The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy is a profoundly moving novella that takes the reader through the existential struggles of a high-court judge in 19th-century Russia. Living a well regarded life in the public eye, he takes pleasure in his work and finds great success. When he is struck with a terminal illness, he begins to grow intensly bitter toward everyone he encounters, except his care-taker, a peasant named Gerasim – the only person who showed Ivan Ilych any sort of tenderness.
His wife, the doctors, and his co-workers, were too preoccupied with their own success to deeply care for him during his final days. His wife saw him as a means to an income (particularly the government money she hopes to receive after his death), The doctors related to him as a mere broken object, and his co-workers were preoccupied with who would get promoted when he vacates his position.
Ultimately, surrounded by these superficial relations on his deathbed, Ivan Illych comes to question the whole of his own life. Had he not been merely one of them all along? Now, facing his death, he came to realize that all the while he thought he was moving forward (toward greater success), but he was actually moving backward (toward lesser fulfillment).
This is a story about selling one’s soul to buy success. In the society depicted, success comes at a human-cost – the cost of meaningful human relations. This ultimately comes down to the sacrifice of a meaningful life worth living. As stated by Psychologist Mark Freeman in his 1997 publication in Cambridge Journal’s Ageing & Society:
Tolstoy's book is about many things: the tyranny of bourgeois niceties, the terrible weak spots of the human heart, the primacy and elision of death. But more than anything, I would offer, it is about the consequences of living without meaning, that is, without a true and abiding connection to one's life.
This psychological “connection to one’s life,” I argue, is necessarily a social connection to others. In a society devoid of loving human relations, all that is left is a disconnected individualism characterized by instrumental relations oriented toward personal success. See my post on personal-development for more on the problems with the personal-development genre.
Though ironically, it was the personal-development genre that brought me to read The Death of Ivan Ilych in the first place. After hearing a piece by Wayne Dyer (below), I was driven to promptly read Tolstoy’s book. Unexpectedly, after reading this book, I came to realize that Wayne Dyer severely cuts the book short by leaving out the most profoundly moving lessons. Rather than looking at the loveless social context or the hollow social definition of ‘success’, he blames Ivan Illych for his dying misery. Here is the clip (enjoy the shot of the intense cameraman lol):
Was he merely obeying his wife, or was his definition of ‘success’ instilled in him by larger social forces? Can we blame any single actor in this web of superficial class ideals? Perhaps we cannot. Ivan Illych appeared to be living with his “music” all along, only to realize it was a sour tune when directly confronted with his mortality.
So how do we know that our sweet melody is not a sour discord? Perhaps we can only go forward with the awareness of Ivan Illych in his final hours. Contrary to what Wayne Dyer claims, Ivan Ilych’s last words are actually “What joy!”. He exclaims this statement when he overcomes his fear of death, his pain ceases, and he recognizes that instead of death, there is light.
After two more hours of apparent agony witnessed by those surrounding him, Ivan Ilych says to himself, “death is finished… it is no more!” He then draws his last breath, stretches out, and dies.
Living in a society devoid of loving relations – like Ivan Ilych’s – is itself death. This loveless society is ultimately a society devoid of deeply meaningful communal ties. A society devoid of communion is a society devoid of life.
In the last supper, Jesus ordained the bread and wine as symbols of his everlasting life. This became known as the Christian ritual of ‘communion’. To commune means to come together, giving ones life to a greater whole. The crucifixion is not the moment Jesus gave his life for us, as the story goes; he gave his life every single day, advocating for a cause outside himself: the cause of love in communion. I understand ‘love’, in the Christian sense (agape), as selfless offering of oneself, and ‘communion’ as common exchange. This “love in communion” may also be in line with Karl Marx’s vision of ideal human relations…. but this idea will be revisited in another post.
Ivan Ilych’s last encounter with his wife on his deathbed depicts failed communion. When she insists that he take the sacrament of communion from a priest – “since healthy people often do it” – he complies without seeing the purpose. Interacting with the priest, he begins to feel a slight warmth, and this restores a slight sense of hope in Ivan Ilych. But this hope is quickly extinguished when his wife returns to congratulate him after his communion. He recognizes that her concern is a veneer of falsehood, covering up the realities of both life and death.
Communion had lost its core reality: coming together. When love is absent, care becomes mere instrumentality – the rational manipulation of objects.
Perhaps living through a sweet melody means coming together with others and giving yourself to the music. This is not giving your life like the mere sense of Jesus’ crucifixion, but rather, in the life-affirming sense of the last supper. And since I’m particularly Catholic, let me take my version of a “literal interpretation” here. When we come together in communion, we are not individuals sharing mere food-substances for the sake of utility; we are offering our flesh and blood – the substances of life – and in this spirit, we build a life of meaning, together.
1. MARK FREEMAN (1997). Death, Narrative Integrity, and the Radical Challenge of Self-Understanding: a Reading of Tolstoy's Death of Ivan Ilych. Ageing and Society, 17, pp 373-398