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Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1884-1886)


By Vladimir Nabokov

To a greater or lesser extent there goes on in every person a struggle between two forces : the longing for privacy and the urge to go places : introversion, that is, interest directed within oneself toward one’s own inner life of vigorous thought and fancy; and extroversion, interest directed outward, toward the external world of people and tangible values. To take a simple example: the university scholar—and by scholar I mean professors and students alike—the university scholar may present sometimes both sides. He may be a bookworm and he may be what is called a joiner—and the bookworm and the joiner may fight within one man. A student who gets or wishes to get prizes for acquired knowledge may also desire, or be expected to desire, prizes for what is called leadership. Different temperaments make different decisions, of course, and there are minds in which the inner world persistently triumphs over the outer one, and vice versa. But we must take into account the very fact of a struggle going on or liable to go on between the two versions of man in one man — introversion and extroversion. I have known students who in the pursuit of the inner life, in the ardent pursuit of knowledge, of a favorite subject had to clap their hands to their ears in order to shut out the booming surf of dormitory life; but at the same time they would be full of a gregarious desire to join in the fun, to go to the party or to the meeting, to give up the book for the band.

From this state of affairs there is really not a very far cry to the problems of writers like Tolstoy in whom the artist struggled with the preacher; the great introvert with the robust extrovert. Tolstoy surely realized that in him as in many writers there did go on the personal struggle between creative solitude and the urge to associate with all mankind — the battle between the book and band. In Tolstoyan terms, in the symbols of Tolstoyan later philosopy after he finished Anna Karenin, creative solitude became synonymous with sin: it was egoism, it was the pampering of one’s self and therefore a sin. Conversely, the idea of all mankind was in Tolstoyan terms the idea of God : God is in men and God is universal love.

And Tolstoy advocated the loss of one’s personality in this universal God-Love. He suggested, in other words, that in the personal struggle between the godless artist and the godly man the latter should better win if the synthetic man wishes to be happy.

We must retain a lucid vision of these spiritual facts in order to appreciate the philosophy of the story “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.” Ivan is of course the Russian for John, and John in Hebrew means God is Good, God is Gracious. I know it’s not easy for non-Russian-speaking people to pronounce the patronymic Ilych, which of course means the son of Ilya, the Russian version of the name Elias or Elijah, which incidentally means in Hebrew, Jehovah is God. Ilya is a very common Russian name, pronounced very much like the French il y a; and Ilyich is pronounced Ill-Itch—the ills and itches of mortal life.

Now comes my first point : this is really the story not of Ivan’s Death but the story of Ivan’s Life. The physical death described in the story is part of mortal Life, it is merely the last phase of mortality. According to Tolstoy, mortal man, personal man, individual man, physical man, goes his physical way to nature’s garbage can; according to Tolstoy, spiritual man returns to the cloudless region of universal God-Love, an abode of neutral bliss so dear to Oriental mystics. The Tolstoyan formula is: Ivan lived a bad life and since a bad life is nothing but the death of the soul, then Ivan lived a living death; and since beyond death is God’s living light, then Ivan died into new Life—Life with a capital L.

My second point is that this story was written in March 1886, at a time when Tolstoy was nearly sixty and had firmly established the Tolstoyan fact that writing masterpieces of fiction was a sin. He had firmly made up his mind that if he would write anything, after the great sins of his middle years, War and Peace and Anna Karenin, it would be only in the way of simple tales for the people, for peasants, for school children, pious educational fables, moralistic fairy tales, that kind of thing. Here and there in “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” there is a half-hearted attempt to proceed with this trend, and we shall find samples of a pseudo-fable style here and there in the story. But on the whole it is the artist who takes over. This story is Tolstoy’s most artistic, most perfect, and most sophisticated achievement.

Thanks to the fact that Guerney has so admirably translated the thing I shall have the opportunity at last to discuss Tolstoy’s style. Tolstoy’s style is a marvelously complicated, ponderous instrument.

You may have seen, you must have seen, some of those awful text books written not by educators but by educationalists— by people who talk about books instead of talking within books. You may have been told by them that the chief aim of a great writer, and indeed the main clue to his greatness, is “simplicity.” Traitors, not teachers. In reading exam papers written by misled students, of both sexes, about this or that author, I have often come across such phrases—probably recollections from more tenderyears of schooling—as “his style is simple” or “his style is clear and simple” or “his style is beautiful and simple” or “his style is quite beautiful and simple.” But remember that “simplicity” is buncombe. No major writer is simple. The Saturday Evening Post is simple. Journalese is simple. Upton Lewis is simple. Mom is simple. Digests are simple. Damnation is simple. But Tolstoys and Melvilles are not simple.

One peculiar feature of Tolstoy’s style is what I shall term the “groping purist.” In describing a meditation, emotion, or tangible object, Tolstoy follows the contours of the thought, the emotion, or the object until he is perfectly satisfied with his re-creation, his rendering. This involves what we might call creative repetitions, a compact series of repetitive statements, coming one immediately after the other, each more expressive, each closer to Tolstoy’s meaning. He gropes, he unwraps the verbal parcel for its inner sense, he peels the apple of the phrase, he tries to say it one way, then a better way, he gropes, he stalls, he toys, he Tolstoys with words.

