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Book Review: The Death of Ivan Ilych

Leo Tolstoy (1828 - 1910) is a colossal figure in the literature world. His literary career spans six decades with genres ranging from novels to short stories to plays to philosophical works. A contemporary of his, Anton Chekhov describes that: “What he does serves to justify all the hopes and aspirations invested in literature”. Frankly, I was as much intimidated by the sheer bulk of his novels (Penguin Classic’s War and Peace is 1440 pages and Anna Karenina is generously, 500 pages shorter), as I was by his impressive beard. I confess I got through about a fifth of Karenina last summer before school started which left me neither time for the Russian aristocracy...nor the brainpower to keep track of the long character names that all seemed to end with “ovsky”, “ovna” or “vich”. (The Character List at the back that spans four pages did not make referencing any easier). Now it sits on my desk collecting dust, and I’ve been rather put off from picking it back up ever since.

Leo Tolstoy

This summer though, while waiting for my lunch at Café330, I wandered into the university bookstore and a book titled “The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories, Leo Tolstoy” caught my eye. A total of four Tolstoyian novels, under 300 pages for just $60HKD? That’s a bargain. I swiped one up and headed for the cashier.

Classics are what they are for a reason; they have earned their place as exemplary works of literature. Understandably, they get a lot of hype and you almost expect the book to engage you from page one. Let’s be realistic, and a little patient. Ivan Ilych started out rather dull, which was no crime. stayed dull. 40% into the book, nothing spectacular or even mildly interesting has happened, just a mundane succession of life events: obtaining his law degree, Ivan works his way up the social rank to magistrate, he gets married, bears children and plays bridge. With a salary raise, he purchases a larger house and arranges the furniture and curtains. He invites his colleagues to dinner. One gets the feeling either Tolstoy is overrated, or we’ve missed something.

The word that appears most frequently in the book is decorous. “Ivan amused himself pleasantly and decorously”, “as examining magistrate, he was just as decorous a man”, “life ran its course: easily, pleasantly, and decorously”. The word is defined as “keeping with good taste and propriety; conformity to accepted standards”. Indeed, everything Ivan did fit neatly with societal expectations. He lives comfortably, and he takes pleasure in “ambition and vanity”. Ivan is also emotionally detached, as he sets about the delicate business of compartmentalizing his work and family life. Nevertheless, he ploughs through life with a sort of mechanical placidness.

One day, Ivan falls from a ladder and hurts his left side. This incident was initially dismissed until a few weeks later he becomes aware of a numbing pain at the injury site which intensifies and worsens until he becomes bedridden. Several top physicians were unable to alleviate or cure him, making frustratingly vague diagnoses. Ivan becomes ill-tempered, agitated, depressed, and above all...more conscious. He sees through the loveless sympathy delivered by his wife, who inquires his health “only for the sake of asking, and not in order to learn about it”, the obligatory visits paid by his daughter who is “strong, healthy, in love, and impatient with illness, suffering and death because they interfered with her happiness”, and he sees even through the doctor who assumes a mask of cheerful expression each visit that was all “nonsense and pure deception”. Ivan asks the doctor whether he is ever ashamed of lying. He is disgusted with this falsity that surrounds him and craves for compassion and pity. As he wrestles with the unrelenting pain, it becomes apparent that he is dying; a fate he never considered would befall on him. Ivan could not resolve himself to accept or even understand this. He refers to Death as “It”, and questions bitterly the meaning of pain and suffering. The answer he receives is disappointing in its absurdity: that there is no purpose for suffering, and there is nothing beyond or besides it.

Slowly, and oblivious to those around him, Ivan reflects on his life and starts to grasp its hypocrisy. He realizes that despite his achievements, what he suppressed or neglected might in fact have “been the real thing, and all the rest false”. When he tries to justify himself he finds there is nothing to defend for, and he feels both agonized and liberated by this revelation.

There is no glamorous ending to this story, and Ivan dies shortly after.

Ivan Ilych

It was unsettling for me, when I read that Tolstoy himself wrote: “because death exists, life itself is not worth living”. If a man of such prolific achievements as Tolstoy could reduce life, for all it really is worth living for, to the mere morsels of mortality…where do the rest of us fit in? Why do we even bother at all? In fact, Ivan’s story utters a resounding truth. In our pursuit for whatever we deem “important”: well paid jobs, so-called high ranking social positions or what not, along the way, we are swept up in a whirlwind where recognition defines achievements. Yet in all our efforts to conduct life “decorously”, these are not the only units that measure life. Perhaps the real units lie in what Ivan “neglected and suppressed” - we ought to flesh these out. Let's fight this a little, let's make life worth living precisely because death exists.


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