The Theme of Death
For Tolstoy the theme of death was always very important, his fear of it leading him to a profound personal crisis from which he was only saved, or at least believed himself to be saved, by his "conversion" to what he saw as a Christian way of life (the Russian Church authorities, however, would beg to differ as the Holy Synod excommunicated Tolstoy in 1901).
In The Death of Ivan Ilyich Tolstoys interest in and concern with the problem of death takes centre stage. The book begins and ends with death (the last word of the novel is "death").
Like in many of Tolstoys later tales, the novel consists of the life and personal confessions of an ordinary, commonplace man, who far from being a hero is instead remarkable in his "unremarkableness". In the course of the story the reader sees him overwhelmed by a crisis which eventually forces him to re-evaluate his life and ask himself the truly difficult questions that Tolstoy asked himself during his own crisis and reiterated in much of his later fictional and non-fictional works, especially On Life. These are questions such as how should a man live, what is his life worth and what gives that life value? These questions are also particularly present in Tolstoys short story entitled What do men live by? And the theme also forms a very important part of Solzhenitsyns great novel Cancer Ward, which has been called a "dissident Soviet reworking" of Tolstoys tale.
Ivan Ilyich, as he approaches death, comes to realise that the values according to which he has lived his life are in fact trivial and that his life has thus been lived wrongly, making it impossible for him to face death without fear. However, just before his death he discovers true love for those around him, and this love takes away his fear of death, which finally after so much previous suffering, presents itself as something more joyful than terrifying. Throughout the story one is presented with the extreme pointlessness of Ivan Ilyichs life and its crushing emptiness. At the beginning of the second chapter, in which Ivan Ilyichs pre-history is presented to the reader, Tolstoy writes: "Ivan Ilyichs life had been simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible", a statement which is then borne out to the full, especially by the terrible mental pain that Ivan Ilyich undergoes on account of his uncertainty of the final value of his earthly existence to date. During his life Ivan has excluded his own emotions and individuality from everything, subjugating himself instead to what he considers to be "proper" or "correct", to this end he even marries without the slightest thought for love, preferring instead to look to propriety. He is characterless and featureless in everything except in that he resembles everyone else of his type. His tragedy is to be mortal. "Why this torture?" he asks himself when he has already become gravely ill, and the answer comes back: " for no reason, it just is so." With great irony, we are shown how, when in effect on trial for his life in front of the "celebrated physician" that he visits, he receives from him the same treatment from him as he had been accustomed himself to give to others when they appeared in front of him in the law- courts.
It has been said by the famous twentieth century critic D. S. Mirsky that before Ivan Ilyich dies "he sees the inner light of Faith, renunciation and love." But at this point one is forced to ask: what faith and love for whom? And surely Ivan must by force of deaths very nature renounce death anyway? True, the fear of death may well explain his reappraisal of his past life, but surely Ivan Ilyichs gladness to be able by his death to lift the burden of his existence off the shoulders of those around him is hardly enough to achieve the sort of spiritual joy he seems to reach. Tolstoy resists a facile "religious" conclusion. The light seen by Ivan at the bottom of the sack into which he feels himself pushed is not Gods love or the light of immortality, but instead is the release of suffering through his own personal love for others, which is not presented as connected to any particular religious system, although love for others is patently an element of many religions, and most obviously in a Tolstoyan context, with Christianity. However, here life is stripped of all its poetry. All the reader is shown is futility, pain, suffering, emaciated flesh and even the difficulties of being too weak to relieve oneself unaided. We are told that once Ivan was cheerful and happy in his life, lively and agreeable: but we never witness this. The story begins with his death and then after a brief pre-history proceeds with an ever-narrowing viewpoint to describe his progress towards the death that we already know. This is a typical Tolstoyan technique. The chapters almost without exception become shorter and more concentrated as the novel proceeds and the climax approaches and the range of vision is constantly further restricted with the effect that time is telescoped
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