Another feature of his style is his manner of weaving striking details into the story, the freshness of the descriptions of physical states. Nobody in the eighties in Russia wrote like that. The story was a forerunner of Russian modernism just before the dull and conventional Soviet era. If there is the fable noted, there is too a tender, poetical intonation here and there, and there is the tense mental monologue, the stream of consciousness technique that he had already invented for the description of Anna’s last journey.

A conspicuous feature of the structure is that Ivan is dead when the story starts. However, there is little contrast between the dead body and the existence of the people who discuss his death and view his body, since from Tolstoy’s point of view their existence is not life but a living death. We discover at the very beginning one of the many thematic lines of the story, the pattern of trivialities, the automatic mechanism, the unfeeling vulgarity of the bureaucratic middle-class city life in which so recently Ivan himself had participated. Ivan’s civil service colleagues think of how his death will affect their careers: “So on receiving the news of Ivan Ilyich’s death the first thought of each of the gentlemen in those chambers was of the changes and promotions it might occasion among themselves or their acquaintances.

” I’ll be sure to get Shtabel’s place or Vinnikov’s,’ thought Fyodor Vas-ilievich. T was promised that long ago, and the promotion means an extra eight hundred rubles a year for me besides the allowance.’

‘Now I must apply for my brother-in-law’s transfer from Kaluga,’ thought Peter Ivanovich. ‘My wife will be very glad, and then she won’t be able to say that I never do anything for her relatives.’ ”

Note the way the first conversation has gone but this selfishness after all is a very normal and humble human trait because

Tolstoy is an artist, above castigation of morals—note, I say, the way the conversation about Ivan’s death then slips into a piece of innocent kidding when the self-seeking thoughts have ended. After the seven introductory pages of chapter 1, Ivan Ilyich, as it were, is revived, is made to live his whole life again, in thought, and then he is made to revert, physically, to the

state depicted in the first chapter (for death and bad life are synonymous) and spiritually to pass into the state so beautifully adumbrated in the last chapter (for there is no death once this business of physical existence is over).

Egotism, falsity, hypocrisy, and above all automatism are the most important moments of life. This automatism puts people on the level of inanimate objects—and this is why inanimate objects also go into action and become characters in the story. Not symbols of this or that character, not attributes as in Gogol’s work, but acting agents on a par with the human characters.

Let us take the scene between Ivan’s widow Praskovya and Ivan’s best friend Peter. “Peter Ivanovich sighed still more deeply and despondently, and Praskovya Fyodorovna pressed his arm gratefully. When they reached the drawing room, upholstered in pink cretonne and lighted by a dim lamp, they sat down at the table—she on a sofa and Peter Ivanovich on a low, soft ottoman, the springs of which yielded spasmodically under his weight. Praskovya Fyodorovna had been on the point of warning him to take another seat, but felt that such a warning was out of keeping with her present condition and so changed her mind. As he sat down on the ottoman Peter Ivanovich recalled how Ivan Ilyich had arranged this room and had consulted him regarding this pink cretonne with green leaves. The whole room was full of furniture and knickknacks, and on her way to the sofa the lace of the widow’s black shawl caught on the carved edge of the table. Peter Ivanovich rose to detach it, and the springs of the ottomon, relieved of his weight, rose also and gave him a bounce. The widow began detaching her shawl herself, and Peter Ivanovich again sat down, suppressing the rebellious springs of the ottoman under him. But the widow had not quite freed herself, and Peter Ivanovich got up again, and again the ottomon rebelled and even creaked. When this was all over she took out a clean cambric handkerchief and began to weep. . . . ‘You may smoke,’ she said in a magnanimous yet crushed voice, and turned to discuss with Sokolov the price of the plot for the grave. . . .

‘ T look after everything myself,’ she told Peter Ivanovich, shifting the albums that lay on the table; and noticing that the table was endangered by his cigarette ash, she immediately passed him an ash tray. …”

As Ivan, with Tolstoy’s assistance, revises his life, he sees that the culmination of his happiness in that Life (before he fell ill, never to recover) was when he got a nice fat official position and rented an expensive bourgeois apartment for himself and his family. I use the word bourgeois in the philistine sense, not in a class sense. I mean the kind of apartment that would strike the conventional mind in the eighties as moderately luxurious, with all kinds of knickknacks and ornaments. Today, of course, a philistine might dream of glass and steel, videos or radios disguised as book shelves and dumb pieces of furniture.

I said that this was the peak of Ivan’s philistine happiness, but it was upon this peak that death pounced upon him. In falling from a stepladder when he was hanging a curtain, he had fatally injured his left kidney (this is my diagnosis—the result was probably cancer of the kidney); but Tolstoy, who disliked doctors and medicine in general, deliberately confuses matters by alluding to various other possibilities—floating kidney, some stomach ailment, even appendicitis, which could hardly have been in the left side as mentioned several times. Ivan makes later a wry joke that he was mortally wounded when storming the curtain, as if it were a fortress.

