Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich

A book about the untimely death of a fairly shallow Russian gentleman seems an unlikely story to become engrossed in while on vacation in picturesque Dahlonega, GA, but this is exactly what happened to my wife and me while I finished reading this powerful little story to her up here in north Georgia.

Let me just go ahead and make the following declaration:  everybody…everybody should read The Death of Ivan Ilyich.

Written during Tolstoy’s own spiritual crisis (the Introduction by Ronald Blythe that discusses the events surrounding the writing of this story is worth the price of the book itself), the story represents Tolstoy’s own struggle to come to terms with death, and all of the spiritual and psychological realities that one’s awareness of the inevitibility of death brings.

The story is fairly straight forward.  It’s the story of a man working to get ahead and struggling through a fairly bad marriage (thanks largely to his own selfishness and egocentricity).  In the midst of a fairly nondescript and secular life, Ivan Ilyich bumps his side on a piece of furniture.  He doesn’t think much of it, until a few days later when it begins to hurt.  As time progresses, it hurts more and more, until Ilyich comes to realize that something is seriously wrong.

As it turns out, Ilyich is dying.  Throughout this process, he comes to hate almost everybody around him:  his wife (who he thinks wants him to die), the doctors (who’s glibness and formulaic diagnoses irritate him immensely), and, most significantly, God (Who he questions and accuses concerning the fairness of what’s happening to him).  The only person who’s presence he truly cares for is a servant boy who does not seek to dishonor Ilyich by denying what’s really going.  “We all have to die,” he essentially says, thereby becoming the first person to say aloud what everybody knows.

To be honest, I was growing discouraged with this book for a time.  Was this merely going to be a tale of untimely death and man’s vain attempt to make sense of it?  Fortunately for the reader, this is not the case.  In fact, the last couple of chapters are worth their weight in gold.

Ilyich begins to be haunted by the notion that perhaps he wasted his life and did not really live at all.  When the thought first occurs to him, he dismisses it as a possibility:  as in, “Whatever the cause of my anxiety might be, it just can’t be that I really missed the whole point of life altogether.”

He dismisses, in essence, the need for repentance in the exact same way that human beings do so today.  “What? I got it all wrong?  Well, that just cannot be the case!  My misery must be for some other reason.”

But then his wife recommends that Ilyich take the sacrament.  He seems offended at first, but then relents.  He partakes of Holy Communion.

Interestingly, after partaking of the broken body and spilled blood of Christ, Ilyich suffers for three days.  His physical pain is agonizing.  He has been pierced in the side, and he descends into hell, as it were.  But in his last moments, he seems to have an epiphany.  Suddenly he sees it.  Suddenly he understands.  He apologizes to his wife through halting, agonizing words: short bursts of sound, not unlike the seven last words of Christ.

Then he says, “Forget.”  But Tolstoy tells us that what he meant to say was “Forgive.”  The slip causes Ilyich no anxiety, because he is convinced that “He” will understand.

It is a powerful and moving scene.  It reminded me of old man Brideshead’s conversion near the end ofBrideshead Revisited, but in this case, we are Charles Ryder.  That is, we are the ones observing the scene and praying and hoping that the dying man will do it, will repent, will see it for what it is.

It also reminded me of Levin’s epiphany near the end of Anna Karenina, though throughout that story the reader feels that Levin is so very, very close that it’s almost inevitable.  In this story, we are pleasantly surprised to see Ilyich come to his moment of clarity, but there was no evidence earlier on in the story that he would finally do so.

As I say, everyone should read this story.  It draws us into a deathbed epiphany in a way that confronts us with the most profound question of all:  have we wasted our lives?  Are we wasting it now, today, right here where we are?

Tolstoy has done us the great service of showing us how to die in peace:  realize what is truly important, repent of our sin and selfishness, and know that, in Him, we will find a welcome that transcends our own foolishness.

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