This is the story of a successful lawyer who went on to become a judge. Ivan Ilych was not only successful but his his lineage boasts of luminaries in the field of public service. His family background is something that any Russian of that era could be proud of. His father was a successful official of the government and even one of his two brothers was able to live life with distinction. His sister married Baron Greff, another high-ranking official just like his father.
Ivan Ilych used status, fame, and wealth as his barometer for personal success, however, Tolstoy used a different standard to measure a man. Based on this piece of literature Tolstoy seems to say that a man is only successful if he can face death with dignity, not fear, shame and paranoia like Ivan Ilych did. Tolstoy and Ilych had contrasting views of death and the attitude that a person should maintain when death knocks at the door.
Ivan Ilych showed remarkable intellectual abilities when he was still young and continued to dazzle many as he grew older. He studied hard and he was wise enough to understand what those in authority wanted and thus able to please them with his behavior. He became a successful public servant and on top of that he received a considerable amount of money from his father. His employment and monetary gifts allowed him to show the world that he has the means and therefore deserve the respect and honor that he craved.
He went to fashionable tailors. He purchased expensive furniture and other equipment. When he was a little bit older he moved to the big city and his good fortune and amazing climb to the ladder of success continued at an accelerated pace. He became a judge. He did not waste time in letting everyone know that the new member of the Court of Justice had arrived. He made preparations to transform his new dwelling into something befitting his rank. He purchased expensive items and did a lot of renovation and interior decoration.
It was while doing house renovations that Ivan Ilych was injured while trying to fix something. He was bruised on his side. He brushed it off and continued to make friends with the high and mighty while at the same time trying to distance himself from those who belong to the lower class of society. In Court he was well aware of his high position and he was not able to hide his indifference for those of lower rank.
Everything went well until the bruised side of his body began to irritate him. It became a sickness that would lead to death. This is when the true test of character came. Tolstoy used his measuring rod to gauge the value of Ilych this is what he had to say: “Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible” (Tolstoy, Chap.2, par.1). The way Ivan Ilych dealt with death confirmed Tolstoy’s negative assessment of the life of the judge.
When Ivan Ilych’s sickness progressed into something more serious he became alarmed and he became paranoid. His impending doom revealed his arrogance and selfishness. His immediate reaction was that of arrogance for he believed that to some extent he would know if he is really dying or not. This attitude was quickly changed to denial. He cannot die he believed that he was too important to die.
His body, mind and spirit began to deteriorate. The moment he was convinced that he was about to die fear and paranoia became his daily companion. He was terrified of death and he desperately sought for a cure, going from one doctor to the next. When the doctors cannot help him ease the pain and the mental anguish he began to feel angry at his family, friends and then finally the world. He could not believe that no one came to give him pity. He desperately wanted to be treated like a child, weak and desperate for love and attention.
At the latter part of the Ivan Ilych’s story he had an encounter with Death and the voice asked him about his purpose in life. At last Ilych realized that there is more to this life than simply eating, drinking, and showcasing wealth and trumpeting accomplishments. This is why Tolstoy said that his life was nothing that it was all glitz and glamor but without substance. This also explains why Ivan Ilych did not possess the qualities of a man who can face death and not wallow in self-pity. He did not receive love because when he was still alive he was too preoccupied with himself. Nobody seemed to care for him when he was near death this is because when he was still alive he did not care about other people’s lives and so he simply reaped what he sowed.
Tolstoy clarified his view regarding death when he brought in a new character at the latter part of the story. When Ivan Ilych was already bedridden and could not even take care of his own excrement, a young man named Gerasim came to help him. Gerasim was a peasant lad. Although he came from a humble background and worked like a servant forced to carry his master’s bodily wastes this young man always came in cheerful and overflowing with enthusiasm.
This was an eye opener for Ilych but at the same time the author was able to provide contrast. On one end is a wealthy successful man without true friends and wasting away like a rotten corpse and on the side is a man who practically had nothing and yet full of life.
Through the life of Gerasim Tolstoy was able to enhance his message with regards to a person’s attitude towards death. Gerasim did not fear death. Gerasim did not loathe death and he simply accepted it as it is. Death is part of life based on the actions of Gerasim. Tolstoy seems to say that if a person did nothing wrong and lived a full life and became an instrument of blessing for other people then there is nothing to fear and there is nothing to hate.
Life is seen as an opportunity to steward what God has given and to share it to others, it is not to be hoarded and used mainly for selfish gain. If this is the mindset of the person when he is still alive then his attitude towards death is positive and not something that is characterized by paranoia and rage.
All his life he thought he was doing what was right. It was too late when he came to his senses that everything was merely about prestige. He had to be sick in order for him to see. He had too many distractions and he was preoccupied with the mundane and fleeting affairs of men.
He had to get sick, to lie on his bed all day long to finally see how he had treated others and how they have come to treat him back. As a result his attitude towards death was bleak and dark. He was full of fear and seething with rage. He should have behaved like Gerasim who saw death as part of life and should be embraced after one is sure that he had accomplished his purpose in life. Unfortunately, this was not the case with Ivan Ilych.
Tolstoy, Leo. The Death of Ivan Ilych, The Classical Library. Web.