From now on nature, in the disguise of physical disintegration, enters the picture and destroys the automatism of conventional life. Chapter 2 had begun with the phrase, “Ivan’s life had been most simple and most ordinary—and therefore most terrible.” It was terrible because it had been automatic, trite, hypocritical—animal survival and childish contentment. Nature now introduces an extraordinary change. Nature to Ivan is uncomfortable, filthy, indecent. One of the props of Ivan’s conventional life was propriety, superficial decency, elegant and neat surfaces of life, decorum. These are gone now. But nature comes in not only as the villain of the piece: it also has its good. Very good and sweet side. This leads us to the next theme, of Gerasim.

Tolstoy, as the consistent dualist he was, draws a contrast between the conventional, artificial, false, intrinsically vulgar, superficially elegant city life and the life of nature personified here by Gerasim, a clean, calm, blue-eyed young peasant, one of the lowly servants in the house, doing the most repellant jobs—but performing them with angelic indifference. He personifies the natural goodness in Tolstoy’s scheme of things and he is thus closer to God. He appears here first as the embodiment of swift, soft-walking but vigorous nature. Gerasim understands and pities the dying Ivan but he pities him lucidly and dispassionately.

“Gerasim did it all easily, willingly, simply, and with a good nature that touched Ivan Ilyich. Health, strength, and vitality in other people were offensive to him, but Gerasim’s strength and vitality did not mortify but soothed him.

“What tormented Ivan Ilyich most was the deception, the lie, which for some reason they all accepted, that he was not dying but was simply ill, and that he only need keep quiet and undergo treatment and then the results would be very good. . . . He saw that no one felt for him, because no one even wished to grasp his position. Only Gerasim recognized and pitied him, and so Ivan Ilyich felt at ease only with him. . . . Gerasim alone did not lie; everything showed that he alone understood the facts of the case and did not consider it necessary to disguise them, but simply felt sorry for his emaciated and enfeebled master. Once when Ivan Ilyich was sending him away he even said straight out: ‘We shall all of us die, so why should I grudge a little trouble?’ — expressing the fact that he did not think his work burdensome, because he was doing it for a dying man and hoped someone would do the same for him when his time came.”

The final theme may be summed up in Ivan Ilyich’s question: What if my whole life has been wrong? For the first time in his life he feels pity for others. Then comes the resemblance to the fairy tale pathos of the Beast and Beauty ending, to the magic of metamorphosis, the magic of return tickets to princedoms and faith as rewards for spiritual reform.

“Suddenly some force struck him in the chest and side, making it still harder to breathe, and he fell through the hole, and there at the bottom was a light. . . .

‘Yes, it was all not the right thing,’ he said to himself, ‘but that doesn’t matter. It can be so. But what is the right thing?’ he asked himself, and suddenly grew quiet.

“This occurred at the end of the third day, two hours before his death. Just then his schoolboy son had crept softly in and gone up to the bedside. . . .

“At that very moment Ivan Ilyich fell through and caught sight of the light, and it was revealed to him that though his life had not been what it should have been, this could still be rectified. He asked himself: ‘What is the right thing?’ and grew still, listening. Then he felt that someone was kissing his hand. He opened his eyes, looked at his son, and felt sorry for him. His wife came up to him, and he glanced at her. She was gazing at him open-mouthed, with undried tears on her nose and cheeks and a despairing look on her face. He felt sorry for her, too.

“‘Yes, I’m making them wretched,’ he thought. ‘They’re sorry, but it will be better for them when I die.’ He wished to say this but had not the strength to utter it. ‘Besides, why speak? I must act,’ he thought. With a look at his wife, he indicated his son and said: ‘Take him away—sorry for him—sorry for you, too — ‘ He tried to add: ‘Forgive me,’ but said ‘Forego—’ and waved his hand, knowing that He whose understanding mattered would understand.

“And suddenly it grew clear to him that what had been oppressing him and would not leave him was all dropping away at once from two sides, from ten sides, and from all sides. He was sorry for them, he must act so as not to hurt them : release them and free himself from these sufferings. ‘How good and how simple!’ he thought. . . .

“He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. ‘Where is it? What death?’ There was no fear because he could not find death.

“In place of death there was light. ” ‘So that’s what it is!’ he suddenly exclaimed aloud. ‘What joy!’

To him all this happened in a single instant, and the meaning of that instant did not change. For those present his agony continued for another two hours. Something rattled in his throat, his emaciated body twitched, then the gasping and rattle became less and less frequent.

‘It’s all over!’ said someone near him. “He heard these words and repeated them in his soul.

‘Death is all over,’ he said to himself. ‘It’s no more.’ “He drew in a breath, stopped in the midst of a sigh, stretched out, and died.”