“Where is it? What death?” There was no fear because there was no death.
Every time I read a Tolstoy, I wonder – how is it that one man seemed to know all about the human condition? The most remarkable thing about Tolstoy is how his characters, their thoughts and their search for meaning (which is the common theme across his novels) seem to echo across the centuries and resonate with the contemporary human condition.
The same goes for ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’. This is the story of an ordinary man living an ordinary life, which is mundane in its details. He does what he is expected to do – a good education, a good job, a respectable family and a jovial set of friends with whom he can enjoy playing bridge in the evenings. Ivan feels that everything is as it should be. Even when his marriage and his children get a bit too much for him, he pours himself into his work to escape and feels that’s the perfect solution. Yet, everything changes when he starts having a mysterious pain which no one, expect him, seems to be bothered about. Neither the doctors nor his friends or family seem to care or think his pain as important. But, this instills a sense of fear in Ivan’s heart.
Ivan, as a character, is unlikable and boring – so ordinary and everyday. Yet, Tolstoy manages to make us feel his gnawing pain, his fear, his constant irritation and anger at the disregard of his family. We feel the dying man’s frustration at being a burden and his loneliness of having to face death alone, without consolation. We understand what he feels when people around him seem to go on with their lives, while he lies facing the final moments. Even momentary displays of affection from his family seem to annoy him and seem like lies.
His question to the universe is – ‘Why me, when I have done everything that should be done, everything according to all the rules?’ That’s where this novel becomes even more relevant to contemporary lives. Tolstoy forces one to ask – is it enough to live by the code? Having fulfilled all societal expectations, have you really lived? Does your life really have meaning or keeping oneself occupied with 14 hour work days is a facade to keep oneself from facing that one’s life really has no meaning? These are questions that most people, including I, don’t ask ourselves often since modern life is all about hurrying. Perhaps, the answer might not be pleasant to most of us.
(Pieter Bruegel the Elder – The Triumph of Death. Museo del Prado in Madrid)
When Ivan looks back and asks himself if he would like to go back to a certain period of his life which he had previously found to be happy, he finds that most of his life has been hollow and that in trying to do all the right things, he has already died. When he stumbles upon the unpleasant answers to all his questions is when he finally finds peace and accepts the inevitable.