Ivan Ilyich Golovin was a highly respected member of the Court of Justice. He had led his life as a man of his class ought to have lived in the nineteenth-century Russia- gradually climbing the mountain of success, following a moderately comfortable lifestyle , conducting himself with utmost decorum, marrying for love and station and taking care of his official and familial duties as best as he could , given the circumstances- in other words ,impeccably.
“Everything was done with clean hands in laundered shirts and embellished with French terms- and above all, in the best possible company and consequently with the approval of the very best people.”
Yet a spiritually reawakened Tolstoy (the novella was published in 1886, well after Tolstoy had experienced reawakening) adopted an ironical tone while describing Ivan Illyich’s affairs and affectations. Tolstoy ascribed vanity to Ivan Ilyich’s inner life, and ambition to his professional conduct. His moderation was cultivated, liberalism studied and family life a compromise. He acted to be seen by the society in a certain way and his tastes were becoming of petty bourgeoise. The guiding philosophy of Ivan Iliych’s life was self-interest. It was a life for life’s sake, and was rewarding till he was not aware of his mortality.
It was this hollowness of purpose of the protagonists’ life that the author showed contempt for. For a modern reader , a life of routine, spent in grooming one’s career , playing cards with choice friends, keeping the unpleasantness of domestic life at bay by keeping oneself distracted with work and entertainment, and rearing kids might seem to be eventless and rather pointless (despite the fact that nearly everyone aspires to and leads a similar life- slaving at his job for his family and interspersed with some casual entertainment ). But Tolstoy contrived to inflict disease upon Ivan Ilyich so that he was forced to confront his past, present and future as he grimaced in pain and waited for his doom.
The ailment arrived as an inconvenience and turned Ivan Ilyich into an irritable presence. He became querulous with his wife and daughter, and underwent the motions by seeking medical opinions. He was able to correlate to the sham that is doctors’ diagnosis with his own performance in courts, and realised the pompousness and futility of it all.
All this filled him with intense self-pity, bitterness towards the doctor, hatred for his wife and questions about what had he done to deserve such pain, and misery. His condition progressively deteriorated, and he realised with horror how he was alone in this free fall, surrounded with fake sympathisers and hope peddlers. No one quite told him he was a goner, not until it became so obvious that there was nothing left to ask and tell.
More than the pain it were these lies ,this deception in which he was forced to participate, that disgusted Ivan Ilyich. All he craved for was to be pitied as a sick child, but people around him could not strip him of his dignity by doing just that. This is the great irony of fake life.
Suffering appals those surrounding the sufferer, but purifies, nay enlightens, the one undergoing it. It forces the sufferer to introspect, and venture into the deep, dark corners of his heart. Finally, towards the very end, Ivan Ilyich realised through the kindness and empathy of his butler ,that he himself had led a self-obsessed and worthless life, wherein his soul was already dead. This knowledge made him aware of the possibility of dying into God’s light (on the other side) .After that, there was no fear of death and he made peace with his maker, accepted his fate, forgave his wife , blessed his son and passed away .
The news of the death of Ivan Ilyich led his colleagues and friends to consider their own promotions and relocations in the hierarchy. They felt relieved to be alive while their acquaintance was dead. The tedium of social duties, like attending the funeral and paying their condolences to the widow, which was also likely to affect their plans for the evening ,put them in bother . Petty life rolls on, but their time would soon come, for death spares no one.
The widow was careworn regarding how much allowance would the treasury pay her. His daughter was much too lost in the world of her own. His son was unbearably sad, innocent as he still was. His young butler,Gerasim, who had been a huge source of comfort and the only point of contact with the world during his last few days, was the only one who could empathise with the death of Ivan Ilyich.
“God’s will. We’ll all come to that”.
The household itself breathed easy because the master , who had been groaning because of terrible pain for the last three days and had been battling death for past three months, had finally found peace .
Tolstoy takes potshots at all systems and rituals and superficiality of human relationships and engagements. His rapier-like wit spares nothing. He lampoon the self-serving nature of administrative system, the solemnity and ritualism surrounding death and the parasitic self-obsession of common man. The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a scathing commentary on the fickleness of artificial life, the value of empathy and the inevitability of death.
What can one say about an author who can pack so much punch in a novella !