How often do we contemplate about death? All of us have been asked what do we want to do with our lives but never are we asked what do we think about our death? Instead, most of us run away from the idea of dying. ‘There is something’ turns into ‘once upon a time, there was something’. If death is indeed a culminating force, what is it that death ends?
A high court judge by profession, Ivan Ilyich did everything to lead a comfortable life. The plot of the story is so straight that you start questioning if there can be a fictional work such as this. But the plot of “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” is of least importance. The text is putting forward a question, setting a tone for discussion on this term called ‘death’. After falling from a ladder, the protagonist starts facing problems. The level of pain transitions from being incessant to unbearable, culminating in the expected outcome of the character’s death. Interestingly, unlike his other works such as Anna Karenina, Tolstoy does not delve into the details of Ilyich’s character. Instead, he makes Ilyich question his own character. Therefore, readers don’t have a character named Ivan Ilyich but a life and reflection on it.
Ilyich led a comfortable life; a life he believed was worthy, something most people would aspire to live. His company, profession, residence and his lifestyle make it evident. He does not realize the futility of this ‘constructed’ lifestyle until his pain starts bothering him. His fall is symbolic, a moment in the novel when his façade starts to break down. This is evident from one instance, where after some contemplation, Ilyich realizes,
“It’s as though I had been going steadily downhill while I imagined I was going up. That’s exactly what happened. In public opinion, I was moving uphill, but to the same extent, life was slipping away from me. Now it’s gone and I can do is die!”
Ilyich did not believe in death. It was a theory he did not agree with, a false judgment he could not accept and therefore, the major part of the novella goes into questioning ‘the existence of death’. It starts with apprehensions clouding Ilyich’s best friend Pyotr Ivanovich after he receives the news of Ilyich’s death. He is saddened by the news but like his other colleagues, on hearing of his death, he begins immediately to think “of what effect it would have on their own transfers and promotions or those of their acquaintances”.
The novella is a reflection not only on death but also on what constitutes our lives. A minute by minute encounter of Ilyich with the truth helps in his ‘awakening’. As the novel progresses, Ilyich develops hatred for doctors. Their mechanical procedures, same conclusion, and indifference towards patients make him question their utility in the society but later in the novel, he sees a parallel between his profession and that of the doctor’s. He finally confronts the false idea of ‘justice’ he had been following.
But it’s not too late! It’s revealed to him that though his life has “not been what it should have been, this could still be rectified”. After death, it becomes clear to Ivan Ilyich that “what had been oppressing him and would not leave him was all dropping away at once from two sides, from ten sides, and from all sides…’So that’s what it is!'” he exclaims. What joy!”
Death not only sets Ilyich free from physical agony but also from his ‘moral agony’. An event which was earlier perceived as tormenting now turns into a source of liberation. The last line of the novella concludes:
“Death is over, he said to himself, there is no more death”.
Though the novella conveys the message very clearly like Ilyich said, “He who needed to understand would understand”.
The novella is not didactic. Instead, it attempts to open an important conversation around mortality. A lot of individuals goes through existential crisis and when they start to see the futility of their efforts under the affirmative argument of death, it is discussions like these that makes it possible for them to see that the very end must remind us of our value on earth and how each of us can utilize our time for ours and the society’s benefit.
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