The Life of Ivan Ilyich

Tolstoy’s grotesque caricature did a grave disservice to this fine and noble man. Tolstoy wrote: “Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.” On the contrary Ivan Ilych’s life was complex, if not extraordinary certainly exemplary, and therefore most wonderful.

What was so terrible in Tolstoy’s eyes? True, Ivan Ilych was “an intelligent, polished, lively and agreeable man…a capable cheerful, good-natured, and sociable man, though strict in the fulfillment of what he considered to be his duty.” However—and this appears to be his tragic flaw—“he considered his duty to be what was so considered by those in authority.” You see, Ivan Ilych led an unexamined life, and as we all know an unexamined life is not worth living.

As a legal magistrate and later a judge “he behaved with dignity both to his superiors and inferiors, and performed the duties entrusted to him…with an exactness and incorruptible honesty of which he could not but feel proud…Ivan Ilych never abused his power; he tried on the contrary to soften its expression.” In addition to integrity, Ivan Ilych performed his official duties with consummate skill. “He very soon acquired a method of eliminating all considerations irrelevant to the legal aspect of the case, and reducing even the most complicated case to a form in which it would be presented on paper only in its externals…completely excluding his personal opinion of the matter.”

As much as you might be pleased to present your legal case to Ivan Ilych, none of this was enough, because you see he did things for all the wrong reasons. In particular, he used his work to escape from his domestic situation. Although during their courtship his future wife was “the most attractive, clever, and brilliant girl of the set in which he moved” his feelings were towards her were never much more than lukewarm. “ ‘Really, why shouldn’t I marry?’ he thought, given that she was “well connected, and was a sweet, pretty and thoroughly correct young woman.” But when his wife became pregnant—alas—his life began to change. Adhering to the misogynistic stereotype so common in Russian fiction, his previously charming bride underwent a striking metamorphosis. She “began to be jealous without any cause…found fault with everything, and made coarse and ill-mannered scenes.” Also, she got fat.

What’s a guy to do…what would you do? Alcohol and adultery are perennial solutions, but compartmentalization and losing one’s self in your work are probably better. At first, “Ivan Ilych hoped to escape from the unpleasantness of this state of affairs by the same easy and decorous relations to life that had served him heretofore: he tried to ignore his wife’s disagreeable moods, continued to live in his usual and pleasant way, invited his friends to his house for a game of cards.” But this was only partially successful, and “with the birth of their child…the need of securing for himself an existence outside his family life became still more imperative…as his wife grew more irritable and exacting Ivan Ilych transferred the centre of gravity of his life more and more to his official work…and became more ambitious.”

Ivan Ilych was forced to “adopt a definite attitude…toward married life. He only required of it those conveniences—dinner at home, housewife, and bed—which it could give him, and above all that propriety of external forms required by public opinion. For the rest he looked for light-hearted pleasure and propriety, and was very thankful when he found them, but if he met with antagonism and querulousness he at once retired into his separate and fenced-off world of official duties, where he found satisfaction…his masterly handling of cases, of which he was conscious—all this gave him pleasure.”

The downward spiral continued when Ivan Ilych received a promotion and bought a larger house. He took an inordinate pride in furnishing his new quarters: “To him it seemed quite exceptional…in reality it is just what is usually seen in the houses of people of moderate means who want to appear rich…his house was so like the others that it would never have been noticed.”

Oh the horrors! See all those cheerful young couples at Crate and Barrel, or The Pottery Barn? Take pity on them as they engage earnest conversation, beaming with delight as they make their purchase. What frauds they are, for their little apartments will all look alike anyway. Hmmm…what’s the alternative? We can refrain from furnishing our homes, devoting ourselves instead to more spiritual pursuits. Or we can decorate our homes in such a profound, artistic, authentic manner that even Tolstoy would approve. (But where would we find the time?) Or, maybe it’s OK to furnish your apartment, so long as you don’t take an unseemly satisfaction from it.

Well, back to the story. Ivan Ilych developed cancer, somehow as a consequence of furnishing his new house. He, his family, and his colleagues all participated in the complex dance of denial, indifference, and pity that is familiar to all of us. And like most sick people, Ivan Ilych became increasingly difficult to mollify, being enraged equally by pity and by indifference: His response to pity: “ ‘Where are you going, Jean?’ asked his wife, with a specially sad and exceptionally kind look. This exceptionally kind look irritated him.” His response to indifference: “He heard through the door the distant sound of a song and its accompaniment. ‘It’s all the same to them, but they will die too! …and now they are merry, the beasts!’ ”

Fortunately, the servant Gerasim enters the picture. Russian peasants like these have a simple spiritual connection with God that is the forerunner of the magical Negro. This guy “did it all easily, willingly, simply, and with a good nature that touched Ivan Ilych. Health, strength, and vitality in other people were offensive to him, but Gerasim’s strength and vitality did not mortify but soothed him…only Gerasim grasped [his position] and pitied him. And so Ivan Ilych felt at ease only with him.”

