous character realising he’s going to die, and his reflection on it), By describing Ilyich’ death, Tolstoy describes his life. As a middle child, his first brother cold and distant, his younger brother a wild child, he is the perfect balance between them. And that’s what this book is really about: choosing the middle road, choosing balance, choosing the path of least resistance. But when Ivan falls ill and knows his death is imminent, he concludes that he has not lived a good life.
Because our existence is finity, we feel like they should be lived meaningfully, and it is only at the end of our lives that we will be able to decide whether it has been. When Ivan Ilyich looks back on his life, he notices that the choices he has made throughout his life have solely been influenced by external factors; his father, his friends, and society. For instance, he only married because society demands it, and when he bought an apartment in the city, he happily decorated it himself – but never realised that all middle-class houses look similar. He finally understands that he has always been dependent on others, and has never truly been in charge of his own life.
Death is mysterious. Is it a hooded man carrying a scythe? Is it the Fates cutting threads? Or is it simply our hearts giving out and our bodies giving up? We have no idea what it is and why we die. So the question is whether we should spend all our living days fearing death, or simply live our lives pretending not to see that it will eventually end? Ivan Ilyich underestimated his life, and because of that also his death; he never truly took life seriously, and as a result his impending death surprised and angered him. Only because he was dying, he realised that he had never truly bothered living. By that time, it was too late to do anything about it.
Facing death, Ivan Ilyich knows his life has been futile. His friends never valued him, his doctors never appreciated the pain he was in, and his wife and daughter resent him for staying alive for so long and complaining about it. Ivan, however, is determined not to give in to death, which is slowly taking on an almost physical form. Capitulating to death means accepting his life has been worthless. Eventually, of course, death wins – and when it does, it changes everything. At the very end of the novella, Ivan Ilyich seems happy to finally have died. He is no longer afraid of death, because it is no longer there; he ceased to be Ivan Ilyich, and with his passing, death has vanished too: he has left his mortal, bad life, and has gone to Heaven.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich is considered a masterpiece of literature, and has been interpreted countless times since its publication. Lev Tolstoy wrote The Death of Ivan Ilyich in 1886, after his religious conversion. He considered that the life people live in order to conform to society’s wishes is an empty life, devoid of any spiritual value. According to Vladimir Nabokov, a fellow Russian author, Ivan Ilyich’s sinful life equalled a living death. Only in death would his good life begin, because that was when he would be part of God’s eternal life.
Dutch author Arthur Japin (some of whose books have been translated into English) sees The Death of Ivan Ilyich as a major inspiration for his own novels. I recently attended an online book club which hosted, about The Death of Ivan Ilyich. He read the novella when he was a young man, and it reminded him of his father, who had committed suicide years before. He compared his first airplane flight (travelling to his father’s funeral) to surrendering yourself to things you cannot control – and then compared it to how we should live our lives, too. Death has been omnipresent in Japin’s life: he buried many of his friends, and his mother died when he was quite young, too; being a powerful woman in life, he felt her presence even after she had passed away – and he said that The Death of Ivan Ilyich helped him come to terms with it.
When it comes to my own interpretation, the more I think about Tolstoy’s novella, the more I realise that there are so many things I don’t know yet. I don’t know whether I’m living a good life, I don’t know how to live a better life, and I don’t know whether, standing in Death’s doorway, I will look back on my life and consider it worthy. Most of all, I have no idea what the meaning of life is. Here’s a thought: how about not spending too much time on how to live my life, and simply start living it?
Have you read The Death of Ivan Ilyich? Which books have changed your life? Let me know in the comments! Also, don’t forget to follow me for more book musings!