Tuesday, 27 April 2010

The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy

Ivan Ilych lived a good life. He lived the kind of life most people think they would have loved to have. The question is, was it really as good as it looked or was it like a pretty cake that tasted like cardboard? Ivan grew up climbing the social ladder almost before he could climb out of his crib. His education, social life and family life all centred on moving up and earning more, to cover that debt one ran up from spending just a little more than one earned. He considers himself quite happy, excepting a little marital discomfort and occasional problems with his children. However, he manages to focus his attention on the positive things in his life, like promotion, pay raises and social status and with that life little discomforts fade into the background. Then one day, Ivan hits his side while redecorating his newly purchased house, which goes with his promotion, and subsequently falls ill several weeks later. Although it is unclear exactly what is wrong with him, everyone knows that Ivan is dying.

Unable to do anything for many weeks on end, but lay on his couch dying a slow and painful death, Ivan has lots of time to reflect on his life and whether it was really all it was cracked up to be. He begins to regret his lack of a happy family life and to see his family members in a new light, and in turn, sees that his social climbing was really quite different and less rewarding than he had told himself it was. He spent much of his life fooling himself and now feels he must atone for this in death.

Fortunately, this is more of a short story than a full blown novel. Had it been longer, it might have become quite depressing and very tedious. It’s a good length for the subject matter and I found it to be surprisingly good and slightly less depressing than I had assumed it would be. It feels almost like a voyeuristic novel in as much as you are privy to Ivan’s thoughts as well as his actions. It’s like watching someone think while he lives his life, which allows the reader to see that what Ivan sees doesn’t necessarily reflect reality.

I’m not sure how accurately I can review this book. I have a feeling that in order to figure out what Tolstoy wanted to say, you need to know more about him and his works. So, in a bid to get a little more information, I looked the book up in Wikipedia and found this:

“In his lectures on Russian Literature Russian-born novelist and critic Vladimir Nabokov argues that, for Tolstoy, a sinful life (such as Ivan's) is moral death. Therefore death, the return of the soul to God is, for Tolstoy, moral life. To quote Nabokov: "The Tolstoyan formula is: Ivan lived a bad life and since the bad life is nothing but the death of the soul, then Ivan lived a living death; and since beyond death is God's living light, then Ivan died into a new life- Life with a capital” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Death_of_Ivan_Ilyich)

With the knowledge, or lack thereof, I have of Tolstoy, I think Nobokov’s take seems pretty accurate, at least as an interpretive reflection of the work. Ivan was saved through his slow and painful death as he had time to reflect and regret his life. It was as if he went through Purgatory prior to death and came out triumphant. It does leave me wondering, however, what Tolstoy’s take on Ivan’s life would have been had he bypassed Purgatory by slow death by dying a quick and painless death. What would that mean for Tolstoy? Would Ivan’s life have been just worthless? That would, in an extended sense, mean that society as a whole is fairly worthless and that basically we are all just spinning out wheels unless we strive for a higher goal of living a morally meaningful life. Thus, the story can be seen not only as a criticism of one man’s life, but of a whole society of Ivan Ilychs as well.

One final thought, even though The Death of Ivan Ilych was written well over a hundred years ago, it could have been written last week without losing any relevance at all. Society as a whole still functions pretty much the same and many still live their lives climbing the social ladder. I wonder if Tolstoy would be shocked to see what has become of us, or rather how static people have remained despite the changes over the last century.

Challenges: Classics Challenge 2010

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