The physicians are singled out for special vituperation. They bustle about with an air of self-importance, go through the motions of examining their patient, and, peering over their spectacles, mumble a bunch of meaningless nonsense. But it’s the nineteenth century, for crying out loud! Tolstoy particularly objects to the fact that, deep down, they don’t really care that much about Ivan Ilych and his illness. That is quite true, they don’t. I myself am a physician, and my job sometimes entails telling pregnant women and their husbands that, if their baby is born alive, it will be terribly handicapped. If, for a single moment, I could truly experience the horror with which this message is received, that would be the last patient I would ever see.

Here is a passage that perhaps Mr. Tolstoy should have included (my words in italics, Tolstoy’s, with minor changes, in bold):

After his visit with Ivan Ilych, the doctor had lunch with his colleague, who inquired about his patient.

“Very bad, very bad,” replied the doctor, taking off his heavy coat and lighting a cigar. Every day is a bit worse…he’s slowly dying.

“Have you told him?”

“What good would it do?” The doctor signaled the waiter to bring the menus. “First: He already knows. Second: What if I’m wrong? Remember the case of Dr. Tevechensky who told his patient that her case was terminal? The family made all the arrangements, even picked out a coffin. When she recovered his career was ruined, he had to leave town. Third, and most importantly: The medications I prescribe are clearly useless. All I can do for him is give him hope; that’s why his family calls me out to see him. You should have seen the timid question that, with eyes glistening with fear and hope, he put to me as to whether there was a chance of recovery. I said that I could not vouch for it, but there was a possibility. The look of hope with which he watched me out was so pathetic that his wife, seeing it, even wept as she left the room to hand me my fee.”

“It must trouble you to have to go out there so often.”

“If he weren’t so sick it would be another matter; but we shall all of us die, so why should I grudge a little trouble?”

The last sentence was a trick; the words are indeed by Tolstoy, but he put them in the mouth of the Noble Peasant Gerasim, not the selfish petty bourgeois physician.

In the latter stages of his illness Ivan Ilych begins to reflect on his life. He had some joy, yes, but “the further he departed from childhood and the nearer he came to the present the more worthless and doubtful were the joys…. ‘it is as if I had been going downhill while I imagined I was going up…maybe I did not live life as I ought to have done…what if my whole life has really been wrong?’ ” He begins to think that “his professional duties and the whole arrangement of his life and of his family, and all his social and official interests, might all have been false. He tried to defend all those things…There was nothing to defend…it was not real at all, but a terrible and huge deception.”

The ravings of a sick man can be forgiven, but what is Tolstoy’s excuse? How can he not appreciate a man that takes his work seriously, that copes with a less-than-ideal marriage with patience and fortitude? Can we not allow Ivan Ilych his small pleasures of pride in his work and his house, and a game of cards in the evening? No, not if his life was artificial compared to that of Gerasim, which was authentic. This is from the authoritative Sparknotes Study Guide:

The artificial life is marked by shallow relationships, self-interest, and materialism. It is insular, unfulfilling, and ultimately incapable of providing answers to the important questions in life. The artificial life is a deception that hides life’s true meaning and leaves one terrified and alone at the moment of death. The authentic life, on the other hand, is marked by pity and compassion. It sees others not as means to ends, but as individual beings with unique thoughts, feelings, and desires. The authentic life cultivates mutually affirming human relationships that break down isolation and allow for true interpersonal contact. Whereas the artificial life leaves one alone and empty, the authentic life fosters strength through solidarity and comfort through empathy. It creates bonds and prepares one to meet death.

Blah blah blah…the only thing artificial here is this artificial false dichotomy. I fail to understand how a selfless love for others is expressed by Gerasim cheerfully supporting a sick man’s legs, but not by the years of Ivan Ilych’s devoted service to the Russian judiciary.

The story ends with the inevitable deathbed epiphany, when the dying man realizes the error of his ways. He pities his sorrowful son, and even his crying wife. This realization, rather than a rush of endorphins in response to cerebral hypoxia, finally gives him release from his suffering.

We are all of us selfish creatures, living superficial lives and fearing death. Either God made us that way, or we evolved that way; take your pick, that is how we are. Some of us are slightly better than others, and Ivan Ilych was among the best. It’s ironic perhaps that Tolstoy made him a judge, because it seems that an honest judiciary is a crucial pre-requisite for a peaceful and prosperous society, second perhaps only marital fidelity. Neither the drunken loutish peasant nor the parasitic aristocrat, Ivan Ilych was the best that Russia had to offer.

Those who thought he wasn’t good enough may have helped pave the way for the Russian revolution and the New Soviet Man. And we all know how that turned out.

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