Tolstoy, Moscow, 1885
Notes to “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” TOLSTOY AND DEATH
“The Death of Ivan Ilyich” was completed on March 25, 1886, and published later that same year. in July, 1881, Tolstoy had learned of the death (by stomach cancer) of Ivan Ilyich Mechnikov, an acquaintance of his. Mechnikov, a public prosecutor in the Tula district judicial system, according to his widow, had undergone a deep spiritual change in his last months on earth and had come to regard his life as wasted.
Tolstoy died in 1910, twenty-nine years after the man who was the prototype for his fictional Ivan Ilyich. On his deathbed the old man was reported to have said, “I don’t understand what I’m supposed to do.” This is an interesting statement in regard to dying in general: exactly how is anyone supposed to behave on his/her deathbed? What are we supposed to do?
The question is especially relevant for Tolstoy, who was obsessed with death for practically the whole of his life, but still did not know what to do when the time came to face death. As Ronald Blythe suggests, in his introduction to the Bantam paperback translation, Tolstoy, the “lifelong death-watcher,” may have written this story, at least in part, for therapeutic purposes—in an attempt to better understand the process of death by airing the theme in his own art, and, consequently, to come to terms with his own future death.
But a case can be made for asserting that Tolstoy’s attitude in writing this story is somewhat like that of the characters—Ivan’s court colleagues and fellow card players—who react (see chapter one) to the death of Ivan Ilyich by pushing it out of their minds: “Glad it’s him and not me. Sure, he died, but me, I’ll never die; I’m indestructible.”
As Blythe writes, “the chief reason why we can tolerate death in others, even in those near to us, is that it pushes it away from ourselves.” If Tolstoy had really wanted to look squarely into the face of his own death, he could have written the story of a dying artist, of a man with the same spiritual concerns and preoccupations as he himself. Instead, he chose to write about the most ordinary of philistines, a man with practically no redeeming moral or spiritual values.
In so doing Tolstoy (probably subconsciously) was acting somewhat like Ivan’s friend and colleague Pyotr Ivanovich acted in the first chapter of the story. P.I. does his best at the funeral not to look closely at the corpse—with the implicit message on its dead brow: “Get right with the world before it’s too late.” He escapes the proceedings as soon as possible and goes off to play cards. For P.I. cards are the diversion that push the fact of approaching death out of his mind, keeping death at bay. Ironically, cards had also played an important role, as escape and diversion, in the life of Ivan Ilyich.
Tolstoy’s diversion is on a loftier level; it is literary art. But if the author’s fear of death motivated him, at least in part, to write this story, if something like self-therapy played a role, so what? The result is still great art. “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” is one of the greatest works in all of world literature on the subject of death and dying.