Leo Tolstoy’s short story begins with the funeral of Ivan Ilych (you can read the full story here). We witness the ceremony through Ilych’s friend who is greatly disturbed by such a stark reminder of mortality. The sight of Ilych’s open casket plunges him into psychological turmoil, which he desperately tries to shake off by thinking about lively, spirited things, like an upcoming card game he has planned. We also get a glimpse of Ilych’s wife who makes a petty and rather crude request of the friend, foreshadowing what kind of marriage Ivan Ilych must have endured.
The story then paints a vivid picture of how Ivan Ilych was in life. His personal and professional aspirations as a father, husband or government official were always dictated by “propriety” and “decorum.” Ilych was a man of the upper classes and his chief concern was, if not rising even further, to remain firmly entrenched there. His wife and home life being disagreeable, Ilych buried himself in work, social events, and frivolities. Despite marital strife both Ilych and his wife were in relentless pursuit of maintaining and improving their social status. After securing a position with higher pay Ilych prepares for the move to the new estate. He obsessively and rather comically renovates the house to impress his family and friends only to create an imitation, an impression “of people of moderate means who want to appear rich.”
Rather suddenly, in spite of his lightheartedness and idle comforts, Ilych’s health deteriorates. He spends months in agonizing pain from a mysterious illness which no doctor (and their are a dizzying succession of them) can diagnose nor slow its progression. He continues the charade of wellness but soon becomes disgusted by such pretense, especially the pretense of those around him. His wife, the doctors and his colleagues all pretend he isn’t a walking corpse. Death takes on a persona all its own, it becomes a demon that Ilych tries to deny, to fend off. Why must he die? What is it all for? But Death does Ilych a favor and forces him to undergo some long overdue introspection. Didn’t he live a good life? Hadn’t he achieved happiness? Maybe not. Maybe how he lived brought him to his painful and bitter end.
His life “had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.” What a powerful line, doesn’t it hit you in the gut? Because frankly that describes most of us. We are simple and ordinary and find terrible ways of trying to escape that. In his last death throes, Ilych searches within himself for the answer, still clinging to the illusion that he did everything “correctly” and lived “properly.”
So what should be done? How should one live? Perhaps it is to cultivate the soul and not just the body. Perhaps it is to live a life of truth, where there is no need to deceive others or yourself about who you really are.