Forced to face death, Ilych discovers his life
Book Review: Must Reads For Youth
The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy (Ages 16+)
Only when being face-to-face with the inevitability of death can some people discover what life truly means. Such is the case with the strikingly unexceptional middle-aged judge Ivan Ilyich, who has spent his whole life focused on the superficial. Having said that, Ilyich begins to re-evaluate his values and initial ideas of what it means to live when he is diagnosed with an inescapable terminal illness.
Leo Tolstoy’s 1886 novella depicts the aftermath of Ilyich’s death before immersing the reader into the gradual worsening of his condition (an illness which is often described as if it is sentient!) until his fateful death.
Ilyich begins his illness surrounded by many doctors, all with contrasting opinions on what ails him. He goes from a man that has never even considered his mortal nature, to someone whose thoughts constantly revolve around the looming threat of death. This gradual realisation that he is dying reignites his need to be understood, something which he can only find in his most valued servant, Gerasim.
After weeks of unimaginable physical and mental pain, Ilyich reconsiders his life as being the “wrong” way to live. This philosophical question of the “right” way to live one’s life is especially interesting due to many characters exemplifying different ways of life. Even Ilyich, who used to live a superficial life full of solely materialistic concerns, undergoes a spiritual transformation that allows him to approach death in a noble and accepting way.
It is also worth noting that Tolstoy wrote this classic novella after his religious conversion and existential crisis due to his inability to determine a valuable meaning of life and accept the inevitable and mysterious nature of death. In fact, Tolstoy’s conversion to Christianity aided greatly with his wellbeing throughout the second half of his life. As such, the themes of brotherhood with peasants, Christian charity, and discovering what a fulfilled life looks like are principal throughout The Death of Ivan Ilyich.
Ilyich’s relationship with medicine is also thought-provoking. Tolstoy’s attacks on modern medicine suggest that it is merely an attempt to extend life and avoid death, therefore dehumanising Ilyich and the unsympathetic doctors (as well as lawyers and fellow judges) who claim to have the answers he seeks.
Ilyich overcomes this refusal to acknowledge mortality by welcoming the care of the empathetic and courageous Gerasim instead of the ever-changing plethora of medicinal products. This approach to palliative care presents many opportunities for the reader to examine intersections between medicine and humanities for an ordinary person undergoing the unexpected and unyielding dying process.
Another classic work where readers can face the concept of death alongside Tolstoy is My Confession, an essay that attempts to answer the question of “What is the meaning of life?” through religion.
For all that wish to engage with such profound queries through classic literature, The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a compelling and wise read from a man who finds such questions just as vital to fully exist in the present without constantly fearing the unknown.