"The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Pain and the meaning of life

When Leo Tolstoy published a short novel entitled "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" in 1886, he was putting his finger on the sore spot. Indeed, it is difficult to think of two more recurrent themes for the postmodern world than grief and the search for the meaning of life. These are issues that are present in every age, but perhaps torment contemporary man - deprived ("liberated") of so many references - in a special way.

Juan Sota-October 24, 2022-Reading time: 5 minutes

Leon Tolstoy. Author of "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" ©Wikimedia Commons

The novel by Tolstoy is a reflection on life, as seen from the perspective of the death. Ivan Ilyich is a man who at the age of 45 has a brilliant career as a civil servant behind him and rigorously fulfills his duty. He is to some extent the perfect ideal citizen. His only pretension is to lead an "easy, pleasant, entertaining and always decent and socially approved" existence. And yet, when he falls seriously ill with a strange ailment that doctors are unable to diagnose, much less cure, the protagonist begins to discover that everything in his life has not been "as it should have been".

The book begins with the reaction of colleagues and friends to Ivan's death, which is summed up in the prospect for some of a promotion and, above all, in their displeasure at having to fulfill the social duties related to such an event. "The death of a close acquaintance did not arouse in any of them, as is usually the case, more than a feeling of joy, for it had been someone else who had passed on. 'It is he who has died, not I`, they all thought or felt." As for the wife of the deceased civil servant, she only shows interest in the sum she may collect from the State on such an occasion. It is the panorama of a life that has passed without leaving a trace even in those closest to him.

Tolstoy then goes on to recount Ivan Ilyich's successful career from his time at the Faculty of Jurisprudence to the post of judge in one of the Russian provinces and his marriage to one of the most attractive and brilliant young women of his milieu, Praskovia Fyodorovna. Ivan Ilyich had learned to carry out his work according to his great rule of life, that is, in such a way that it would not deprive him of an "easy and pleasant" life: "One had to strive to leave out of all these activities any living and pulsating elements, which contribute so much to disturbing the proper conduct of court cases: no relations beyond the merely official ones should be established, and such relations should be restricted exclusively to the working sphere, for there was no other reason to establish them".

Likewise, he soon became disenchanted with married life and resolved to reduce it to the satisfactions it could offer: "a set table, a housekeeper, a bed - and, above all, that respect for the external forms sanctioned by public opinion".

The disease

Although the disease does not initially make Ivan rethink his past life, it does make him perceive that there is something false in the way his wife, his friends and even the doctors treat him. They all strive to ignore what he can no longer: that he is on the verge of death. All except one of the servants, Gerasim, who shows true compassion and affection for his master. The encounter with someone who does not live for himself alone is a turning point in Ivan Ilyich's life. Tolstoy describes this discovery with great beauty:

"He realized that those around him reduced the terrible and dreadful act of his death to the level of a passing and somewhat inadequate annoyance (they behaved towards him more or less as one does with a person who, on entering a room, spreads a wave of bad odor), taking into consideration that decorum to which he had adhered throughout his life. He saw that no one sympathized with him because there was no one who even wanted to understand his situation. Only Gerasim understood and pitied him. That is why he was the only person with whom he felt at ease (...).

Gerasim was the only one who did not lie; moreover, according to all appearances, he was the only one who understood what was happening and did not consider it necessary to conceal it, he only sympathized with his exhausted and consumed master. He had even gone so far as to tell him openly, once Ivan Ilyich had ordered him to retire:

-We all have to die, so why not take a little trouble for the others?


The striking thing about Tolstoy's novel is that it shows that it is not only the protagonist who lives unconcerned about others. Everyone leads an empty life and rejects anything that might remind them of the existence of suffering. They are blind and only pain and the prospect of death itself can make them discover, like Ivan, that their behavior "is not at all what it should have been." But how should it have been? This is the question Ivan finally arrives at on his deathbed.

The character of Gerasim is Tolstoy's answer to this question. The young servant does nothing "special" for his master. Most of the time he simply holds his legs up for him, as the latter asked him to do. But while the care of Ivan's wife Praskovia is cold and uncaring for her husband and therefore displeasing to him, Gerasim puts his heart into what he does. He sympathizes. And love makes itself felt, hurts Ivan's selfish heart and makes him reconsider. "Why not bother, then, a little bit for others?".

Ivan Ilyich's life, a life lost, is nevertheless mended at the last moment. Also thanks to his young son, who, perhaps because of his age, is still capable of sympathy:

At that very moment the son slipped noiselessly into his father's room and approached the bed. The dying man was still screaming in despair and waving his arms. One of his hands went to fall on the boy's head. And he grabbed it, pressed it to his lips and burst into tears.

At that precise moment Ivan Ilyich rushed to the bottom of the hole, saw the light and discovered that his life had not been as it should have been, but that there was still time to remedy it. He wondered how it should have been, then fell silent and stood listening. Then he realized that someone was kissing his hand. He opened his eyes and saw his son. And he felt sorry for him. His wife also approached him. Ivan Ilyich looked at her. With her mouth open and tears streaming down her nose and cheeks, she looked at him with a desperate expression. Ivan Ilyich also felt sorry for her.

"Yes, I'm tormenting them," he thought, "They feel sorry for me, but they'll be better off when I'm dead." He made intention to utter those words, but did not have the strength to articulate them. "Besides, what's the use of talking? The thing to do is to act," he thought. He pointed to the son with his eyes and said to his wife:

-Take him away... I feel sorry for him... I feel sorry for you too...

He wanted to add the word "apology," but instead he said "guilt," and, as he no longer had the strength to correct himself, he waved his hand, knowing that whoever should understand would understand."

For once in his life Ivan acts with others in mind. He wants to prevent his relatives from seeing him die. And he goes so far as to ask forgiveness from his wife, whom he had mortified so much during his illness. This last act, a free act of love, truly redeems Ivan's life and makes him lose his fear of death. The meaning of life, as Gerasim reminds us with his example, is more a reality to be embraced with the heart than a problem to be solved with our head or with an existence bent on our own well-being. And the experience of pain, which so often seems an obstacle to happiness, is what enables us to live a life dedicated to others. As Alexandre Havard concludes his beautiful book on the heart, "man was created to be loved, but it is in suffering that this love, in a mysterious and paradoxical way, communicates itself most effectively."[1]. It is others who fill life with meaning. Let us trust Tolstoy.

[1] Alexandre HavardFree heart. On the education of feelings. Pamplona, EUNSA, 2019, p. 93.

The authorJuan Sota

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