In life we often think about death and what our life has become. We never suspect that we will become ill and die, and we very rarely agonize over weather our life is what it should be until its too late, as demonstrated in Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych.” Throughout Tolstoy’s life he was religious and enjoyed life, but then as he reached the height of his fame and fourteen he began to question everything he had once believed in. Some people think that “The Death of Ivan Ilych” holds a lot of symbolism between the story and Tolstoy’s life. In “The Death of Ivan Ilych” there is a lot of symbolism of life and death as compared to Tolstoy’s life.
Ivan Ilych was a man of success. He set out to achieve his goals, and make his money. He married the women he loved and had two beautiful children, living the good life with money and accomplishment. He didn’t have normal worries like most working class people did, he just did what he set out to do and succeeded at that. It is noted that “Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.” (Arp, 512) Until one day he became sick. For months he laid in bed in agonizing pain, and the doctors were left without agreeing knowledge on what he had. Close to the end of his life he began to wonder if his life was really what it should have been and whether or not he achieved all he was supposed to. He questioned death as if to ask “What is this? Can it be death?……Why these sufferings?”
(Arp, 553) The reader is now left with the question did he die from physical pain or from mental anguish also? It could be said that when he was dealing with his impending death he went through five psychological stages. First he went through denial and ignored the fact that he might be dying. He ignored his pain until it got to bad to cure. Second he went through anger. He became angry at his condition and took it out on his family, friends and servants. Then he went through a short period of bargaining, when he took communion for his wife he thought to himself “To live! I want to live!” (Arp, 556) All he wanted was to live his life like he knew he should have. The fourth stage was depression. This is the period he went through right before he realized he was going to die. He felt that it would just be better if he died when he realized “Yes, I am making them wretched,’ he thought. ‘They are sorry, but it will be better for them when I die.” The fifth stage is acceptance. He began to realize that death was near and all of sudden the pain went away. He accepted that death was there but it was OK because in the end there would be no more pain. So then “He drew in a breath, stopped in the midst of a sigh, stretched out, and died.” With that he died peacefully and full of joy. His entire struggle with mental suffering took a toll on him and at the same time made his physical pain worse.
Tolstoy was close to the same. As he became more famous and achieved more he began to question his own life and well-being. He wondered what the point of life was and what his purpose in life was; he often thought about suicide. He turned to science but nothing lead him to the answers he needed. Tolstoy didn’t like the idea that if we die we realize that we don’t have forever and that we should take life more seriously. So many peoples lives were superficial and filled with falsehood. This is why his life seemed to almost mirror “The Death of Ivan Ilych.” It is understood by John Donnellly that ” Both Tolstoy and Ilych (that is the Ilych in the last two hours of his drawn-out dying period) were much to sanguine about the human condition and the prospects for attaining moral integrity in this life.” (Twetieth-Century Literary Criticism, 476) Tolstoy’s faith in religion became lost. He believed in God but wasn’t sure where he would lead him. Ivan Ilych also questioned this when he “wept on account of his helplessness, his terrible loneliness, the cruelty of man, the cruelty of God and the absence of God.” (Arp, 551)He felt that God wasn’t there and that he caused him all the pain. Instead of realizing that maybe there was a purpose to his suffering. Tolstoy’s view was that he knew about religion but “He came to see his restless search as a search for God–as a longing for someone out there who could love
us and give our living meaning…He couldn’t live with out faith” (http://stripe.colorado.edu/~morristo/tolstoy/2.html) He had to struggle to understand his personal beliefs as did Ivan Ilych.
In other literary works death is also questioned as to weather or not what they did was meant to be. In W.H. Auden’s poem “The Unknown Citizen” it talks of a man who has lived his life as he set out to do. He was a “saint,” friends with everyone yet the question comes up “Was he free? Was he happy?” (Arp, 672) This applies to Ivan Ilych, was he free in his job and was he really happy with what he did. Yes, he was a successful public prosecutor and lived by a certain schedule,
“Ivan Ilych spent his mornings at the law court and came home for dinner, and at first he was generally in good humor, though he occasionally became irritable just on account of his house…He got up at nine, drank his coffee, read the paper, and then put on his undress uniform and went to the law courts.” (Arp, 530-531)
No one however, would know whether or not Ivan or the “Unknown Citizen” were hurt or gone because “Had anything been wrong, should certainly have heard.” (Arp, 672) Not everyone is as observant to one persons needs as they should be.
In the “Death of Ivan Ilych” the symbolism of death is very important. It shows that we should always look to the future and what we may become rather then the present and what we want at that moment. Will we turn out to be what we wanted to be, and live the fullest life possible. Its only up to us to decide
that. Ivan Ilych was beginning to decide that when it was to late. In everyday life we take for granted that our values are sound and the projects and activities we take on are worth doing. We never take a “step back” to realize that maybe we are doing something good or that maybe we’re not. We mainly concern ourselves with how we look in the end. That is something we should stop doing. We should follow the example of Ivan Ilych and make sure we live our lives to the fullest instead of realizing it when its to late. We should be like Tolstoy and realize that life is worth living.