This long “short story” is considered a literary masterpiece and I think I know why. How do you render the psychology of dying without having experienced it yourself? Well, maybe you have to be an imaginative genius like Leo Tolstoy.
There is a long-standing theoretical debate about whether a successful artist relies more on experience or imagination, a foolish debate because of course a good artist relies heavily on both. But anyone who has had the experience of dying has yet to write about it, and any artist who takes up the challenge had better have a pretty reliable imagination.
Tolstoy paints, not only a compelling, credible, and painful portrait of the long process of Ivan Ilych’s death, he also relates the sad life story of a man who lived almost entirely by Russian middle class conventions and with barely a shred of authenticity.
Ivan’s bureaucratic legal career satisfies his ambition, his ego, and his material aspirations. His conspicuous consumption and social life satisfy his vanity. His marriage and children enable him to meet the expectations of middle class appearances. But the career becomes a dull routine and the socioeconomic success creates as many burdens as it does satisfactions. His family life deteriorates into a fractious marriage and disconnected parenthood. His primary pleasure in life seems to be his regular card games with friends and colleagues, whose lives are as superficial as his own.
As Ivan confronts his illness and finally his death, one hopes for a redemptive moment of self-knowledge and insight or of genuine connection with another human being. For his friends and colleagues, Ivan’s illness and death are mere troubling reminders of their own mortality, which they escape by seeking out another card game. For his family, they are inconveniences that interfere with social opportunities, including the impending marriage of his daughter. Except for one moment before his death, in which his wife and son seem to express genuine grief (more perhaps for themselves than for Ivan), Ivan is isolated and alone in his desperate hopes for a cure, his self-pity, and his despair.
The one exception is the peasant servant Gerasim, whose sunny disposition, quiet dispatch of his duties, and devoted attention to the relief of Ivan’s suffering offers an example for living that Ivan might have done well to emulate, if he could have taken his mind off himself for one moment. Gerasim accepts the conditions of his life without complaint, excels at the humble tasks of his work in the sickroom, and affirms the simplicity of life and the reality of death.
In the end, Ivan seems to come to terms with death, without ever having confronted the failures of his life, and appears to find “light” in death. But is this yet another falsehood in a long life of falsity, or is Ivan’s death ironically the most authentic moment of his life?
Sad as are Ivan’s illness, suffering, and death, the superficiality and falsity of his life are sadder still. If he did experience light and life in death, could that redeem the death-in-life of the years between his physical birth and death? Ivan’s ending is ambiguous, and the reader is left to decide if it is redemptive or tragic.