Commentary by Karen Bernardo
As an author, Leo Tolstoy was profoundly concerned with the idea of the meaning of life. He recognized that what conventional society mistakes for life’s meaning—success, social position, political or corporate power—were ultimately meaningless in the great scheme of things. Also, Tolstoy saw tremendous irony in the fact that our human lives are so transitory and our fortunes so subject to the whims of fate, and yet we act as if we will live forever with ultimate control over the progress of our existence. He illustrates this in his story “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.”
“The Death of Ivan Ilyich” is a relatively long short story (some 60 pages in a Penguin Classic edition) focusing on the death of a well-liked, well-respected, but completely secular man. Ivan worked hard to attain a solid position in the Russian court system, and from the outside would seemed to have everything a man could want—a lovely home, a respectable wife, children, a social life. But we learn that he really didn’t love his wife, Praskovya Fedorovna, because she drove him crazy with her petty jealousies and demands. In fact, one of the reasons he was able to attain such a high position in the Court of Justice was that he spent almost no time at home.
Nonetheless, life seemed to be going well until a minor injury turned troublesome; he went to a series of doctors who could not agree on a diagnosis. He did not want to believe there was anything wrong at all because he was terrified of death. His steadily worsening condition was made even more disturbing by his family’s lack of compassion for him; his wife, in particular, seemed to feel that she was the one who was suffering from his annoying moaning, rather than the man who was actually in pain.
Ivan began to ask questions of himself that he never asked before. What is the meaning of life? Was there more he should have done? Did he miss the whole point? He finally concluded that he did, but by then it was too late to do anything about it; he died in agony, screaming, partly from the physical pain but equally from the knowledge he wasted his whole life.
In “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” Tolstoy shows us that the values of conventional society are warped due to our inability to accept our own mortality. Thus the answers conventional society gives to the meaning of life—that it is predicated on outward success and appearance —are ultimately meaningless when an individual is confronted with disease and death. Those forced to deal with these questions—namely, the disabled and dying—often have to confront them alone, because society rejects people who clash with our cultural ideals of how life should be.
Ivan Ilyich undergoes a profound “transformation” from a hale, hearty man with no concept of his own mortality to someone for whom mortality becomes the overwhelming question of existence. It is thus both physical and spiritual—physical because he is changed from a healthy man to a dying one, and spiritual because in his last moments he begins to find the man he should have been all along.
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