A book review for The Death of Ivan Ilyich, by Leo Tolstoy.
An incredible work of Leo Tolstoy that illuminates what the process of dying might be, and how a dying person reflects on living as they sense the death approaching.
Dealing with living might be hard for many, but dealing with dying is even more challenging. The Death of Ivan Ilyich highlights the despair and loneliness of dying, a process that makes one look back and reflect on aspects of being that were in the shadow of fast pace of life that one might had. In case of Ivan Ilyich, a beurocrat from XIX century Russia, life was full of moments of chasing the pleasures and avoiding the moments that were causing unhappiness.
The habit of running for higher salariy, status, power and recognition left Ivan Ilyich deeply unhappy as he finds himself on the deathbed. As Tolstoy puts it, “Ivan Ilyich lives a carefree life that is “most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible”. As Ivan Ilyich is dying, he sees how his family is unable to connect with him, nor wants to be honest with him. He notices how doctors treat his illness as a piece of puzzle, forgetting about the human nature of their patient.
What’s more important, questioning self with ‘why’ and ‘what for’ slowly illuminates a real essense of living that Ivan Ilyich was shocked to discover: there is no ‘why’ in dying. It just happens. And as dying is happening, the protagonist tries to evaluate what was it that he was avoiding in life. What was the meaning that he was missing. The moments of pure love and authenticity that he missed, and opportunities to help eliviate suffering for others that he missed.
In the final days of his life, Ivan makes a clear split between an artificial life, such as his own, which masks the true meaning of life and makes one fear death, and an authentic life, the life of his servant Gerasim. Authentic life is marked by compassion and sympathy; the artificial life by self-interest. And then he dies.
What I really like about this story is how Leo Tolstoy underlines the meaning of being: leaving it till the very end of the story, and emphasizing that one does not have be wait till the very culmination of one’s life to learn it.