Fyodor Dostoevsky has long been my favorite author. I have read all of his major novels (Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, The Idiot, The Possessed, and The Adolescent), and a good chunk of his short stories. People who see me reading Dostoevsky always ask me what I think about Tolstoy. Until recently, I had never read anything by him and was unable to give an answer. I've heard good things, so I decided to pick up a Tolstoy book. I thought it might be nice to start with something short instead of wading into War and Peace or Anna Karenina, so I picked up a copy of Barnes and Noble's The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Short Stories. I have to say--I am hooked.
Tolstoy is great. Every bit as great as Dostoevsky, but in a different way. They two seem nothing alike, and yet they both seem to have mastered the psychology of why people do what they do.
"The Death of Ivan Ilych" is about just that--the death of a guy named Ivan Ilych. What makes the book great is the responses to death by everyone in the story--especially Ivan's response.
The plot of the book is simple. Ivan falls and hurts his back, and the injury proves worse than he first thought. Doctors are baffled about why his pain isn't going away, and it isn't long before everyone realizes that he is going to die. However, no one wants to talk about it and they continue to act as if he is going to recover. Ivan is terrified by death, so his friends' and family's hypocrisy infuriates him. He starts to hate them for pretending he is okay. The sicker he gets, the angrier and more hurtful he gets.
When Ivan is about to die, he encounters Gerasim, a peasant who waits on him and who isn't afraid to talk about death and its inevitability. Ivan starts to envy Gerasim, both for his youth and vitality, and also for his simple life and his boldness in the face of death. All of this starts Ivan reflecting on his life and whether or not he had lived right.
At the end of the story, Ivan has kind of an epiphany that relieves him of his pain and suffering. I had to read this part over and over because it wasn't clear what he realized. I did some research, and it looks like there are several opinions about what happened to Ivan. Perhaps this is the genious of the story--the reader is left to decide for himself or herself what Ivan realized.
There are some clear allusions to the New Testament when Ivan dies, and this impacts the way I read the story. Ivan's cries, "What death? Where is it?" and "Death is over. It is no more" seem to me like clear allusions to 1 Corinthians 15:54–55. Also, the spectator's comment, "It is no more" seem like an allusion to Christ's words on the cross, "It is finished." (Tolstoy had converted to Christianity shortly before writing this story.)
I think that Ivan realized that the society in which he lived idolized the wrong things. Ivan's epiphany was that he "felt sorry" for his wife and his son. I think he felt sorry for them because they were locked into Russian high society's way of thinking. Ivan realized that Gerasim's life was the good life--the life he should have lived. Gerasim lived for others--he happily served Ivan in the last days of his life, and he responded kindly to abuse. I think that Ivan's epiphany was that he realized that the selflessness of the peasants was a better life than the hypocrisy of the aristocracy.
Tolstoy's story was a needed reminder to me that I need to live "the good life." It is so easy to get caught up in the American dream that just one more promotion, or one more award, or one more digit in my salary is going to make me happy. In the end, Ivan realized that it was in his youth when he enjoyed his family that he was the happiest. It's tempting to want to work myself into the grave, wanting to do something "great" for the kingdom of God. In the end, its the little things that we do for the people in our immediate community that are the most meaningful.