Death releases both Ivan Ilyich and his folk

Charles Cowling

ivan-ilyich

 

On 9 September, Leo Tolstoy was wished a Happy 186th Birthday by Google Doodle. The Google homepage included a slideshow of Tolstoy’s works, including War and Peace, Anna Karenina and The Death of Ivan Ilyich.

The latter, written shortly after Tolstoy’s religious conversion, tells the story of the premature death of a Russian legal whizzkid. Living what seems to be a good life, aside from his rocky marriage, Ivan Ilyich injures his side while hanging plush curtains in his flashy new apartment. Within weeks, he has developed a pain that will not go away. Several expensive doctors are consulted, but they can neither explain nor treat his condition.

He’s dying and the novella records his terror as he battles with the idea of his own death. ‘I have been here. Now I am going there. Where?’ Oppressed by the length of the process, his family, friends and associates decide not to speak of it, but advise him to stay calm and follow doctors’ orders.

He spends his last days in agony and anguish but, just before his death, he sees with clarity that he has not, after all, lived well, but has lived only for himself. He suddenly feels pity for the people he’s leaving behind, and hopes his death will set them free. With that thought, his pain disappears. Just before his last breath, he whispers to himself, ‘Death has gone’.

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Jonathan Taylor
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Jonathan Taylor

Thank you, Charles, for that succinct precis… saves me having to read the book!

As for the folly of living only for one’s self, perhaps it should be serialized on a loop and broadcast from public buildings?