Leo Tolstoy’s The Death Of Ivan Ilyich And Other Stories

The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other StoriesI have turned to Tolstoy with the memory of Isaiah Berlin’s remarkable essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox” still fresh in my mind. There, Berlin divides the writers and philosophers of history into two distinct camps (a perilous exercise, he readily acknowledges): the hedgehogs, who “know one big thing,” and the foxes, who know many. Shakespeare, Montaigne, Goethe and Joyce, those writers obsessed with the varieties of lived experience, of humanity’s endless contradictions, are foxes; Plato, Dante, Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, thinkers liable to view the world through one all-encompassing idea, are hedgehogs. Berlin is not trying to make a qualitative judgment – who, after all, would want to live exclusively in one camp? – and it’s difficult not to grant him his general premise, but to Berlin Tolstoy is unique, a fox whose ideals are those of a hedgehog. To my mind, this is as good an entrance as any into Tolstoy’s fiction, and particularly The Death Of Ivan Ilyich And Other Stories, which artificially assembles under one banner stories that appeared separately.

As to that “big idea” hedgehogs are wont to pursue, there is something I am tempted to call fate operating in many of these stories, or at least made visible to the reader by Tolstoy’s clever plotting. In “Three Deaths,” for example, Tolstoy charts the final moments of a noble woman and a peasant – one of many contrasts he returns to again and again throughout the collection – reminding us that there is no more democratic force than death. On the final pages, when the reader permits himself a puzzled look at the title and the death tally and is apt to think Tolstoy has made a simple accounting error, a peasant fulfills an obligation he made to one of the deceased to chop down a tree and whittle a grave marker, culminating in this final sentence: “On high, the succulent leaves whispered in peace and joy, and the boughs of the living trees slowly stirred themselves, looking down in majesty on the dead tree that lay flat out on the ground.” Tolstoy has invited us to view this third death as no different than the others, a perspective sure to cause many discomfort. The workings of fate are made more explicit in the collection’s final story, “The Forged Coupon,” in which two young boys pass off a forged promissory note on an unsuspecting elderly woman, thereby setting off a chain of events far beyond their comprehension, culminating in several deaths and character transformations.

Life and death having no meaning without one another, it is impossible to treat them as separate, and so, to paraphrase every critic and commentator who has taken up this famous story, The Death Of Ivan Ilyich is equally concerned with Ivan Ilyich’s life. A judge of limited success, Ivan Ilyich has lived his life in pursuit of the material, the temporal, the transient. His relationship with his wife is strained; his friends are not true friends but hangers-on; his job, noble in itself, is debased by his bureaucratic attitudes to justice. And yet, until he contracts a mysterious illness, he can remain blissfully unaware, content to watch his wealth grow and enjoy late-night games of cards. Here, for example, is Tolstoy’s painful description of the reaction of friends and family to Ivan Ilyich’s sickness:

How it came about in the third month of Ivan Ilyich’s illness no one could have said, because it came on imperceptibly, by stages, but it happened that all of them – his wife, and daughter, and son, and the servants, and their friends, and the doctors, and most importantly he himself – everybody knew that the only interesting thing about him now was whether it would take him a long time to give up his place, finally release the living from the oppression caused by his presence, and himself be released from his suffering.

This is not the reaction one would hope to provoke from one’s death; this is not “a good death,” and gradually his impending doom erodes his naive self-satisfaction, his false sense of security that he has lived a life worth living.

It occurred to him that what had once seemed a total impossibility – that he had not lived his life as he should have done – might actually be true. It occurred to him that the slight stirrings of doubt he had experienced about what was considered good by those in the highest positions, slight stirrings that he had immediately repudiated – that these misgivings might have been true and everything else might have been wrong. His career, the ordering of his life, his family, the things that preoccupied people in society and at work – all of this might have been wrong. He made an attempt at defending these things for himself. And suddenly he sensed the feebleness of what he was defending. There was nothing to defend.

Few things are more terrifying to contemplate than the discovery that the life you have lived has amounted to nothing, that your existence was dedicated to the unimportant, and how much worse to come to this realization too late, to be given the impetus for change even as you are robbed of the time to complete that change. Tolstoy spares Ivan Ilyich, who dies without pain and reconciled to his fate, but he denies that consolation to his reader; we are left only with the terrifying example.