Leo Tolstoy and the Meaning of Life

Book Review: The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Leo Tolstoy

Death of Ivan IlyichLike many wealthy and entitled young men in mid-nineteenth century Russia, Tolstoy spent his days dutifully attending to the responsibilities of a young noble while slipping through dark streets at night to enjoy the soft pleasures of the whore house. In later years, though he was never able to fully wrestle away from his sex drive,  he mostly gave up whores and his wife’s embrace once he found religion.  Found, or at least invented, True Religion is more accurate. He was Russian Orthodox his entire life until renouncing orthodoxy for his own version of True Faith in Jesus. The Death of Ivan Ilyich – a novella easily read in an afternoon – was his first published effort after his awakened faith. It tells the story of a man who, with no real skill, effort, or drive, rises to a mid-level bureaucratic position in the Russian state. In so doing, he begins to despise his once beloved wife, largely ignores his once adorable children, and spends his time proving to his colleagues and neighbors that he is a man of great culture and import. He is a Kardashian. He trades in pretense without substance.

While on a ladder hanging the perfect drapes in his new and ostentatious and perfect home, Ilyich falls. Over the next few days, he feels an ache in his side and develops a metallic taste in his mouth. At his wife’s urging, which he calls nagging, he agrees to see a doctor, then doctors, and then specialists who all fail to accurately diagnose his ailment. He knows, but will not admit, that he has begun a downward spiral toward pain and death. He detests life and despises those around him. Death was never meant for him. Not now! He sees doctors, friends, and family as liars who feign concern to his face all the while plotting their escape to the card table. People avoid him, he thinks, because he reminds them of death, of their death, of wasting, and of their own demise. His only comfort is his peasant servant, a theme that runs strong through all of Tolstoy’s writing. The peasant, to Tolstoy, is rarely despoiled or haughty. The peasant is the true human without guile.

Ilyich’s last days are excruciating. Not from pain only but from the pestering realization that he can now admit: he has lived his life wrongly. Like a vapor. He has lived a false life elevating artifice and selfishness just as those he now despises. Just an hour before dying, he feels release realizing that a good life is an authentic life.  A peasant life.  A life of empathy and compassion. His heart turns and he is washed in love and pity for his family and friends. He sees his death as their release from the burden of his care.

No Answers But Good Questions

Tolstoy in StudyBut Ilyich is no mere pamphlet. Tolstoy avoids pedantry and Ilyich’s dying revelations are implied and open to interpretation. Is this part of Tolstoy’s genius? To let each reader meander to their own meaning? Can we live authentically as wealthy people? What good is it to ‘inherit the earth’ if you are poor, weak, and dying? Thirteen years later, Tolstoy will publish Resurrection where the themes of Ilych are expanded. The Death of Ivan Ilyich rests comfortably on the same bookshelf with other great philosophical fiction (and isn’t all Russian lit philosophical?). Tolstoy presents the problem, hints at solutions, but raises as many questions as he answers. This is the Russian writer’s genius.