Problems with the Preaching (1)
Over the 150 years that people have been reading “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” what probably has bothered most about the story is the morally edifying tone. As if Tolstoy were shouting out not only to those of the Russian upper classes of the 1880s—Ivan Ilyich, his colleagues, his family, all of aristocratic and bureaucratic Russia—but also to anyone else within listening distance, including a multitude of readers in countries all over the world: “Repent!”
Of course, nobody in the story hears the shouts, and one reason the story is effective is that no one in the story is listening. None of the characters stops and says, “Well, yes, I’m leading a dull bourgeois existence, just as Ivan Ilyich did, and if I don’t change my ways soon, when I’m dead and gone my life will count for nothing.” But what if we could take a survey of all readers of the story over the past 150 years. How many of them would have taken heed of the shouting? I suspect very few. Didactic writing, I suspect, only very infrequently brings about the changes in the moral fabric of humanity that the didactic writer hopes for.
Tolstoy is hoping for the impossible. Not only does he aim at making people transform their lives, become more moral; he also wants us to look our own death in the face, and practically no one wants to do that (see discussion in previous blog notes). One thing that this story does is make your side hurt. My side always hurts when I read about the pain in Ivan Ilyich’s floating kidney. Fortunately, the side stops hurting when I put down the book. But after countless readings of this story over the years, it still never makes me want to embrace rectitude and live a better life.
Then again, there is the degree of moral corruption in most of the characters. The people in “Ivan Ilyich” are bad, bad people, terrible hypocrites, totally selfish egotists. One of Tolstoy’s strong points as a writer is his ability to delve into mundane human acts of hypocrisy. We look at the way, say, that Ivan Ilyich’s wife, Praskovya Fyodorovna, behaves at the funeral, in her interactions with Pyotr Ivanovich. The way she weeps as if insincerely, the way she is largely concerned with financial matters that will play upon her future. We think, Yes, that is human nature. It’s despicable, of course, but people do behave like that. Even in the scene when she finds herself wishing her husband’s death, wishing herself rid of him, we think, Well, yes. Not many writers have the daring to speak of such things, but Tolstoy is right. People do have that kind of thoughts. The pure hatred that is exchanged between husband and wife at several points in the story, is that what marriage is like? Unfortunately, sometimes it is, and the creative artist in Tolstoy brilliantly portrays that sad truth.
But are people really as bad as they are shown to be in this story? On our deathbed is this what we have to look forward to on the part of our family and friends? Total abandonment? Maybe so, but, then again, maybe not. Praskovya Fyodorovna is a despicable person, is so portrayed throughout the whole story, but readers may hope to find a better, nicer wife. They must be out there somewhere, such wives. Seldom in life, one hopes, do we come upon characters as rebarbative as Praskovya Fyodorovna.
The only positive character in the story is the peasant servant Gerasim. Not only here, but also in many other works Tolstoy holds up peasant morality, the peasant’s simple, wholesome attitude toward life as exemplary. But in so doing he consistently downplays another aspect of the Russian peasant mentality—the propensity, throughout Russian history, to engage in merciless bloody violence. For that side of the peasant, read the stories of Isaak Babel.
For a better balance between good and bad characters, Tolstoy could have chosen to feature Ivan Ilyich’s schoolboy son in more scenes. The boy obviously loves his father, he could be another positive character, but he is featured in only two brief appearances. And each time he appears the moral preacher Tolstoy cannot resist throwing in a disapproving, and totally gratuitous insinuation about the evils of masturbation.
In a word, Tolstoy’s negative views of humanity sometimes verge on hyperbole. At times the writer, methinks, doth protest too much.