Notes on “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”
Russian Literature and Eschatology
Eschatology is the branch of theology dealing with the final things: death, judgment, immortality. In Tolstoy’s story Ivan Ilyich wears a medallion on his watch chain with a maxim that reads, in Latin, respice finem (look to the end). The maxim in full goes like this: Quidquid agis, prudenter agis et respice finem (Whatever you do, do it with care and look to the end [result]).
You might say that Russian literature is preeminently the literature that looks to the end, since Russian writers, especially the big two of the nineteenth century, Tolstoevsky—Tolstoy and Dostoevsky—are intently preoccupied with eschatology. Russian literature teems with grandiose eschatological speculation.
As for Tolstoy’s character Ivan Ilyich, although he wears the motto on his person, he spends his whole life looking only to the present day and never to the final end. He pays no attention to the admonition, and his creator, Tolstoy, makes him pay dearly for his lack of acumen.